Tribe's deal with Afghan government offers chance of peace in southwest district

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2011; 12:55 AM

Nestled amid Afghanistan's southwestern foothills, the lush pomegranate orchards and dense poppy groves of Sangin have seen more combat fatalities than any other district in the country.

Relentless insurgent ambushes and roadside bombings in the district claimed the lives of more than 100 British troops from 2006 to 2010. The U.S. Marines have lost 29 men there since they took charge last summer, and the limbs of dozens more have been blown off. Top commanders had all but given up hope that the district could be salvaged.

But now, a chance at peace has emerged: On New Year's Day, leaders of a tribe that has been responsible for numerous attacks in Sangin struck a deal with the Afghan government to cease offensive acts and evict foreign fighters in the area in exchange for the release of a prisoner, the promise of development assistance and the prospect of establishing their own security force.

If the agreement with the Alikozai tribe holds - similar pacts have fallen apart elsewhere in the country - it has the potential to pacify a swath of seemingly unwinnable terrain and affect the war across southern Afghanistan. It opens up a key road in the direction of the Kajaki Dam, where the U.S. government is trying to repair a hydropower plant to provide much-needed electricity to Kandahar, the country's second-largest city.

Taliban leaders have long used Sangin as a staging area to assemble bombs and plot attacks carried out elsewhere in the south. If their ability to do so is restricted, U.S. military officials believe they will have to relocate to more remote places where it will be more challenging to operate.

The officials expressed hope that other tribes in the area, and other pockets of Alikozai in the south, could seek similar deals.

The arrangement has "a huge potential to deliver change," U.S. Army Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the top operational commander in Afghanistan, said in an interview Tuesday.

Even if the Alikozai keep their promise, it will not automatically end the insurgency in Sangin, but it probably will shrink and simplify the complex mosaic of violence there, which has been colored by tribal rivalries.

When Taliban leaders came to Sangin, they forged an alliance with the Alizai tribe. The Alikozai elders chafed at the presence of Taliban fighters from Pakistan and other parts of Afghanistan, but they initially were loath to collaborate with coalition forces or the Afghan government because they were involved in the lucrative business of processing and trafficking opium.

In 2007, the Alikozai rose up against the Alizai and sought to evict non-indigenous Taliban fighters, but Alikozai requests for help from the British military were refused because of concern about getting involved in what appeared to be a tribal dispute. The Alizai eventually killed several Alikozai tribal leaders, and many Alikozai tribesmen had little choice but to surrender and join the Taliban.

The dynamics changed when the Marines replaced British forces in summer 2010. They increased the tempo of offensive operations and struck back harder at the all of the insurgents, including the Alikozai. In mid-October, a Marine reconnaissance battalion swooped into the Alikozai area and conducted a blistering barrage of attacks that commanders estimate killed more than 250 insurgents.

"That convinced the elders," said one senior Marine officer involved in the operation. "They began to see the handwriting on the wall."

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