Tribal Afghans Skeptical of War

GARAM CHASHMA, Pakistan – If ever an Afghan was likely to
help America’s war against the Taliban, it’s Abdul Qahar.

Taliban authorities kidnapped and ransomed his cousin. They
chased Qahar from Kabul. And fighting for warlords runs deep in
his culture.

Yet Qahar and fellow Afghans holed up here in the Hindu Kush
mountains that cover much of Afghanistan are ambivalent,
reluctant, skeptical about the future.

The fall of one Taliban-held city, Mazar-e-Sharif, can be
seen as significant for the military campaign against
Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban, and as a crucial step in efforts to
bring aid for some of the nation’s poor.

But it does little to resolve the concerns of some Afghans.
Veteran U.S. diplomats such as Richard Holbrooke, former U.S.
ambassador to the United Nations, say defeating terrorism depends
on creative nation-building rather than simply bombing.

“Things like who controls Mazar-e-Sharif and even Kabul are
important, but they do not directly affect the chances for more
terrorist attacks,” Holbrooke said in a recent interview.

Poverty, political and ethnic fragmentation, and mistrust of
outsiders are among challenges faced by the U.S. in coping with
war-weary Afghanistan. Governing, interviews with Qahar and others
indicate, may be challenging for whoever ends up in charge.

“This is actually an attack against Afghanistan,” Abdul said
recently, as American warplanes bombed Taliban positions around
Mazar-e-Sharif, Kabul and other areas.

“Our airports, the roads, all the development work is being
destroyed. Afghanistan is already a very poor country,” he said,
as others nodded around him in a teahouse while wet snow and dry
gold leaves fell. “Now it’s going to be even harder for us. What
is happening now in Afghanistan, it tells me our children will be
nothing in the future.”

This sense among fighting-age men from rebel Northern
Alliance territory that they have little to gain from taking on
the Taliban – despite the Afghan government’s support for
suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden – is one of many challenges
facing the U.S. campaign.

Poverty across the Hindu Kush is so extreme that the
predominantly rural people, tapped for decades to supply fighters,
don’t dwell much on politics or war.

They try to just survive.

Herders cross 15,000-foot passes in plastic shoes without
socks to try to earn money for tea and rice. Farmers migrate from
pro-Taliban turf to toil as sharecroppers on Pakistani farms.
Afghan infrastructure – roads or railroad or air links or
telephones – barely existed outside major cities even before the
past month of bombing.

Knots of mountain peaks 20,000 feet and higher ensure

In the Birir valley south of here, Kalash tribal people just
over the mountains from Afghanistan weren’t even aware of the war.

“We can’t understand the radio,” said RabiJaan, a mother of

And even the unifying influence of Islam hasn’t broken the
fierce, self-reliant parochialism that divides Afghanistan, a
nation in name yet with no agreed-on flag.

Aid workers point out that Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara factions
all have vied for years to control the strategic city of

U.S. leaders appear to be eyeing Afghanistan’s future even
as they make plans to continue bombing through winter and Ramadan.
President Bush, addressing the United Nations on Saturday,
sympathized with the Afghan people and pledged to help rebuild
Afghanistan once the Taliban are ousted.

“The Afghan people do not deserve their present rulers,” Bush
said. “The Taliban’s days of harboring terrorists, and dealing in
heroin, and brutalizing women are drawing to a close.”

Holbrooke, a player in peace talks from Vietnam to the
Balkans, said in a recent interview: “The events of Sept. 11 were
not micro-managed by someone with a cellphone from a cave in
Afghanistan. It is important to remember that there were no
Afghans involved in the events of Sept. 11.”

“Now we just want peace’

The U.S. goal in Afghanistan must be “simply to stabilize it,
give it a chance to be back on its feet and slowly pull itself
together,” he said.

As Holbrooke and others who have visited the Hindu Kush know,
this is a beautiful place, a storybook land of snow leopards,
towering crooked peaks, and spiral-horned Markhuur goats.

“Now we just want peace, as soon as possible,” said Mohamad
Ibrahim, driving goats and sheep from the Badakshan region of
northern Afghanistan through a sheer granite canyon cut by the
whooshing, muddy Lotkoh River.

“We want the kind of government that can keep peace, not
cause all this trouble. We are hoping the Americans can help us in
making Northern Alliance territory independent and give it to us.”

Traders Ali Ahmad and Islam ud-Din left their families in
Krone, Afghanistan, hauling 1,400 kilos of blue lapis lazuli rocks
they hacked out of cliffs. They rested their donkeys for a few
days while negotiating with Pakistani border police, then entered
Garam Chashma and sold the lapis to shopkeepers.

“It would be better for us if there was no bombing,” Ahmad
said, though they’d had no trouble crossing. “We pray to God, if
possible, stop the war.”

Many worked this high country when the passes served as
supply routes for U.S.-backed mujahedeen fighters during Soviet
occupation of Afghanistan. The passes remain supply routes today
for both Taliban and rebel forces. Loads of blankets and emergency
food also move through on donkeys.

Afghans here identify themselves in relation to warlords –
you might be from Massood’s territory or one of Rabbani’s men. And
they hang together in tribal groups whose loyalty or enmity can
span political boundaries. Those north of Lowarai Pass are mostly
Tajiks, speaking Farsi. Uzbeks inhabit Mazar-e-Sharif.

On pro-Taliban turf south of Lowarai Pass live Pashtun people
who make up an estimated 40 percent of Afghanistan’s 25 million

Over the years, alliances have shifted, warlords have changed
sides. Rashid Dostum, the ethnic Uzbek whose fighters helped take
Mazar-e-Sharif, often has switched loyalties and has clashed with
many Northern Alliance commanders.

And the tribes themselves aren’t always unified. Pashtun men
from Pakistan and Afghanistan dominate the Taliban regime. Yet
Pashtun leaders such as the Wali Khan family bristle at Taliban
fundamentalist rule. “We are losing our identity in our religion,”
Sangeen Wali Khan lamented recently on the family estate down at
Charsadda, Pakistan.

East of Charsadda last week, the family of Mir Rahim settled
into a peanut field for share-cropping work after crossing through
heavily-bombed terrain near Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

Civilians are suffering

Poverty, not war, drove them out, said Rahim, who set up a
grass-and-canvas hovel for his daughter and wife.

“The Taliban has not been affected at all,” he said. “It is
the civilians who are suffering.”

Afghan men in the borderlands described a system in which
every family must supply one soldier to fight for the local
warlord in return for protection and money.

“My brother has gone while I stay here,” Abdul Nasir
explained in Garam Chashma. A former mujahideen, he wore a U.S.
Army-style camouflage jacket against the cold.

Now if Northern Alliance warlords request it, and his brother
returns “to stay with my family, I will go,” Nasir said. “Afghans
were made for fighting. We will never get tired.”

But he said he doubted that Americans really would roust
Taliban and al-Qaeda forces from caves, as Bush has promised.

“When we were fighting the Russians, that’s exactly what the
Russians told us: “We will get you out of your caves.’ But they
never bothered us.”

Nasir and others here say they mainly oppose the Taliban
because of the death of alliance warlord Ahmed Shah Massood. Two
days before Sept. 11, men posing as journalists killed him.

Rather than a drawn-out military campaign, they suggest a
swifter solution through a loya jirga, a tribal council.

“I want a government that can bring peace. I don’t care which
side rules,” Abdul Qahar said as Afghan boys peered through a
doorway of the teahouse.

“For us, the Americans and the Russians are the same. The
only way Afghanistan can be governed is by representatives from
each tribe, the loya jirga system. But we don’t know if America
will like that. We don’t know if America really wants to help us
or not.”

Some people in this isolated realm, such as the black-robed
Kalash people in canyons southwest of Chitral, remain only dimly
aware of the war. The women weave belts. Centuries of Islam have
failed to convert them from an ancient polytheism that includes
animal sacrifices.

In the hillside village of Guru, Kalash-speaking men in a
wooden house squatted around a fire recently trying to keep warm.
Families stockpile barley and wheat for the winter in their
one-room abodes.

“We heard America is killing women and children,” said Jamil,
a villager who left to work in Pakistani cities and now has
returned. “We are not happy about this. Some people say it’s
Osama’s fault. Some people say it’s America’s fault. We’re not
sure what to believe.”

In the area led by Burhannuddin Rabbani, a Northern Alliance
chief, Jan Mohamad was herding nine mules on a 16-day journey from
Haran toward Chitral, where he hoped to buy tea and shoes for his

“We don’t know who these Americans are,” he said. “We don’t
know much about the Taliban either.”