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 Afghan tribal politics backfire on U.S. plan

The Washington Post
By Joshua Partlow and Greg Jaffe

ACHIN - U.S. military officials in eastern Afghanistan thought they had come up with a novel way to stem the anger and disillusionment about government corruption that fuels the Taliban insurgency here.

Instead, their plan to empower a large Pashtun tribe angered a local power broker, provoked a backlash from the Afghan government and was disavowed by the U.S. Embassy.

The struggling U.S. military effort to give the Shinwari tribe more voice in its affairs shows the massive challenges the United States will face this summer in Kandahar province, as it prepares to launch what is being touted as one of the largest and most important military campaigns of the nine-year-old war. One of the main U.S. goals in Kandahar is to reduce the influence of local power brokers, widely seen as corrupt, and to give tribal alliances a stake in how the province is governed and how development contracts are parceled out.

But the swirling controversy surrounding the American deal in eastern Afghanistan's Nangarhar province demonstrates that efforts to alter the existing power structure can have unintended and unsettling effects. The plan involving the 400,000-strong Shinwari tribe developed earlier this year when elders told Col. Randy George, a senior commander in eastern Afghanistan, that they wanted to unite to oppose the Taliban and stamp out opium cultivation. As a reward, George offered the Shinwari elders the power to decide how to spend $1 million in U.S.-funded development projects.

It ended after the local power broker, Gov. Gul Agha Shirzai, a towering and controversial figure in Afghan politics, complained to President Hamid Karzai, who lambasted U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry in a February meeting for meddling in tribal politics.

Shirzai accused U.S. officials of turning tribal elders into "little governors."

Soon, the State Department ordered its employees to cease working on the deal. The embassy has drafted, but not yet issued, guidance that no civilians in Afghanistan should be involved in tribal pacts.

The American approach had also angered other tribal leaders, who complained that an initial $200,000 allotted for day-labor work hadn't been distributed equitably, even among the Shinwaris.

"It really stirred things up," said one State Department official in Kabul, referring to George's approach. "They were basically paying the Shinwaris to do nothing: 'Congratulations, you get a pony.' Now other tribes are saying, 'Why don't I get a pony?' "

Although military officials expected resistance from Shirzai, they were surprised by the blowback from Afghan officials in Kabul and from the State Department, which had been informed about the effort prior to moving forward. "The big worry was that the pact undermined the central government," said one U.S. official.

U.S. military officials rejected the notion that branches of the Shinwari were excluded from the deal. "We did it in a very open way. We announced it in front of 130 tribal elders," George said.

After spending $167,000 on a series of small, labor-intensive initiatives to clean out irrigation canals and build retaining walls, the money stopped flowing. "It's all been stopped, the money and the projects," said Shinwari elder Mohammad Usman. One of the main beneficiaries was Malik Niaz, a white-bearded leader of the Khaidar Khel sub-tribe, who said he accepted $10,000 in two installments. Niaz said the Interior Ministry gave him pickup trucks, 50 bodyguards and 100 rocket-propelled grenades, while U.S. Special Operations forces helicopters flew in ammunition and food. A spokesman for Special Operations forces did not address the claims but said none of their forces are currently in Nangarhar or "providing assistance to the Shinwari tribe at this time." The weapons, food and ammunition were not part of the broader Shinwari deal, military officials said.

The new prestige for Niaz and others did not sit well among all Shinwaris. "Before the money, we were all equal," said Akthar Mohammad, a Shinwari elder from the Ali Sher Khel branch. "They became very selfish, very proud of themselves. They wanted to control the other tribes."

Other tribes in the area complained as well. "Why did they choose the Shinwari?" said Zainullah Khan, administrator of the tribal affairs ministry in Jalalabad. "Afghanistan has a tradition: If you help one brother, the other one gets angry."

Some Shinwari and U.S. officials said the deal played a role in sparking violence early March, when hundreds of Shinwari from the Shublai branch walked down from the mountains and began to build rock huts on disputed land controlled by the Ali Sher Khel branch of the Shinwari.

The Ali Sher Khel chafed at this flash settlement. Afghan officials said the Taliban jumped in, trying to capitalize on the rift by offering weapons to both sides. After days of tense negotiations, the Ali Sher Khel staged a protest, and they were taunted by the settlers.

"They said, 'Go home and wear your women's bracelets,' " one protester recalled.

When fighting broke out, it killed 13 people and wounded more than 30 others. The Ali Sher Khel drove the Shublai back into the mountains. "We didn't want to take anything from their homes. We just wanted to burn it all down," said a man who identified himself as Habibullah, a 30-year-old car battery salesman who took part in the fighting.

U.S. military officials said the dispute wasn't necessarily related to the development deal, and they defended the broader Shinwari deal.

In early May, the tribal elders met with Shirzai and demanded that he remove the corrupt district governors serving under him, military officials said. Shirzai asked them for a list of replacement candidates. "It may be rose-colored glasses, but I believe these are the kind of changes that need to occur," George said.

Recently, the feuding branches of the Shinwari agreed to a one-year ceasefire. But relations remain fraught.

"This clash split the Shinwari in two," said Malalai Shinwari, a parliament member. "It will take years and years to rejoin these two tribes together."

Partlow reported from Achin and Jalalabad, Afghanistan; Jaffe from Jalalabad. Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.

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