|Are actions of 'super-tribe' an Afghan tipping point?
Beyond the war-ravaged mountains of Nangarhar Province in eastern Afghanistan, a quiet revolution is unfolding.
In the most strategically important area of this vast country, along the border with Pakistan, NATO forces are hoping a new pact involving one of the “super-tribes” of Afghanistan can turn a previously volatile area into a model for how the rest of the country can be pacified.
Some 170 elders from the Shinwari tribe, which numbers about 400,000 people, have signed a pact vowing to burn down the house of anyone found sheltering the Taliban. It is being heralded as a “tipping point” by the U.S. commander of Task Force Mountain Warrior, Col. Randy George.
“It’s a great example, and we certainly hope it will spread, and there’s pieces of it that already have a little bit,” George said. “We are encouraged by it. We have had other tribes that have come forward. Every valley is different. Every tribe is different. We just have to be flexible in how we apply the solutions here in Afghanistan.”
The U.S. authorities in this area – the Army and the State Department – are keen to point out that “this wasn’t a quid pro quo.”
“There wasn’t a link. Certainly, they would expect to be supported,” George said. “What they did was remarkable. It’s courageous they would come together and make these kind of statements, and publicly. We certainly want them to know they are doing all the right things.”
In other words, the pact came first and was then rewarded with a million dollars of aid from the U.S. Army’s Commanders Emergency Response Program.
A State Department representative in the area, Dante Paradiso, says the Taliban have been gradually eroding support among the Shinwari tribe.
“There’ve been a lot of rivalries and a lot of disputes within these communities, but over time, one of the threats that the Taliban and insurgents in general have posed to these communities, is that they have broken down traditional structures,” Paradiso said. “And what you’ve seen is that some of these structures and some of these elders are looking to reassert some of their organic or indigenous cultures, and stand against an insurgency that goes against that.”
U.S. officials will closely monitor how the aid is spent, deciding which subcontractors are used and ensuring that the money is really spent on development, not weapons. But the strategy is high-risk. The tribes have made a very public repudiation of the Taliban and are now expecting the aid to start flowing.
One village we visited, Gulaiye, used to be a narco economy. Everything revolved around the opium trade. Now, they grow vegetables and wheat as part of a deal to renounce opium and the Taliban. But locals told us about their unhappiness at the lack of help from the local government, warning that unless jobs were created, young men there would start to turn back to the Taliban.
The U.S. cash may go some way to alleviating those gripes and shoring up tribal support for NATO, but in societies that are fickle, fractured and poor, nothing is certain.
“I don’t think there are any guarantees in any of this. … That’s why you support positive behavior,” George said. “So we are going to continue to be supportive. It was courageous what they’ve done. … This has been in progress for a while. The situation has generally gotten better in last couple of months, so we’ve already seen some encouraging signs.”
Getting the Shinwari “on side” is critical because of its size: The hundreds of thousands of people under its influence live along the strategically important border with Pakistan. If other tribes can also be persuaded to kick out Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, huge swathes of territory could be denied to the enemy without the need to deploy thousands more NATO troops.
Some have likened it to the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, which proved so vital in reducing violence and forcing out foreign fighters in 2006.
But the situation in Afghanistan is far more complex. The mosaic of tribes and clans in Afghanistan is bewildering. Paradiso says the Shinwari elders have received death threats from the Taliban for denouncing them so publicly.
“That’s to be expected, and that’s where they are showing some real courage in standing together, and that’s part of what drove them,” Paradiso said. “They understand the nature of the threat because they live with it daily.”