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Afghanistan Needs a Tribal Business Czar to Work with the U.S.

(Part II of “A Balanced Solution for Afghanistan)


By: Khalil Nouri and Terry Green  



This article is a follow up to our preceding editorial “A Balanced Solution for Afghanistan”, published in the Laguna Journal on October 21, 2009; which outlined the foreseeable consequence of corruption in Afghanistan and its destructive effect on tribal autonomy; and it offered a viable solution for the preservation of Afghan tribal customs that lead to equilibrium and stability needed to build a nation - as during the reign of Afghanistan’s Ex-King Mohammad Zahir Shah until 1973.Since the late King’s exile, turmoil in Afghanistan has risen considerably due to the dilemma caused by the lack of a suitable Head of State to unify the deeply fractured Afghan tribal society.  The King appealed to the mantle of a unique Afghan code of nationalism that was convened for centuries to bring order.  


Although other factors have also played a role in undermining Afghanistan’s stability—such as the meddling influence of neighboring states in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, sanctuary arrangements to Al-Qaeda by the Taliban, a growing insurgency, corruption and drug trafficking—there is lacking a genuine native evolved leadership to induce fit, form, and function, in a traditional Afghani capacity.  It is the vital ingredient missing for peace, prosperity and unity in Afghanistan.  Moreover, the lack of this native evolved leadership born of Afghan code of nationalism, and reflected in an eccentric stalemate, is seen by any Afghan worth his salt as the grass root cause for instability.  It has crippled tribal allegiances and fractured stabilizing coalitions and brought ethnic tensions and decades of war to the nation. 


Throughout Afghanistan’s history, tribes have played an important role in installing and deposing different Afghan rulers. The tribes have also played an equally important role in establishing order in the country; especially in those areas where the reach of a central government in terms of security, services and rule of law was low or non-existent. 


If we were to regress in time to the era of stability and rule by the Ex-King, and unknot the deeply intertwined thorns of volatility, we would see a genuine consensus among the tribes for an identification of the rule of law, accountability and full tribal cooperation.  An expression of tribal allegiance to a code of honor, trust, and rule of law in Afghanistan’s remote parts (or within the tribal boundary) was how the local elders were obliged to hand over perpetrators who broke the law to the central government.  This was despite the fact that the central government machinery was weak; but civic compliance was the accepted rule when there was balance between the tribes and trust in the central government.      


For centuries Afghans have learned from their blunders.  They bound themselves into a single political entity led by Ahamad Shah Durani, who in 1747 founded the monarchy that ruled the country until 1973.  Then in 1883 the reign branched its path into its sub tribe of the Barakzai dynasty and ultimately into the Mohammadzai clan of Durani confederacy. 


Clearly since the derailment of tranquility in 1973, Afghanistan could neither be ruled under communism, nor under the Jihadists, nor under the Taliban, nor under a Karzai government; and there will not be tranquil rule by any future government unless a far-reaching special consideration is undertaken with the tribes.


Amongst the many tribes in Afghanistan, the Pashtuns represent the largest of all, and its structure and values have generally resisted modern institutional governments.

The country often exemplifies the typical “storm paths”, based on ethnicity, Islamic set, and so on, but in fact the active, viable political coalitions in the country are grounds for fellowship, friendship and trust that rests on Pashtun codes of value known as “Pashtunwali”, which denotes the set of norms recognized by Pashtuns, and governs their behavior; even those in government positions.


In general, tribesmen are intensely focused on their code, specifically their adherence to the value of “honor” and status vis-à-vis others – to the extent that it has been described as the “tribal center of gravity.” The Pashtunwali norms override religious norms, making appeal to Islamic identity less resonant to Pashtuns.  Pashtunwali also overrides modern legal norms, making a western-style justice system ineffective.  Thus, if the center of gravity shifts in violation of the code towards either another tribe or an individual, the outcome will depend on the ruling of a Loya Jirgah (grand assembly of elders).  In hindsight, Karzai’s recent alleged vote rigging of the election is a violation of trust, which will fall under the code of “honor.” Therefore, in response to a dishonor, tribal support for the government will diminish significantly, and an increase in insurgency will occur specifically in the Pashtun concentrated areas as a call for justice under Pashtunwali code. 


As mentioned above, the code of Pashtunwali calls for “trust” on a tribal level, and its violation carries a critical burden in Afghanistan; especially when the violation applies to a head of state like Karzai, and is verified within a timely manner by a real and impartial authority (such as a United Nations -Elections Commissioner) deliberating specifically to guarantee fairness. 


On the contrary, the Mohammadzai clan and its confederacy secured “trust”, on a tribal level, over two centuries ago among almost all tribal communities.  Thus, continuous generational rule by that clan’s elders was a privilege presented to them by the other tribal factions.  Obviously, the Afghan system then was a balanced authoritarian rule that was sustained by the tribes, in contrast to today’s perceived democratically elected system.  But, tribes then were not impoverished, imbalanced, undermined and fragmented like today.


Today’s five-year election cycle adopted in the Afghan constitution for a democratically elected president even allows for a candidate who may come from a tribe that never led Afghanistan before, or from a tribe considered unpopular in the tribal hierarchy system.  In the West this may be seen as progressive, but in Afghanistan this will be seen as a hard sell for that candidate (and his tribe) to attain trust from the other tribes.  He will be seen negatively as someone who could conceivably undermine the central government because without strong tribal stature and support, his candidacy will only end in achieving futile results.  It takes generations to achieve Pashtunwali leadership levels of trust.


The Bonn Agreement in 2001 called for a loya jirgah and made use of Afghanistan’s 1964 constitution as the basis for the new constitution; and there is no doubt that it embodied the best chance for putting an end to chronic instability, violence and a history of massive human rights abuses.

Yet, no consideration was given for acquiring an anthropological expert analysis of societal consequences for the sheer shift away from pre 1973 Afghanistan – and respect for tribal culture and norms pertaining to the code of Pashtunwali – towards a dramatic shift attempting to instantaneously transformed the country into a democratic model in a post 9/11/2001 world.  Of the 1500 delegates to the Bonn Agreement, over 1300 delegates wanted the former King to return as Head of State; but Western interests demanded an alternative outcome.

Overnight Western powers plucked Afghanistan’s government away from its tribal and cultural roots and transplanted it into the rocky soil of modern democracy.  The end result has only been chaos chasing chaos because only the head (the central government) was changed; the body (the populace) was non participants in the change; the majority still adheres to ancient codes of Pashtunwali.  In fact, Afghan society moves too slow and is highly resistant to a swift social, cultural and political change of pace. 


In 1927 the immensely popular King Amanullah was overthrown by a backlash and reactionary uprising for attempting to modernize Afghanistan in terms of simple women’s rights (like dress codes) and the introduction of non-Islamic religious (Baha’i) books for higher education studies.


In retrospect, Afghan history mentions the consequences for such fast pace social changes.  Therefore, in the current country’s dilemma, a clear recipe for a formidable understanding of that importance is in sight, and our analysis calls for consideration and awareness by policy makers regarding the Afghan tribal complexity and politics, which until now appears almost impossible for Westerners to fully appreciate and understand. 


Overall, The United States has a vital interest in the establishment of a viable government in Afghanistan, because it cannot allow the country to again become a haven for anti-Western movements like Al Qaeda and Taliban extremist.


But based on our understanding of Afghan history, culture, and the underlying preexisting anthropological nature of the importance of tribal autonomy in coexistence with Afghan governments in the past, we believe that the present people of Afghanistan cannot conceive, assimilate and constitute this far too unfamiliar doctrine of sudden transformation into Western style democracy overnight.  We in the U.S. had our own missteps along the way before we arrived to where we are today.

Moreover, if democracy cannot now be endorsed and supported by all Afghan native-based elements across the country, inevitably it will face greater staggering challenges after all foreign powers are forced to withdraw.        


Hence, the best approach to avoid the difficulty posed by such dreadful outcomes is a genuine hammering out of reconciliatory approaches with the tribes. Obviously, the NATO or military option is not the answer for this delicate outcome.  It requires a deep understanding of the tribal codes and their intricate meanings; and hence, meddling in the affairs of the tribes and clans that have historically opposed outsiders is a very delicate and difficult policy.

This fine-line strategy can only be an Afghan-led effort on how to engage the tribes and what the incentives are to be; and how to use the traditional tribal authorities to help with community security and assistance. 


Can an Afghan-led effort be possible?

Few expect the post election outcome to change the chaotic structure of the Afghan government. The ramshackle delivery of services, lack of public safety and human security, the pervasive corruption of officials and security personnel, and the resurgence of Taliban militancy are the realities of a dysfunctional state, which will persist and cannot be fixed overnight.

Moreover, the Hamid Karzai government has lost its credibility amongst the public by allegedly rigging votes, promoting warlords, and tolerating ties with drug traffickers.

In addition, his family has outmaneuvered their political rivals through extensive alliances and has established themselves as the undisputed leaders of Kandahr, which has destabilized the tribal balance and ultimately resulted in rejuvenation of insurgency.

All the stated audacious corruptness corresponds to an Afghani saying: “same donkey but different saddle.” Therefore, the Afghan government is not capable of delivering the desperately needed essential tribal strategy.     


Then who can?

As we indicated in our mentioned article “A Balanced Solution for Afghanistan.”…


“Knowing the intricacy of Afghan tribal politics and its importance, hence Afghanistan needs someone in a capacity to steer the tribes analogous to former King Zahir Shah, but in terms of a sincere and dynamic tribal lead, who depicts himself as business czar.  He should not only be familiar with the current vital requirement on the ground, but also have deep tribal perception, affiliation and flamboyancy to restore the regional tribal balances and convey prosperity.”


That individual is Prince Ali Seraj; he is a direct descendant of nine generations of Kings of Afghanistan.  He belongs to the same clan as his cousin the Ex-King Mohammad Zahir Shah.  His bloodline runs through various Afghan tribes, which not only makes him an exceptionally recognized and accepted character, but also in high demand in these days of disunity in Afghanistan.

Prince Ali received his education in Afghanistan and in the United States at the University of Connecticut.  He earned degrees in Economics and Business/Public management.  In addition, he is also the founder of “National Coalition for Dialogue with Tribes of Afghanistan” (NCDTA); which he and the tribal elders established as a non-political movement that aims to rekindle the cohesiveness that existed between the tribes prior to the Soviet invasion. 


Prince Ali Seraj strongly believes that the problems of Afghanistan are fourfold:

Tribal, Economical, Social and Political, in that exact order. Without Tribal unification there will be no economic development or social cohesiveness. Political solutions will only occur after the first three are satisfied.


Due to his expertise on Tribal Affairs and his close working relationship with NATO, the US State Department has recently recommended that Prince Ali instruct the Counterinsurgency Leaders’ Course on Afghan culture and norms, at the Afghanistan Counterinsurgency Academy.  The lecture includes instructions on how both Afghan and Coalition security forces can better engage the Tribes.  His lectures are very well attended and received by the audience.


Finally, laying the current status on the ground in context, and the essential need for such a leader to delicately stride over the fine-line between the Tribes and the West, -- exactly as his great-grandfather Emir Abdul Rahman (known as the Iron Emir) did between Great Britain and the Afghan populace in 1883 – we therefore should be one step closer to solving this deepest dilemma in Afghanistan.


His business function should be measured the same as we indicated in the preceding article; a vital tool (Biz Jirgah, for reassuring the tribes in terms of trust and prosperity as his forefathers symbolized in the period of peace, long before the decades old conflict started in Afghanistan.

Furthermore, unlike many in Afghanistan, his hands are unstained with blood, and his past and present status does not reflect betrayal or deceit.


Besides his Royal background, he has already proven to be a remarkable networker among the Pashtuns as well as the Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras; and there is no end in sight to his leadership potential.  If the international community wants a settlement in Afghanistan, Prince Ali Seraj is the key; the Obama Administration can turn this key for real Change.  




Khalil Nouri and Terry Green are the cofounders of New World Strategies Coalition Inc. a “center for integrative- studies” and a “center for integrative- action”, a native think tank for nonmilitary solution studies for Afghanistan.


michael Webster

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