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Through Afghan Eyes

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/khost.jpgThe rugged terrain of Khost Province in eastern Afghanistan has been home to much violence in recent months. (Flickr: ahsonwardak)

FORWARD OPERATING BASE SALERNO – The tribal elder was direct with the U.S. team. “People are tired of the Taliban because they beat them,” he said, speaking in Kushamond, a district of Paktika Province in eastern Afghanistan, in December. “Now, if this government [also] beats them, what should the people do?”

The elder was quoted in a report written in January by Michael Bhatia, a member of an anthropology unit called a Human Terrain Team, or HTT. Bhatia himself, along with two solidiers, was killed in May, when their vehicle struck an improvised explosive device in the Sabari district of Khost Province.

But the work of the HTT, an unusual amalgam, continues. The HTT compiles a picture of what the war looks like to a Afghan population caught between the U.S.-led coalition and the Taliban-led insurgency. “We really needed to know [the Afghans'] honest feelings,” said Maj. Alex Wells, the HTT team leader, ” what their real motivations, attitudes and issues are.”

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/washington-ind-security-fin-150x150.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

Complex as that picture is -– and unfamiliar to most Americans as the Afghan tribes are — it gives reason for optimism about future strategy here. Interviews with HTT members, and a reading of their reports from Currahee’s area of operations, reveal a tribal-based population receptive to the coalition, if frustrated by it at times; impatient-to-hostile with the Kabul government run by Hamid Karzai; suspicious of the Pakistani intelligence service known as the ISI; mostly hostile to the Taliban, and desirous of both economic opportunity and local, tribal-based autonomy.

I did not interview a single Afghan in the Task Force’s area. This account is drawn entirely from the HTT’s fieldwork over the past few months. It is not intended to present a comprehensive portrait of Afghan feelings, only a window into Afghan perspectives in the West Virginia-sized slice of eastern Afghanistan, where Task Force Currahee operates.

HTT members emphasize that, unlike intelligence operatives, they do not seek information from the tribes on enemy figures or perspective attacks. Instead, they seek to understand local concerns and forge long-term relationships based on mutual trust. They do not try to present themselves as capable of providing the tribes with material benefits.

“It’s the traditional function of anthropology,” said Ron, an HTT anthropologist who declined to give his full name, because the HTT program is controversial within the field. “We’re pretty good about saying, ‘We have nothing to give you but our friendship.’”

The population here is primarily structured along tribal lines — with various fractures, fissures and subdivisions into clans. Three members of the HTT agreed that they had barely scratched the surface of the tribal structure during their time in Afghanistan. Ron estimated that there are 100 clans in the provinces Currahee operates in, but he added that when it came to the tribes, “anyone who gives a discrete number is lying.”

Somewhat clearer is the outlook of many tribal members on the issues that the U.S.-led coalition monitors: corruption, instability, economic opportunity and receptiveness to both the Afghan government and the U.S. and NATO presence.

“They’re somewhat disillusioned across-the-board in terms of conditions being better for them,” Wells, the head of HTT, said. A typical Afghan interviewed by the HTT over the past several months — “a farmer, sheep herder, goat herder” — has not seen his life improve tangibly as the result of the U.S.-led presence or the Karzai government, he added. “The most substantial things they’re looking for is affordable food, [and] paved roads to reach clinics,” Wells said.

Similarly, “The Karzai government is seen as very corrupt,” Ron said. “A lot of people say it was better during the Taliban’s time.” A term he said he heard frequently was “administration corruption.”

The Afghan National Police, known as the ANP, also appears to be a problem. Bhatia’s January report quotes a truck driver in Paktika describing the difference between the Taliban and the police this way: “The Taliban are worse than the ANP; they will stop you, burn your vehicle and shoot you. ANP checkpoints ask for more money, and if they do not receive, they hit our trucks with their rifles. [The police should] stop asking us for money. Even if they ask us, they shouldn’t demand at gunpoint.”

Yet the frustration has yet to translate into an insistence on U.S. withdrawal. “Not one person has said they want us to leave,” said Mark, 25, a political scientist and HTT member who also declined to give his full name.

Wells agreed: “They’ve never said ‘Yankee, go home.’”

The tribes’ relationship to the insurgency is a mixed picture. Some of the HTT’s interlocutors have described the insurgents as motivated by greed. “There’s a huge amount of money to be spread around” for locals to attack U.S. and allied forces, Ron said. Fear also plays a large role in generating active cooperation or passive toleration for the insurgency.

But religious adherence is “huge,” Ron said — particularly as Taliban propaganda portrays the U.S.-led coalition as implacably opposed to Islam. “To our detriment, we don’t realize [religion to be] as huge as it is” in generating recruits to the insurgency, he said.

To illustrate the effect of the Taliban’s mixture of coercion and zealotry, Ron said a truck driver told him, “Why shouldn’t we feed the Taliban? They are the butterflies of Islam.” The driver’s truck was pockmarked by bullet holes.

The driver appears to be an exception, however. Wells said that the HTT rarely encounters open support for the Taliban during its interviews — “though we’d appreciate the honesty.”

Understanding the tribes is crucial for U.S. and NATO counterinsurgency operations. One big project in Khost Province is building a road to link Khost to Gardez, which could foster economic prosperity and thereby deprive the insurgency of a justification for its activities.

A major tribe along the intended route is the Zadran, who are in southern Paktia, western Khost and northern Paktika provinces. Divided into two major subtribes, the Zadran fought the Russians during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, and a famed member is Jalaleddin Haqqani, a longtime Taliban adherent whom the U.S. tried to kill in an airstrike in Pakistan early this week.

The Zadran currently feel neglected by the central government, telling the HTT that it’s unfairly missing out on government contracts. Recently, a push has begun within the Zadran to unify the tribe — though the HTT is unsure of the implications of Zadran unity. “They could be unifying in line with Karzai,” Mark said, “or it could be a power play” to get their demands for contracts met.

Generating local solutions according to traditional tribal methods appears to be a priority. On July 30, a tribal meeting known as a shura met at Forward Operating Base Wilderness, in Paktia Province, to discuss insurgent activity in the area. Padsha Khan, the elder of the Zadran tribe and Paktia’s representative in the Afghan parliament, implored the tribe to take action against the Taliban.

“How can thousands of you let just a few Taliban destroy your district centers and cause so much damage to your land?” he told the shura, according to an HTT report. “It used to be that if anyone died at your doorsteps, there would be revenge and people would retaliate and do anything to take revenge against you. … By supporting the Taliban, you are going to jeopardize yourself and your future.”

Wells said that his six months in Afghanistan has taught him the “Afghan way” of conflict resolution: parties to a dispute bring their concerns to a council of four tribal elders. If the council’s recommendations are unacceptable, two religious leaders, known as mullahs, hear an appeal. Only if that additional adjudication is considered unacceptable will the parties seek official legal channels.

Wells said his tribal interlocutors had urged the coalition forces to use tribal justice. “Now our suggestion is that [the coalition] should have jirgas,” an elder of the Kushamond tribe said, as quoted in Bhatia’s January report, referring to a tribal council. “War can never fix problems, we should fix problems through the jirgas, even with the enemy.”

The tribes’ emphasis on local solutions is a mixed blessing, HTT members said. While the tribes are eager to take an active role in solving their own problems, that assertiveness comes at the expense of the central government that the U.S.-led coalition supports.

“The most frustrating thing is… seeing people go to the government as a last resort,” Mark said. “The tribal structure is sometimes diametrically opposed [to the central government] -– the tribal police versus the [Afghan security forces], the jirga versus the rule of law.” Ron called it “a bit of a Catch-22.”

Mark added, “Karzai needs the tribal forces, but at the same time [that need] reduces his own legitimacy.”

As violence has increased in Afghanistan over this past year, a major question confronting U.S. policy-makers is whether the Afghan population would support an increase in U.S. and allied troops. Some intelligence officials with experience in Afghanistan are skeptical, fearing that a larger force presence might appear to be an occupation, sparking a broader and bloodier insurgency.

But the answer that the eastern-Afghanistan HTT gives is that the population would welcome additional troops –- under certain conditions.

“It depends how they’re used,” Ron said. The population wouldn’t approve of additional airstrikes, which tend to kill civilians -– a recent strike in western Afghanistan resulted in an estimated 90 civilian deaths, according to a U.N. report. But it would accept “50,000 [troops] on the border.”

The crucial consideration is that the population views the U.S. presence as contributing to the security of Afghan civilians, he suggested: the tribes don’t exactly know what to make of a U.S. presence that it sees “eating on the FOBs” – the acronym for large military bases – but not “chasing the Taliban into the hills.”

Wells added that one of his Afghan interlocutors asked him why the U.S. doesn’t “go into Pakistan,” from where many insurgents infiltrate. This questions was surprising, considering that the Pashtun tribes in eastern Afghanistan are kin of the Pashtun tribes across the Pakistani border.

Yet the HTT hears a frequent refrain from the locals that the Pakistani ISI is responsible for much of the recent instability. Bhatia’s report found that about 20 to 40 Paktika residents “traveled to Pakistan for [insurgent] training, only to return to Afghanistan in partnership with foreign fighters.”

At the July 30 shura, Juma Khan Humdard, governor of Paktia Province, blasted the Pakistanis for opposing “peace, stability, clinics, schools, roads and dams for electricity in our country.” According to the HTT report on the shura, several participants used the derogatory term “Panjabi” to refer to the Pakistanis.

Wells said that some Afghans don’t understand why the U.S. doesn’t act more aggressively against the Taliban: “Some say, ‘Why not use a heavier hand?’” Mark explained that the tribesmen take note of who appears to be weak, and act accordingly -– an insight that might inform future strategy in the turbulent war.

“They pick winners,” he said.

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