x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

State of confusion

The tribal lines that fracture Afghanistan may indeed be the key to peace.

The Great Game: the Amir of Afghanistan meeting with the British at Gandamak in 1879.
The Great Game: the Amir of Afghanistan meeting with the British at Gandamak in 1879.

Two recent developments in Washington and Kabul appear to highlight just how elusive and misguided the search for peace in Afghanistan remains. Last week the Pentagon disclosed that it may send up to 7,000 additional soldiers to Afghanistan to make up for the shortfall in troops committed by Nato countries. The additional troops would bring the total number of US troops to 40,000, which would mean more American soldiers will be in Afghanistan than at any other time since 2001. Commanders on the ground have suggested for several years that more combat troops and intelligence officers are needed to fight the Taliban insurgency, which began in the south but is spreading to other provinces despite the presence of 62,000 foreign soldiers throughout the country.

For several years the Nato alliance has been crippled by members who are unwilling to contribute the soldiers required - about 80,000, according to some estimates - to provide a blanket of security that will allow development work to carry on, or in some cases, begin. On April 27, gunmen fired on a military parade in Kabul celebrating the fall of the communist government 16 years ago. The attack killed three people, including an MP, and wounded 11 others. It was an audacious raid - and President Hamid Karzai himself was nearly killed. The parade was supposed to show the strength of the Afghan army - built mostly with American money and expertise. Instead it exposed its weakness just as the army gets ready to take over responsibility for Kabul's security from Nato, which has been in charge of protecting the capital since the fall of the Taliban.

The Afghan defense minister Abdul Rahim Wardak admitted that the enemy had infiltrated his ministry - a police captain and army officer were accused of involvement in the attack - although they had subsequently been arrested. The suspects had links to militants in North Waziristan, on Pakistan's border. It is clear that the major western militaries have been unable to bring Afghans desperately needed peace while the state security apparatus cannot cope with attacks by insurgents, estimated at 4,000 last year.

Afghanistan is a precarious, fractured nation and, as things stand, the outlook is far from promising. But what the international community doesn't seem to understand is that there is an Afghan solution to this protracted crisis. When you talk to western diplomats or military officers, they return frequently to the idea that intervention is required to stop "them" from killing each other over "ancient tribal hatreds".

Tribal societies are all too often perceived as backward and, while this can be the case, in a country that has been subject to many years of foreign intervention, the tribes can be a way to bring security in a culturally acceptable manner and pave the way for modern development. I would argue that in addition to building up institutions, the international stakeholders must nurture and repair the tribal networks that for a long time kept Afghanistan secure. It is often forgotten that for most of the 20th century the country was at peace.

In the days when Afghanistan was still a monarchy, that is, before 1973, the rulers in Kabul controlled their subjects through delicate alliances with powerful tribal chiefs in the provinces. These chiefs had been established for decades, often centuries and had the unquestioning loyalty of their people. My family was among them. My ancestors arrived with the Moguls in the 16th century when Babur Shah, founder of the Mogul empire in India, settled in his beloved Kabul and gave one of the nearby territories, Laghman, to his grandson so he could collect taxes from the population. The mogul conquerors were my forefathers and they settled among the mysterious blue-eyed races who lived in the mountains and valleys. These mountain races were also pagans. This north-eastern region today is split into the three provinces of Kunar, Laghman and Nuristan, but in those days it was known as Kafiristan, or Land of the Unbelievers.

The Afghan king at the time, Abdul Rahman Khan, wanted to bring Kafiristan under his rule to consolidate his kingdom. The "Iron Amir," as he was known, conquered the region in 1895 and renamed it Nuristan, or Land of Light. But when the Iron Amir's soldiers left, the pagans reverted to their old ways, painting their eyelids blue and worshipping their gods in sacred circles drawn on the ground. Years later, the monarchy asked my great-grandfather, the leader of the Qadiri order of Sufis, to bring the message of Islam by peaceful preaching.

Along with 60 other missionaries he made the journey on foot and on horseback through mountain passes covered with snow, and walnut forests so dense that the woodland floor was covered in perpetual shadow. The Pashtun tribes, impressed by his devotion, asked him to stay and become their spiritual leader. Because of this, my family wielded huge influence over the Pashtuns even after my great-grandfather's death in 1918. If he had told them to fight against Kabul, they would have done so.

The tribal aristocracy were thus effectively power-brokers between the monarchs and potentially restive tribesmen, and a critical link to royal legitimacy. On several occasions, when a smaller tribe decided to fight against Kabul my family would stall them until the royal soldiers were sent to put down the potential rebellion. The tribesmen would not take up arms until the Sufi leaders in my family sanctioned the fighting on religious grounds - and they always refused to do so.

Today Afghanistan does not have legitimate rulers. In the days of the Soviet jihad, money and guns were given to anyone who promised to kill Russians. Over the course of a decade, at least $58 billion (Dh213 billion) in arms and cash poured into a country the size of Texas that had never had an arms industry. The extraordinary infusion of weapons has thrown off the balance of power and ripped Afghan society apart.

Over the last two decades there has been a deliberate effort to erode Kabul's authority either in favour of the mujahideen who fought the Soviets or the Taliban. It was always going to be difficult for anyone to bring the country and the tribes together. The years of fighting have pitted families and tribes against each other. Kabul cannot appeal to traditional intermediaries between the central government and the tribesmen because the links have been destroyed. There are not enough loyal tribal leaders who can pass on intelligence about potential attacks to Kabul.

In the meantime, tribal feuds have gone unchecked, moderate religious leaders and tribal chiefs are dead or powerless. The gun rules. During the American war in 2001, the Pentagon gave millions of dollars to fighters on the ground to get rid of al Qa'eda or their Taliban hosts. After the war ended, the US gave yet another round of money to its henchmen. And so a warlord state has been created. For most Afghans there is no reason to listen to their leaders because they do not represent their aspirations or tribal ancestors.

At the same time, the various Nato countries and their allies who contribute soldiers to the Afghan mission are effectively President Hamid Karzai's link to the provinces. This is a situation that is fundamentally flawed. The military missions in the south will at some point have to shift to diplomacy, and an effort must be made to recognise and support honest power-brokers who do not terrorise the Afghan people. In this context, an Afghan mission based on the co-operation and goodwill of the tribes seems the only viable route to a lasting peace. For ultimately it is them, not Nato or the UN or the US, who have a genuine interest in a peaceful and stable Afghanistan.

Hamida Ghafour is a foreign correspondent for The National and author of The Sleeping Buddha: The Story of Afghanistan Through the Eyes of One Family