Oh, the Shinwari

by Joshua Foust on 3/12/2010 · 3 comments

It’s almost like no one could have seen this coming.

JALALABAD, Afghanistan — Six weeks ago, elders of the Shinwari tribe, which dominates a large area in southeastern Afghanistan, pledged that they would set aside internal differences to focus on fighting the Taliban.

This week, that commitment seemed less important as two Shinwari subtribes took up arms to fight each other over an ancient land dispute, leaving at least 13 people dead, according to local officials.

The fighting was a setback for American military officials, some of whom had hoped it would be possible to replicate the pledge elsewhere. It raised questions about how effectively the American military could use tribes as part of its counterinsurgency strategy, given the patchwork of rivalries that make up Afghanistan.

First off, ugh at that bolded bit. What, so is Dexter Filkins now an American military official? Granted, it would be a change of title and not duty, but still—the New York Times played an outsized role in promoting the Shinwari deal, and now that it looks shaky, it’s the military who’s feeling burned by it. Got it.

Of course, pushing tribes as the solution to all things has been the hallmark of the Times since, oh, 2006 or so—regardless of how ahistorical such a push actually is.

They’re not alone, of course: the Small Wars Journal has its own significant role to play in pushing these kinds of things outside of any real understanding of what they are, what they mean, or how likely their success is. It should say something that two of the most influential-for-the-military English-language sources about Afghanistan are wrong in the precise same way. But it probably doesn’t.

Now, all that being said, this doesn’t mean the Shinwari are reneging on their deal with the U.S. From what the Times is reporting, it was an internal dispute over land (what, you mean tribes aren’t unitary coherent political identities?), which may or may not say anything about their grander orientation toward the Taliban. But what we should be taking away from this incident is that tribes are not unitary, and that relying on “unified” tribes to do our work for us will, ultimately, come to a squishy end.

It also lends insight into that great tribal hope the SWJ pushes so hard, Jim Gant. Gant’s solution to a land dispute between two tribes in his area was to pick one tribe and kill the other. According to the Times, one Shinwari group called in the police to remove the tents of another Shinwari group on disputed land. When the police did so, it turned violent. There’s also this bit:

“We heard that Gov. Gul Agha Shirzai and the local police chief gave arms to the Mohmand,” said Babarzai, a well-known Alisher poet in the area, who, like many Afghans, uses only one name. “We spent all of yesterday burying our dead. Now there are many widows in our tribe.”

Second off, ugh to that bolded bit. I’m at least glad the dispute didn’t open any rare windows, at least. But this is the same thing that undid the Mangal-Sabari dispute in Khost: random accusations against the mediator (in that case, a UN nominated guy from Jalalabad) essentially poison the well.

To repeat a tired old canard in this space: none of this is unexpected. The Shinwari are behaving exactly like the Shinwari normally behave. To see that we didn’t plan for it, even at all, demonstrates—again—a pretty shocking and depressing ignorance of how these communities operate. If we’re going to hire tribes because The McChrystal said we should, then at least the people doing it could put in a little, tiny bit of homework so they don’t get blindsided first, right? Sigh.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Baildog March 12, 2010 at 12:54 pm

Agree that, to use some glib shorthand, “tribes” aren’t part of the solution, they’re part of the problem…mainly in the fact that, as you note, they are far from monoliths, and rarely the most important social grouping in a given context.

But the other undercurrent in this story bears some emphasis, too. Land (and water) disputes are a leading cause of conflict in Afghanistan. The lack of formalized records, surveyed boundary lines, and coherent and consistent regulations and courts that can adjudicate them are fundamental governance issues that need to be addressed. It may seem a small thing in the middle of a war, but land is a basic form of wealth, and secure, enforcable property rights would go a long way towards turning the country from a place where might (or family connections, or paying off the right person) makes right to one with the foundations of legitimate government.

Finally, from the Department of Strange Coincidences, ABC News used that exact same phrase — “who, like many Afghans, uses only one name” — in this on battered women today.

AJK March 12, 2010 at 1:13 pm
Afghanvoice March 12, 2010 at 7:23 pm

Tribes don’t have leaders. The traditional leadership of tribes are either killed by the communists, or the mujahedeen for siding up with the enemy. Or they simply lost clout after the mass migration to Pakistan. The younger Afghan generation raised in Pakistan and elsewhere do not recognize the authority of tribal leaders.

There is no way a tribe can represent its young men and women. And there is no way a few corrupt sodomite gamblers and former warlords can become leaders of the Shinwari or any other tribe.

US policy makers are so desperate they grap to anything they can lay their hands on in order to come up with a solution

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