Tradition reigns in Afghanistan


Government: Tribal and clan ties remain a force in politics and at home.

May 19, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan - We climbed the stairs to a second-story restaurant overlooking Chicken Street, Kabul's central tourist bazaar. While diplomats and machine gun-toting peacekeepers shopped for carpets below, we scooped up qabuli - a dish of rice with raisins, shredded carrots and lamb - with our fingers, Afghan style, and sipped green tea.

Habib and I knew each other pretty well. But for the first time, talk turned to the sometimes dangerous topic of politics.

"Americans always tell the truth about their political views, but not always about their personal lives," I said.

"With Afghans, it is the opposite," said Habib, with his quiet, private sort of laugh.

We met last autumn, when Habib was working as an interpreter for another reporter in Jabal Saraj - a few miles from the Taliban front lines. He was calm, competent and honest, and when I ran into him by chance in Kabul, I hired him as an interpreter on the spot.

Like almost everyone in Afghanistan, Habib is poor. Before Sept. 11 created a demand for English-speaking Afghans, he worked as a $40-a-month schoolteacher in his native Panjshir Valley. He had a wife and three young daughters to feed and clothe. During the past couple of years, he sometimes wasn't paid for months.

The topic of politics came up because King Mohammed Zahir Shah had just returned to Afghanistan. Many Afghans attached tremendous significance to the event. Although he is a Pashtun - the ethnic group most closely identified with the Taliban - people of all backgrounds welcomed him. He's celebrated for presiding over the most peaceful epoch in recent Afghan history. At next month's national loya jirga, or council of elders, some delegates will try to restore the king to his throne.

But during his 29 years of exile in Italy, he showed little interest in his nation, refusing to take sides in the country's tumultuous politics.

Zahir Shah was, Habib said, not really a political leader. He was the embodiment of a long-lost political system that revolved around him but did not depend on him - the nation's ancient system of rule by clan elders and tribal chieftains.

Clan allegiances are strong here. Ask an Afghan to recommend someone for a job or to point out a good store, and odds are good that he will steer you to a relative. When a young man talks about marrying a girl from a good family, he usually means his extended family: Marriage between cousins is common.

Habib doesn't just consider himself an Afghan, a Tajik and a Panjshiri.

Just as important, he is a member of the Khalil Khail tribe, the Rahis Khail subtribe and the Mullah Khail clan. Ties of blood and culture bind him at every level, especially the level of clan. It would be unthinkable for him to turn away a fellow clan member seeking help.

The tribal system

Afghanistan's central government in Kabul has always been a more or less fictional entity. In Zahir Shah's time, chiefs and elders ran things, the tribal system keeping the peace despite the occasional feud that broke out between neighboring groups in isolated mountain valleys. Clan leaders were the rivets that held Afghan society together.

But the system came under tremendous pressure during the late 20th century. Zahir Shah was overthrown by his cousin in a bloodless palace coup in 1973. A Communist revolution followed in 1978, and the Soviet Union invaded the next year.

The Soviets left in 1989, and the Soviet-backed government collapsed three years later. Soldiers with Kalashnikovs became the law. Tribal leaders were shoved aside or made junior officers in the commanders' private militias. The warlords reigned.

Today, the most desperate wish of many Afghans is an end to the law of the Kalashnikov. Some believe that a Western-style democracy is the answer. For others, the return of the former king raises the possibility of resurrecting the traditional system of clan and tribal chiefs.

Habib would only smile when asked about his view. As he said, Afghans have learned to be circumspect about saying what they think.

Ending the reign of the warlords will not be easy. Originally, some of those pushing for civilian rule hoped the United States would form alliances with traditional tribal leaders in the battle against the Taliban and al-Qaida. That did not happen. Instead, Washington struck deals with its old allies from the Soviet days - the warlords - paying them to fight the Taliban and the terrorists.

For Afghanistan, this strategy may have tragic long-term consequences. "These warlords have used the enormous resources provided by the United States to strengthen their own war machinery, so they can strengthen their power for the next fight in Afghan soil," one prominent Afghan lamented privately.

In an Afghan home

At the end of the meal, Habib asked: "Perhaps you would like to come to my house for a visit?" Of course, I agreed. A few days later Habib arrived in a Toyota and took me bouncing up the hill in a neighborhood called Karte Parwan. The blue sky blazed.

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