Richard Melson

October 2006

Tribalism Afghanistan Pakistan

Iran Sending Jihadists Into Afghanistan?

The Guardian reports that Western intelligence agencies have discovered a new source of jihadists in Afghanistan, and it comes as a bit of a surprise. The Sunni-based Taliban have apparently received a boost in personnel from the Shi'ites in Iran:

Knock-kneed with fear, the young prisoner perched on the edge of his chair in the windowless Afghan intelligence office. Eyes bloodshot and hands trembling, he blurted out his story.

Abdullah had reached the end of a pitifully short career as a Taliban fighter. He had been arrested hours earlier, just 10 days after signing up to the insurgency. But the 25-year-old with a soft face and a neat beard had something unusual that aroused the intelligence agents' curiosity.

"I come from Iran," he said in a quavering voice, wringing his hands nervously. "They told me the Americans had invaded Afghanistan and I should go and fight jihad. But I was cheated. Now I am very sorry that I ever left." ...

Military and diplomatic sources said they had received numerous reports of Iranians meeting tribal elders in Taliban-influenced areas, bringing offers of military or more often financial support for the fight against foreign forces. The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the meetings took place in Helmand province, where more than 3,000 British troops are based, and neighbouring Nimroz, a lawless desert province bordering eastern Iran.

Although the reports are hard to confirm due to security fears, officials say the direction of flow is unmistakable. "There's definitely an Iranian hand," insisted one western official, who said the phenomenon was being quietly monitored by western intelligence and militaries. A top-ranking Afghan military official said he had received similar information. "The Iranians were offering money and weapons. This is a very sensitive issue," he said.

This seems very strange indeed. Afghanistan, as the Guardian points out, is one of Iran's critical trading partners. They cooperate on drug interdiction and they have normal diplomatic relations. Even more to the point, the Taliban are radical Sunnis, the exact kind of Islamists the Iranians have opposed for a long time. Why would they suddenly want to bolster the Taliban and give the Sunnis back power on the Iranian doorstep?

It gets back to the tribal issues that Eric Margolis noted yesterday. Western intelligence believes that the jihadis come from the minority Baluchis in Iran, which have actively operated against the Iranian mullahcracy. They want to encourage the drug trade, and they want to encourage Sunni jihad. The Baluchis comprise a small area in Afghanistan, but they comprise almost all of western Pakistan, and it appears that their tribal area would reach significantly into Iran.

The captured terrorist believed himself to be an agent of the Iranian government. He attended a training camp in Iran, he told interrogators, and the main point seemed to be training Shi'ites to fight for a Shi'ite theocracy in Iraq. Most of his classmates went to Baghdad. Abdullah, though, went to Afghanistan, and he claims that the camp was run by Abdullah Shafi -- a former leader of Ansar al-Islam, the al-Qaeda group that should therefore be fighting for Sunni/Wahhabi domination.

If this information is on the level, it looks like the Islamists have either become very confused or less inclined to reject each other than in the past. It still doesn't look like an alliance, but perhaps Iran is willing to use whatever tools are at hand to disrupt the American effort to remake the region through democracy. After all, the only constant between the two are that Iraq and Afghanistan have democratically-elected governments, and Iran fears the effect that more secular democracies will have on the region.

A Graphical Depiction Of The Challenge In Afghanistan

With Pervez Musharraf appearing to retreat in the war on terror and Hamid Karzai demanding results, the situation in Afghanistan and the Waziristan region appears to be inexplicably troublesome of late. Musharraf and Karzai have more trouble than just borders in this situation, though, and what we are now seeing may be a nationalist movement that has escaped Western attention until now.

The Toronto Sun's Eric Margolis explains the problem, and Swaraaj Chauhan at The Moderate Voice produces an interesting map to underscore his point.

In order to understand the difficulties, Margolis argues, one has to understand the tribalism in play:

Tribal politics lie at the heart of their dispute. The 30 million Pashtuns (or Pathans), the world’s largest tribal society, are divided between Afghanistan and Pakistan by an artificial border, the Durand Line, drawn by divide-and-conquer British imperialists.

Pashtuns account for 50-60% of Afghanistan’s 30 million people. The Taliban is an organic part of the Pashtun people. The Western powers and Karzai are not just fighting "Taliban terrorists," but a coalition of Pashtun tribes and other allied nationalist movements. In effect, most of the Pashtun people. ...

The other half of the divided Pashtuns live just across the Durand Line in Pakistan, comprising 15-20% of its population. Pashtuns occupy many senior posts in Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. Pashtuns, including anti-Western resistance fighters, never accepted and simply ignore the artificial border bifurcating their tribal homeland.

Washington keeps demanding Musharraf crack down on Pakistan’s pro-Taliban Pashtuns. But Washington fails to understand that too much pressure on these fierce warriors could quickly ignite a major historic threat to Pakistan’s national integrity: A Pashtun independence movement seeking to join the Pashtun of Afghanistan and Pakistan in a new state — Pashtunistan.

Take a look at Swaraaj's map, shown above.

What we're looking at is something similar to the Kurds to the West. The Pashtuns spread out over a wide geographical area, and would be the dominant ethnic group in the region if not for the political borders drawn during the British administration of an earlier age. The Taliban sprang out of the ultra-Islamist Pashtun tribal structure, and that tribal society has a great deal of influence in Pakistani politics as well. Their stronghold is in the mountainous border region, including Waziristan.

So how does that impact the war on terror and on radical Islamists? This map shows that the entire effort in Afghanistan is taking place on enemy territory regardless of which side of the border one sits. Kabul sits in Pashtun turf, making it more difficult to ensure its security.

This shows the difficulty facing both leaders. Taking on the Pashtuns means fighting a significant component of both nations, and up to 30 million members of a closed-off tribal society. Their loyalties are to themselves rather than any sense of nationhood as the borders are drawn, and their recent actions may hint at a broader nationalistic impulse. Given their footprint in the area, that will play out mostly in Afghanistan, but it could threaten Musharraf's power in Pakistan as well.

No wonder Musharraf cut a deal in Waziristan. He wants to mollify the Pashtuns in order to keep them from rising up and demanding an expression of nationalism within Pakistan. He doesn't want to lose Waziristan as well as Kashmir.

And this is why Karzai is so unhappy; without Pakistani pressure on the Pashtuns in Waziristan, they will have secured their flank enough to put all of their energy to undermine Karzai.

The problem with the Islamists might just be the symptom here of a greater tribal/nationalist problem.

Tribalism Asia

October 2005