World and Nation

Afghan tribal rivalries bedevil a U.S. plan to counter Taliban

JALALABAD, AFGHANISTAN — Six weeks ago, elders of the Shinwari tribe, which dominates a large area in southeastern Afghanistan, pledged that they would set aside internal differences to focus on fighting the Taliban.

This week, that commitment seemed to dissolve as two subtribes took up arms to fight each other over an ancient land dispute, leaving at least 13 people dead, according to local officials.

The fighting was a setback for U.S. military officials, who had hoped to replicate the pledge elsewhere. It raised questions about how effectively the U.S. military could use tribes as part of its counterinsurgency strategy, given the patchwork of rivalries that make up Afghanistan.

Government officials and elders from other tribes were trying to get the two sides to reconcile, but given the intensity of the fighting, some said they doubted that the effort would work. At the very least, the dispute is proving a distraction from the tribe’s commitment to fight the Taliban, not each other.

In return for the tribe’s pledge, the Americans had offered cash-for-work programs to employ large numbers of young people from the tribe as well as small-scale development projects, according to Maj. T.J. Taylor, a public affairs officer.

The one initial worry was that the Taliban might try to drive a wedge between different factions within the tribe, which includes about 400,000 people. The land dispute may have done that work for the insurgents.

Questions for Shinwari tribal elders this week about whether the pact against the Taliban still stood went unanswered as the elders turned the conversation to their intratribal struggle.

“We promised to work with the government to fight the Taliban,” said Hajji Gul Nazar, an elder from the Mohmand branch of the Shinwari tribe. He added, “Well, the government officials should have taken care of this argument among us before the shooting started.”

“We are the same tribe, and we are not happy killing each other,” he said. “The provincial police chief and the governor should have taken care of this issue.”

The dispute began about 10 days ago when the Alisher subtribe of the Shinwari laid a claim to land also claimed by another branch of the tribe called the Mohmand. The disputed area covers about 22,000 acres near the Pakistani border and about 20 miles from Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province.

Staking their claim, the Mohmand set up tents on the land, according to tribal elders. The government called on both sides to hold a peaceful discussion among tribal elders, known as a shura.

The Alisher repeatedly asked the Mohmand to remove their tents from the disputed land. After more than a week of discussion and no sign that the Mohmand were budging, the Alisher called the police.

The police arrived and began to remove the tents, infuriating the Mohmand, who became even more infuriated when the Alisher began to help the police knock down the tents.