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Afghan Tribal Diversity Undermines Attempts at Unity


When several hundred anti-Taliban Afghan leaders met in Pakistan in late October to plan a new government, they issued a call for what is known in tribal circles as a loya jirga, or grand council, to weigh their options.

It was a traditional solution to a 21st-century problem and a symbol of how deep the tribal roots run in Afghanistan.

"We don't know how far they go back," said David Edwards, an anthropologist who has lived among the Afghan tribes. "A long, long way. We're talking centuries."

That history underscores how complex the search for a solution will be. The diverse Afghan people have to find some common ground. But as the bloody civil war of the last two decades proves, that won't be easy.

Among the tribal ethnic groups, allies one day can be enemies the next. That remains true not only in Afghanistan but in many parts of the world, where tribalism remains powerful in the 21st century.

In Afghanistan, the recurring divisions fueled over the years by political infighting and the ambitions of tribal warlords have doomed most attempts at national unity.

"There is no sense of nationhood," said Martha Brill Olcott, an expert on Central Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "You don't have a functioning state. In a functioning state, groups accept that they can lose a little bit on occasion because they will get rewarded for being part of the system down the road."

In Afghanistan, Olcott said, "Blood is much more important."

Tribal Diversity

Afghanistan has about 20 different ethnic groups, with four most dominant: Pashtuns, who comprise 38 percent of the population; Tajiks, 25 percent; Hazara, 19 percent; and Uzbeks, 6 percent. Each group includes tribes, and among the Pashtuns, Edwards said, there could be as many as 30.

But only since the 1979 Soviet invasion, when the country became awash in arms, have the relations between groups turned truly bloody.

Maya Chadda, an expert on South Asian politics at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the fighting developed because tribal warlords who left the front lines after the Soviets left in 1989 took possession of certain territories and ruled them as their personal fiefdoms.

"You have a total disintegration of the central state and a tremendous amount of small arms to fight a war," she said. "That laid the foundation for interethnic warfare."

Before the Soviets left, Chadda said, "you didn't see the kind of things that you see in the 1990s, the systematic massacre of people because they belong to a particular tribe. That kind of thing didn't happen."

Olivier Roy, a French expert on Afghanistan, recently wrote that the warlords were "truly the plague of Afghanistan."

Deep Kinship

But there have always been ethnic rivalries and animosities.

The Pashtuns have controlled Afghan life for generations and dominate the Taliban as well, although anti-Taliban Pashtuns were the majority at the Pakistan summit in October.

The Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaris make up the Northern Alliance, a loose confederation of rebels who oppose the Taliban and control the northern portion of the country. But there are many differences.

Afghanistan has two official languages: Pashto, spoken by the Pashtuns, and Dari, a form of Farsi spoken by the Tajiks. But it has other tongues. And many tribes speak their own dialects.

Tribes also organize themselves differently. The northern tribes build their communities around geography, focusing life around their village or valley, said Edwards, who teaches anthropology at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. But the Pashtuns, who occupy the region along the eastern border with Pakistan, organize around family, he said.

"You can talk to a man and say, 'Who is your father, your grandfather on your father's side, your great-grandfather?'" Edwards said. "You can go back six to seven generations or more. The person will not only be able to tell who those people were, who was whose brother—he'll tell you who are the descendants and point out people around him. 'That's my second cousin once removed.'They have a kinship map in their heads."

Unchanged Fashion

The ethnic groups also dress differently, reflecting tribal traditions unchanged over centuries. In the case of the Uzbeks, that conceivably could be as far back as the 13th century, when the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan swept through the region.

Uzbek men still wear doppilars, the black, four-sided skullcaps with white embroidery that they have worn for generations. Uzbek women still wear brightly colored knee-length gowns with trousers of the same cloth underneath.

The Tajiks, descended from the Aryans—the ancient Indo-Europeans—still favor heavy quilted coats tied with a sash, and the women wear bright dresses, head scarves, striped trousers, and slippers.

Their turbans, or lack of them, can identify some Pashtun tribes. The tribes near the Khyber Pass by the Pakistan border wear large, woven skullcaps that stand high on their heads with a turban wrapped around them, Edwards said.

"The color of their clothing, how long their shirt is, their sandals—all these things could tell you a pretty good idea of where they came from," he said.

An Organizing Force

Several scholars said Westerners might find it hard to grasp the notion of tribes as still a force in the 21st century. But Edwards said they exert a powerful pull throughout the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America.

Tribes continue to be a magnet because they provide a sense of security and political power to their followers, scholars said, whether it is in relation to other ethnic groups or to the state itself. They confer a history and sense of identity that, as in Afghanistan, is often older than the nation.

While working in a Pakistan refugee camp in the 1980s when Afghans were fleeing the Soviet invasion, Edwards was awed at how quickly they organized themselves into an orderly community amid the mayhem.

"Out in parts of the camp there would be members of the same tribes," he said. "They came together in times of crisis. They looked to their fellow tribesmen as a first line of defense and first line of support."

But the current war can make tribes seem as if they belong in a time warp. U.S. aircraft, for instance, have been parachuting ammunition to the Northern Alliance, but it takes a while for it to reach their weapons because the rebels travel by horse, donkey, and mule.

Raised on a diet of history told through the lens of Hollywood, Americans are likely to have a primitive image of tribes as Indians living in teepees made out of animal hides or Biblical nomads wandering through a timeless desert.

Andrew Shryock, an anthropologist who has studied the tribes of Jordan and Yemen, said it would be a mistake to view tribalism through such a constricted lens. He knew members of tribes in Jordan who belonged to parliament, worked in government ministries, and headed the country's medical school.

"Being a member of a tribe in no way distanced them from modernity and its practical aspects," said Shryock, who teaches at the University of Michigan.

Lingering Mistrust

In fact, Americans may have a "naive" view of tribalism even though they group themselves in same way, around ethnic, religious and racial divides, said political scientist Benjamin Barber, whose recent book, Jihad vs. McWorld, explored the clash of religious and tribal fundamentalism with economic globalism.

How that all plays out in Afghanistan is unclear. Years of civil war have cemented the mistrust between ethnic groups, which clouds hopes for a post-Taliban government that would attract wide support.

Before the Taliban swept into power in the mid-1990s, governments rose and fell with regularity. Coups were staged, some of them bloody, with a revolving cast of leaders. Loyalties would shift, then shift again. Ruling coalitions would form, then crumble.

That hasn't changed over time.

As long ago as the 1920s, Lowell Thomas, the commentator and world traveler, wrote after a trip to Afghanistan: "It is a land of plots and counter-plots, of blood feuds, assassination, and sudden death."


Taliban fighters

Power and Identity
in Tribal Roots


A group of Taliban fighters met in October to discuss the possibility of U.S. attacks on Afghanistan prior to the bombing campaign. One concern was how to prevent uprisings by the local tribes.

Photograph by Sayed Salahuddin, Reuters NewMedia Inc./CORBIS


Copyright 2001 The Kansas City Star



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