AN INTERVIEW WITH AN AFGHAN TRIBAL CHIEF

Interview with An Afghan Tribal Chief

Is Time Running Out?

By Steven Pressfield | Published: November 27, 2009

[The blog is taking Thanksgiving off; we’ll repost last week’s interview below.

[On this day of gratitude, though, I want to offer a major thank-you to our weekly series contributors, Chief Ajmal Khan Zazai and Maj. Jim Gant; thanks to everyone who has logged onto the blog, circulated it and linked to it; and special thanks to all who have contributed to the Comments section. Many of the comments have been so insightful and so brilliantly-articulated (we’ve had input from troopers in the field, from veterans of all theaters and every war back to WWII; we’ve heard from officers who served with the Montagnards and Pashtun warriors who fought the Russians and many more) that I’m trying to figure a way to translate the best stuff off the Comments boxes, which are sort of like the interior pages of a newspaper, and move it out onto the “front page,” where it’s more visible. We’ll start Monday with a special post and do it again from time to time when the occasion prompts it.

[Again, thanks to everyone who has visited the site. The experience of running this blog has been an education for me for the past six months. I hope the work here is of interest and of use. Happy Thanksgiving!]

SP:  Chief Zazai, we hear every day in the American press that things are “going wrong,” “getting worse,” “we are losing.” Even in one of your recent e-mails to me, you said “time is running out, things are going more wrong.” Can you give us some specifics? What exactly is “going wrong?” Why is “time running out?”

Chief Zazai: Let’s start with the type of regime that the West, with all good intentions, has helped to set up in Afghanistan. I think it is  clear that the kind of democracy which we see now has failed in a large way. The reason, I believe, is that democracy should not be limited to the act of casting votes, but should be a way of life that brings light into people’s lives and hearts. Democracy should bring education, better living conditions, clean and uncorrupted government, a future for the next generations and the opportunity for equal rights. But in Afghanistan unfortunately, democracy has brought corruption, warlordism, gangsterism, lawlessness, poverty and devastation. That’s why the people of Afghanistan are fed up with the present situation.

Things went wrong in 2002 when the warlords were empowered. At that time, in order for the Karzai government to maintain the illusion (for the eyes of the West) that it possessed the legitimacy of votes, it made the cynical decision to ally with the warlords. These powerful men who controlled whole provinces could bring in the votes. In return, their power was protected by making them part of the government, giving them jobs as cabinet ministers. In a way, you can’t blame Karzai. He had to satisfy the West’s need to make a government that looked like a democracy and he did. It had the votes of a democracy, but it didn’t have the honesty and good care for the people.

The reason time is running out is we have got an illegitimate regime in Kabul on our plate. We have a severe insurgency and this is all very serious and each factor has links to the other, meaning fixing the insurgency would not be possible without winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. But to do this, the international community needs to help establish clean and uncorrupted central and provincial governments. Without addressing the government issue, it will be impossible to win the hearts and minds of the Afghans and that in turn means difficulties in tackling the insurgency issue. I think it is clear to us all that time and patience on both sides are running out. The American public is getting fed up and the Afghans as well, I think it is about time we do something positive on both ends.

SP: In the last few weeks, I’ve discussed “tribal engagement strategy” with Major Jim Gant on this blog. Many have asked where to go with this in the future, and if a tribal engagement strategy is the complete answer or a piece of the puzzle. The tribes are all different, and we know there isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy. As an example, the Awakening in Iraq is often discussed, as something for Afghanistan, but the structure in Afghanistan is different. How can this be accomplished?

Chief Zazai: The expansion of tribal re-integration needs to start first in each individual tribe. Meaning every tribe needs to start the process of unity among themselves. Once the process is completed among one tribe, then it needs to go from one tribe to another and another. This way if in a province you have 12 or 13 tribes, they all need first to be united. Once they have signed a treaty among themselves, they will all create a Provincial Unity. Once provincial unity has been completed, it is possible to expand that from a province to a province.

SP: I know you have been championing Afghan Tribal Unity for years, as your father did before you. Can you spell out your vision for how this empowerment could expand country-wide? Do you envision a tribal-centric government, as opposed to the warlord-centric government of Hamid Karzai? What would this look like? Would there be a parliament? Would it need U.S. troops to serve as “honest brokers?”

Chief Zazai: Absolutely, without a national Tribal unity this whole process is useless as this is not just about one tribe dominating all the country as we have seen in the last eight years, where one district is dominating the whole country. I see a greater role for the tribes to play by bringing stability to the whole of Afghanistan. In my views there is no such thing as a “tribal-centric government.” What I strongly believe in is giving the chance to the real representatives of the Afghans to make it to the Parliament, Senate, Provincial Councils, District Councils and Village Councils. Throughout Afghan history, many governments had the support and backing of the tribes but that didn’t necessarily mean that all the Tribal chiefs became Ministers or Governors. But yes, I would strongly urge that the real representatives of the Afghan people and tribes should be in the Parliament, Senate, Provincial Councils, District Councils and village councils to be included in the process of building the nation and bringing and maintaining security. The United States of America’s role is always welcomed by the Afghan people. I would like to see U.S. troops contributing toward implementing this historic cause.

SP: American policymakers are skeptical, as you well know, that a tribal confederacy could work in any form. They believe that the tribes cannot unite; they will always be fighting among themselves. What would you say to that?

Chief Zazai: Here we need to study the Afghan tribes more carefully and not think of them as Indians, Arabs, or even Central Asians. Afghans are a unique people with a unique history. The Afghan code of honor is a strong law that still exists in many parts of the country, that is, Nanawatai, Melmastia and Badal [codes of mercy, hospitality and the obligation of revenge.]

Afghanistan is made up of many tribes and these tribes have lived side by side for centuries and never felt that they are not Afghans. In the past thirty years, since the Soviet invasion, unfortunate events took place where power-hungry men used these tribes for their own personal advantage and made them fight for their own private gain. But I believe that black era has passed. Now many Afghans–Tajiks, Hazaras, Pashtuns, Pashais, Aimaqis, Balouchis, Turkmens and Uzbeks–are all thinking they are Afghans and their home is Afghanistan. We still do have these warlords in the Parliament, Senate, Provincial councils and in the Karzai cabinet who created this division among the Afghan tribes and used them to fight each other back in the 90s. But if the U.S. can gain an understanding of this situation and help the people to clean it up, I promise you this very worry will be gone forever.

SP: Chief Zazai, I know that you, and your father before you, have believed that not only the Pashtun tribes can unite, but that they can unite with the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and others. But haven’t these groups been rivals forever? Why would they unite now?

Chief Zazai: Afghanistan is not the home of only the Pashtuns or Hazaras, it is the house and native land of all the tribes I have mentioned above. I will give you my home province as an example:

In Paktia we have 13 districts and many Pashtun tribes such as Mangal, Zazi, Zadran, Subaree, Zormat, Ahmadzai, Tota Khell, but in the heart of Paktia’s provincial capital we have Tajiks! Now, do you really think we (the Pashtuns) can exclude the Tajiks of Gardez from our day-to-day life? No way, they are part of us and we are part of them! That’s how the whole of Afghanistan is in the same situation, every province has mixed populations and they all live side by side and, like it or not, they have to live together and it is rather best to be friends than enemies!

Posted in Agora, An Interview with an Afghan Tribal Chief

7 Responses to “Is Time Running Out?”

  1. A. A. Ibarreta
    November 20, 2009 at 7:28 am

    “But in Afghanistan unfortunately, democracy has brought corruption, warlordism, gangsterism, lawlessness, poverty and devastation. “… I see, of course none of these aspects of culture were present prior to 2002. I need new history books, all of mine were incorrect.

  2. Rob
    November 20, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    Steven,

    This war is an act of creation. Nation building. As you know, any creative act is challenged by an overwhelming force of Resistance. — The War Of Art.

    Unlike writing a book, Nation Building is a group project. Epic. Massive. It follows that the forces of Resistance will be equally epic, massive, and overwhelming. Individuals conquer Resistance through sheer force of will. How do massive groups, of divided individuals, conquer Resistance?

    We have no leader in this war. No passion. No ambition. No one to force success through sheer force of will. Everyone wants to win. No one wants to put in the work. The time. The money. We have no leader in this war.

    Our liberal president is trying to solve the problem, intellectually. To out-think Resistance. But he is an amateur. He is a wannabe king. He does not have the will to fight. His circus friends do not have the will to fight. 99% of America does not have the will to fight. We have the will to complain, to protest, but not the will to prevail.

    You two are singing songs of dreams that will never be.
    Unless you can find a way to awaken a hero.

  3. November 20, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    Zazai’s comments about democracy entailing more than casting votes should give us pause. Likewise his remarks about legitimacy. Too often rulers are conflated with leaders, which is not always the case–in Afghanistan or America. When he says better living conditions and uncorrupted government are signs of genuine democracy, we might want to think about what that means here at home before we start imposing our model of governance on others.

  4. November 21, 2009 at 11:04 am

    An interesting article in the NYT today (11/21) by the well-informed Dexter Filkins entitled US Spurs Rise of Afghan Militias. Is this the model to which Major Gant has so eloquently attested?

  5. November 22, 2009 at 4:14 am

    Ross and friends,

    Tim over at Free Range International had some interesting things to say about Filkin’s article. Not very pretty either, and the picture Tim paints is a little different. I highly recommend folks check it out, to get a little bit more of a realistic perspective.
    And for Steve, the title of this post is ‘The Tribes’, something that you would probably be interested in. Tim is also a Marine, and good people. Check it out. S/F -Matt
    http://freerangeinternational.com/blog/?p=2394

    • TS Alfabet
      November 22, 2009 at 9:49 am

      Matt,

      thanks for linking to Tim Lynch’s post.

      I got a bit different take on it than you, however. While he certainly trashed Filkin’s rosy perspective, alot of what Tim had to say very much confirms and corroborates what Major Gant has been writing about and even supports Filkin’s view that the Locals have the ability to dictate to the taliban what projects they support and ensure that the project moves forward without taliban interference. I think Tim may have read a little too much into Filkin’s report of SF’s guys coptering into tribal areas with “flour and ammunition.” Tim paints this as a useless gesture but IF (and I stress “if”) this is part of the relationship-building approach described by Maj. Gant–i.e., initial gifts of honor to Local leaders, then there may be value in it afterall.

      Clearly Tim is an expert at what he sees as stupidity by the military in blindly backing the GOA, even where it comes to opposing militias like Zazai’s which are doing critical work, but if the military is at least starting to figure out that the Locals are key to winning, then we have to support that.

  6. November 22, 2009 at 6:39 am

    Also, check out this article from the Washington Post by David Ignatious. Pretty cool, and kudos to Maj. Gant. To get that kind of recognition is big time.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/11/20/AR2009112002617.html