Missing context on the tribal ‘Awakening’ in Panjwai

This Los Angeles Times article on the tribal uprising in the Panjwai district of Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, much like a preceding piece in the New York Times, is accurate and detailed, and thus comprises good reporting. But both articles fail to mention the historical and tribal context that has crucial bearing on the effectiveness and sustainability of the grassroots “Awakening” against the Taliban. From the LA Times’One man’s defiance inspires a region to stand up to the Taliban”:

The uprising began in early February with a Taliban commander’s knock on the door of Hajji Abdul Wudood.

The militant leader demanded that Wudood, a stout, weathered man of 60, surrender one of his eight sons, who was accused of spying on the Taliban for the Afghan government.

What Wudood did next triggered a revolt against the Taliban that has spread to a dozen villages in a region that has been among the nation’s most formidable Taliban strongholds.

Fed up with beheadings and homemade bombs that killed 60 people in two villages the previous year, Wudood refused to hand over 25-year-old Abdul Hanan.

“I knew if I let them take my son, they would kill him,” Wudood recalled.

Inspired by the actions of the former mujahedin fighter, Wudood’s fellow villagers began ripping down Taliban flags and raising the black-red-and-green Afghan national colors. They have offered up their own sons and brothers to serve in a U.S.-trained local militia. And they have pointed out Taliban hide-outs and homemade bombs.

Many Afghans seethed under the Taliban’s brutal eight-year domination of Kandahar province’s Panjwayi district in southern Afghanistan. Their sudden defiance has helped embolden Afghan security forces who themselves have long been intimidated by the insurgents.

Thus far, the story is limited to a classic case of civilians being abused, beaten, or killed by insurgents, followed by making a decision to stand up to the Taliban and channel their disaffection into a local militia as well as cooperation with local, national, and foreign security forces. This is a textbook, desirable counterinsurgency (COIN) scenario, and in some ways is similar to the conditions that fueled the spectacularly successful tribal uprising that took place in Iraq’s Anbar province, a slice of which is described in detail in my book, Fallujah Awakens.

But after my recent March-April embed in Panjwai, during which I interviewed most of the key security and governmental personnel and studied the area’s history, it is apparent that two pieces of important context are missing from depictions of this burgeoning success story:

1. A core of the anti-Taliban movement breaks down along tribal lines, and some of the major players have a historical enmity spanning decades. I detailed this last month in an introduction to my interview with Lieutenant Colonel Sultan Mohammad, the Panjwai district chief of police widely viewed as the most effective security official in the district:

[There is a] history of bloody intertribal rivalry in the district … In 2006, Canadian forces enlisted the help of then Colonel [and current provincial police chief] Razziq and his border police to assist with anti-Taliban efforts. Razziq gathered his men, largely an Achekzai tribal militia, rolled up from Spin Boldak to Panjwai in force, and wound up killing both Taliban and civilians belonging to the rival Noorzai tribe, according to histories by both Dr. Antonio Giustozzi and the Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran. In fact, the Achekzai-Noorzai feud has much deeper roots, as Taliban-allied Noorzai tribesmen were responsible for killing Razziq’s uncle and driving many members of his Achekzai tribe from their homes and across the border into Pakistan during the rise of Taliban to power in the 1990s.

Thus, [Panjwai district police chief] Mohammad’s local tribal ties [as an Achekzai], as well as his relationship to Razziq, complicate his efforts in the district. As the district police chief attempts to establish the [Afghan Local Police] and [Afghan Uniform Police] as trusted forces in Panjwai and organize local disfavor with the Taliban into a security movement, members of the Noorzai tribe resist joining with the police due to the long-running feud. This infighting presents a steep challenge to spreading and solidifying the grassroots movement against the Taliban, especially after ISAF forces draw down.

The bloody Achekzai-Noorzai rivalry includes an incident in which Taliban-affiliated Noorzai allegedly burned the current provincial police chief’s father alive and hung one of his uncles from the barrel of a tank in the early 1990s. Thus, the current battle lines are not merely a Taliban vs. anti-Taliban affair, but also a new phase of the tribal war centered around the Noorzai-Achekzai feud. Again, both the Panjwai district police chief and the Kandahar provincial chief are Achekzais, and that explains why the tribal uprising, though quite real and robust, has failed to completely spread to the westernmost tip of the “horn of Panjwai.”

2. The second underplayed factor in coverage on the uprising is that, despite the real, quite impressive security gains the tribal revolt has enabled in Panjwai, the Taliban and their Noorzai allies are still well-supplied and manned because they are essentially fighting a proxy war on behalf of elements of the Pakistani military and intelligence service. There is a seemingly endless supply of men and material flowing across the border, and the Taliban will attempt to reverse Afghan government and Coalition gains in Panjwai. Thus, the sustainability of security progress will depend on the speed with which US forces withdraw still vital assistance, and if the Afghan government minimally steps in to support the tribal uprising and security forces with basic resources. US forces are retrograding quickly, though momentum could be sustained if US Special Forces are allowed to maintain a presence in the district. Unfortunately, the Afghan government shows little sign of holding up its end by stepping in to provide services or resources to civilians.

If both Afghan government irresponsibility and Pakistani support of insurgency continue, the tribal uprising (which is really a proxy tribal war in addition to a grassroots movement caused by anger at insurgent abuse) may stall in the district. Time will tell.

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1 Comment

  • mike merlo says:

    As significant as Tribal animosities(rightfully pointed out) are the Noorazi Tribe by default will find themselves at some point in time having to make ‘Common Cause’ with the Achekazi. The Taliban have become increasingly dependent upon Pakistani & other Foreigners to augment their Manpower needs. These non-Afghan elements are just as if not more ruthless with their Afghan surrogates than they are with the Forces that they oppose. Tribes in Afghanistan IMO will not allow themselves to succumb to the will of outsiders as the ‘locals’ have in FATA & Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and particularly in the Waziristans. Its more of anathema to surrender what little sovereignty a Tribe may have to an ‘outsider’ than it is to give way to one that resides within one’s own ‘societal sphere.’


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