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As the Dust Devils Danced
"God, Pashtun Honor, Opium and Stability in Uruzgan, Afghanistan"
By Jeffrey Crowther
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2015 Jeffrey Crowther
All rights reserved.
Uruzgan, Afghanistan: A Land of Loyalty, Opium, and God
"Tarburwali (Pashtu for the rivalry of agnatic cousins) ... the position of leadership itself is structurally weak. It lacked the right of command and so depended on the ability to persuade others to follow. (No Afghan feels anyone else is above him.) It is tough being a chief of a people whom you had to cajole into action and where criticism is constant. For this reason religious leaders were often more successful than tribal ones in uniting large groups. Coming from outside the system and calling on
God's authority, they could circumvent tribal rivalries.
— Thomas Barfield, Afghanistan, A Cultural and Political History
Barfield paints a picture of how politics work in Afghanistan. Similar to the international policy of large nations, there are constant negotiations, with the threat of force always lingering in the background. At the time of the 2001 US invasion following the horrific attack on the World Trade Center, Afghanistan was in ruins. Decades of internal conflict, exasperated by the Soviet invasion to prop up the failing Communist regime in Kabul, precipitated the civil war between tribal leaders, which ended in the supremacy of the Taliban movement. Our well-intentioned efforts to reconstruct — or should I say, construct — the civil society that Western nations wanted to see in Afghanistan, were based upon teams of civilian and military personnel in each province of the country. By 2010, our efforts had proved unable to create a fully functioning central government. However, we had created a parallel government made up of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Now it was time to dismantle them without the country imploding into another round of civil war. I walked into that effort as a senior rule of law advisor with the US Department of State, assigned to the remote region of Uruzgan Province.
My assignment was to assist the people of Uruzgan with the development of a justice system consistent with the new Afghan Constitution. Uruzgan is a region of Afghanistan where the Kabul government always faced a population that harbored resistance to its influence but needed its cooperation. A mountainous region whose people possess a fierce independent pride, a place rebels have run to and fought from for centuries. Populated by multiple tribes and subtribes their loyalties ebb and flow based on patronage and the Pashtunwali honor code, all wrapped in a sense of proper Islam. It is essential to understand that Islam is in a state of flux in Uruzgan as the conflict between the centuries-old Hanifi sharia and the relatively new Wahhabi sharia, grounded in the old Salafism, turned into a sharia legal theory by Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya (1262–1328) and promoted by the Talib, rages in the land. It is a high-altitude desert where crops are grown by hand-dug irrigation canals near the glacier streams making their way down from the mountain ranges toward the Helmand River. It is an exhausting effort, and the crop that gives the greatest return for such efforts is the opium poppy.
As I read Barfield while preparing to go to Afghanistan, I couldn't help thinking his words concerning what we saw as a backward country seemed to be torn right out of the headlines of news about our own government. Does not our president come under constant criticism? Is not our government formed on the basis of persons of different priorities and ideologies coming together in state houses and Congress, arguing over what should be the law of the land? Do not our politicians reach out to God's Word as the basis for their stand on an issue of the day? Is this "Tarburwali" not the basis for people governing themselves? When you place this thought alongside the tribal organizations of South Afghanistan, do we not have the foundation of democracy much as existed back in the ancient Greek city-states?
However, on the ground in Uruzgan was a basic government of one city-state, which was not receiving much support from the national government of Afghanistan. Uruzgan resembled disenfranchised communities of other nations and in other times. Like populations in Colombia and Mexico over the last half century, as well as many regions of the U.S.A., especially urban immigrant ghettos of the late 1800s and early 1900s, Uruzgan was ripe for those willing to be better providers than the government in Kabul. Though to be clear, just like the gangsters of alcohol prohibition in the United States, unless those in political power in Kabul got their cut of the action, the local powerbrokers wouldn't last long.
What astounded me was that those being sent into Afghanistan, putatively to develop a civil society, seemingly failed to read much of anything concerning Barfield's research. Instead, they read books on the Taliban, a modern phenomenon born of Wahhabi Islam imported into Afghanistan through the students, the Talib. Many Talib had been orphaned and sent to the Saudi-supported schools, called madrassas, in Pakistan during the civil war that brought the Soviets to Afghanistan to prevent the then-communist Kabul government from falling. These students were broken from their families and tribes; they then came back to Afghanistan and formed their own tribe, in a sense, based on the kinship they shared in those madrassas. This was natural, for in the rural regions of Afghanistan, kinship relationships are crucial to survival.
This fraternity of Wahhabi brothers was sympathetic to a similar Islamic movement that would find fertile ground under their protection, known as Al-Qaida, Arabic for "the base." Their Sharia, Wahhabism, was the base of proper Islamic behavior that they believed all Muslims should follow. The leader of these Talib grew up in the Afghan province of Uruzgan in a small town west of the provincial capital called Deh Rawud. He is known to the world as Mullah Omar.
Through my conversations concerning Mullah Omar with the longtime district governor of Deh Rawud, Kalifa Sadat, there emerged a picture of a young boy who endured a harsh childhood. At a young age, Omar came under his uncle's roof when, according to Pashtunwali and Islamic tradition, his uncle married his brother's wife — Omar's mother — when she was widowed. His uncle was a mullah at a local mosque, where a rigid Islamic sharia — possibly the traditional Hanbal sharia, mixed with the ancient Pashtunwali — was taught. Kalifa's stories of abuse, both physical and mental, at the hands of his uncle left me no doubt that Mullah Omar fit the classic picture of an adult shaped by childhood violence.
Afghanistan is a land where in 2011, 60 percent of the population was under the age of twenty-five, 50 percent was under the age of eighteen, and 44.5 percent was under the age of fourteen. Years of violent conflict claimed the older men, while others just emigrated to avoid the violence. The Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) structure in Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, had actually created a parallel government alongside that of the duly constituted Afghan government — which we call the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, or GIRoA. This parallel government formed because GIRoA had not been able to stand above the tribes and administer transparent and just governance with rule of law as its base. However, given the history of the area and Barfield's research findings, had any Kabul-based government ever accomplished that? Had not all of them reached accommodation with and not power over the rural regions? Hadn't this region always operated much like a large grouping of organized crime families, where the money was always disbursed through deals and backroom negotiations, with the threat of violence always in the air if negotiations should fail?
Did we have an unrealistic vision of what civil society could be in Afghanistan at this time? The money provided by coalition partners to operate the government wasn't flowing down to the governmental agencies at the provincial and district levels. This was due to the high level of what we call corrupt behavior — but what their culture sees as normal taking of money and using it for their networks that secure their positions. In our efforts to keep the provincial governments viable, the PRT had been making up the shortfalls. A vicious cycle had been started and now it had to come to an end. Our instructions were to break that connection and mentor accordingly.
When I arrived, I sensed the frustration of those who held similar roles as I did. Most of them didn't understand the strength of culture's hold on societal development. This led to a frustrated effort focused on "programs in a box" that targeted only some very fluid top issues but failed to address the depth of the culture beneath, and so attempted solutions that the underlying culture wouldn't accept. They failed to see that the Taliban movement, though an indigenous political movement, was itself struggling to gain long-term acceptance within the Afghan cultures. I emphasize cultures because Afghanistan was home to a wide breadth of active tribes, whereas the Taliban movement was mostly of Pashtu origin.
During my two and a half years in Afghanistan, I saw our own efforts being influenced both by the tribes who had our ears and those who didn't — to the point that by 2012, I heard that it was clear that we were dealing with two Afghanistan nations. One was the Tajik and Uzbek in the north, where Kabul lay, and the other the Pashtu that dominated the south, which was Kandahar City-centric. Kabul-centric thinking can be dangerous. Afghanistan historically has been a confederacy of tribes that reached a consensus through various means, one being the loya jirga, concerning how the nation should move forward. The loya jirga approved the United States and its partners maintaining a military presence in the country, but President Karzai again played the Afghan renegotiating game that could have led to the entire international community pulling out.
In February 2014, Karzai released several hundred Talban fighters from Bagram Prison over the objections of the United States. This was obviously a move reflecting ongoing negotiations among the tribal groups, as Afghanistan began shedding the presence of its latest invader and returning to its norm — though not ours. The constant deal making that epitomizes Afghan culture is not understood by the outside world. On April 5, 2014, over 60 percent of the Afghan population defied the threats of the Taliban by standing for hours at the polling stations. President Harmid Karzai became the first Afghan leader to leave office alive. No clear winners emerged, so runoff elections were held between Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah Abdullah.
Ashraf Ghani comes from the same tribe as the president installed by the Soviets during their occupation of Afghanistan, Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai. That particular tribe has strong ties to the Western Tribal Area in Pakistan and is part of the Ghilzai Pashtu tribe in Afghanistan, which is the largest in Uruzgan with strong ties to the Taliban. The Pashtu have for a long time been seen as the natural heir to the national leadership. Abdullah Abdullah comes from the Northern Tajik tribes and was closely allied with Ahmad Shah Massoud, "The Lion of the North," the leader of the Northern Alliance who was killed by Al-Qaida just prior to the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. Since the Taliban is mainly a Pashtu movement, one can see the immediate conflict between the two candidates and their supporters.
Dr. Abdullah Abdullah lost in the runoff and immediately claimed fraud, which resulted in a UN-monitored recount. Claims of fraud were thrown around the entire time the recount was underway, and even when the elections results were confirmed, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah refused to concede. Thus began a period of tense negotiations lasting over six months and resulting in a typical Afghan power-sharing deal where tribal leaders reach consensus with one another to move forward in a manner where both groups reap benefits. The election's results were finally honored, putting Ashraf Ghani in office as president. However, moments after Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai took the oath of office, he swore in Abdullah Abdullah as "chief executive," creating the sharing of power that defused the election tensions that had threatened to spark violence between the country's north and southeast. Never mind that the Afghan Constitution has no such position as chief executive. The longstanding Pashtu national leadership role had been maintained within a new confederacy framework thousands of years old.
This ancient confederacy of tribes into one "nation" is very complicated to the Western mind because all the major tribes have several subtribes under their umbrellas. As you drill down into these tribal structures, emergence of family ties and kinship becomes very important. Marriages are family/political alliances, and given the acceptance of polygamy for the men of the tribes, knowing all their wives is strategically important to know all their alliances. This is extremely difficult given the social taboo of discussing the female members of the family with outsiders. It is so offensive to the Afghan males to be asked about their female family members that it can cause a violent reaction that can get one killed. Women are a symbol of family honor and they are protected in the extreme, leading to what we in the West would call a lack of freedom and abuse of basic human rights.
The loyalty to family and tribe is exemplified by the phrase, "I against my brother; my brother and I against our cousin; my brother, cousin, and I against the tribe; our tribe against all other tribes, and all tribes against outsiders." This creates a society where nothing gets done without all the family ties being considered, so negotiations are constant and ongoing and subject to renegotiation. Communication is not direct and "in your face" but laced with suggestions and done in a storytelling manner. Knowing the foundations of the stories told is important, thus an outsider is immediately at a disadvantage, and miscommunications are a problem. We continually refused to accept this cultural reality of things being in a constant state of negotiations as we were attempting to build civil society in Afghanistan. Time, and I mean a long time, is what it takes to influence the people of Afghanistan. Outsiders don't have the patience to stay that long. Much as Ho Chi Min stated to the US forces in Vietnam, and Gandhi did to the British during India's subcontinent struggle to obtain self-rule, "Someday all outsiders will go home on their own accord. We will just wait you out and in the process make it painful for you to stay, generation after generation." In the meantime, the Afghans who work with outsiders will do so to their tribal/family network's benefit, all the time maintaining all necessary relationships for future changes. All Afghan leaders in Uruzgan that I worked with had family members associated with the Taliban at some level. It may have been a third cousin twice removed, but they knew who they were and communicated with them when needed. This cooperation was exemplified as winter approached in 2011. The Taliban reached out to the Uruzgan strongman and newly named provincial chief of police, Matiullah Khan, for safe passage back to Pakistan before the winter snows blocked the mountain passages. Matiullah let it be known that they had three days of safe passage. After that, he would kill them. The implications that he knew where they were, who they where, and the fact that he was allowing safe passage for three days sent a clear message — Matiullah was the one who held their destiny in Uruzgan. These favors and threats were the poker chips for future negotiations, depending on how the winds of change blow. Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, is faced with this same dynamic and it will play heavily into his ability to bring the Taliban back into a power position as ISAF leaves the region.
The overarching struggle in Afghanistan is that of Islam, and what sharia means to the population. Offend an Afghan's understanding of Islam and Allah at the risk of your life being taken immediately. In Uruzgan, reference to the prophet of Islam, Mohammad, was always done by the phrase "peace be upon him" and not his name. This is a sign of extreme conservative Islam, for even the mention of his name can be seen as worshipping him instead of Allah and therefore forbidden as a form of idolatry. However, that very issue is where I believe the struggle lies in Afghanistan, and therefore the outsiders coming with their "constitution" as the law, the modern sharia, were making the same mistake the former Afghan communist government made when it pushed communist-based rule of law into the rural regions, sparking the religious war in retaliation for such action.
Excerpted from As the Dust Devils Danced by Jeffrey Crowther. Copyright © 2015 Jeffrey Crowther. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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