U.S. military runs into Afghan tribal politics after deal with Pashtuns

By Joshua Partlow and Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 10, 2010

ACHIN, AFGHANISTAN -- 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.

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