Tribes and clans in Afghanistan

politics and culture — By on September 30, 2008 at 7:20 am

There is a short but thoughtful article in The Atlantic about the current U.S. engagement with Afghanistan and the story contains some useful pieces of information about Afghan culture. Specifically, it speaks about the tremendous importance of tribes and clans in the nation’s social structure, while suggesting that the U.S. strategy is on the wrong track in that we’ve tried to rebuild the country from the top down rather than from the bottom up.

(T)he current military engagement is also beginning to look like the Soviets’ decade-long Afghan adventure, which ended ignominiously in 1989. That intervention, like the current one, was based on a strategy of administering and securing Afghanistan from urban centers such as Kabul and the provincial capitals. The Soviets held all the provincial capitals, just as we do, and sought to exert influence from there. The mujahideen stoked insurgency in the rural areas of the Pashtun south and east, just as the Taliban do now…

National government has never much mattered in Afghanistan. Only once in its troubled history has the country had something like the system of strong central government that’s mandated by the current constitution. That was under the “Iron Emir,” Abdur Rehman, in the late 19th century, and Rehman famously maintained control by building towers of skulls from the heads of all who opposed him, a tactic unavailable to the current president, Hamid Karzai.

Politically and strategically, the most important level of governance in Afghanistan is neither national nor regional nor provincial. Afghan identity is rooted in the woleswali: the districts within each province that are typically home to a single clan or tribe. Historically, unrest has always bubbled up from this stratum—whether against Alexander, the Victorian British, or the Soviet Union. Yet the woleswali are last, not first, in U.S. military and political strategy…

The Taliban are well aware that the center of gravity in Afghanistan is the rural Pashtun district and village, and that Afghan army and coalition forces are seldom seen there…The rural Pashtun south has its own systems of tribal governance and law, and its people don’t want Western styles of either. But nor are they predisposed to support the Taliban, which espouses an alien and intolerant form of Islam, and goes against the grain of traditional respect for elders and decision by consensus. Re-empowering the village coun­cils of elders and restoring their community leadership is the only way to re-create the traditional check against the powerful political network of rural mullahs.

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