An eastern Afghan tribe has signed a pact to keep the Taliban out of their lands, pledging to burn down the houses of those who shelter insurgents and force them to pay fines high as $20,000.
U.S. military officials Wednesday welcomed the decision by the Shinwari tribe with a pledge of $1 million for a tribal fund and $200,000 in jobs programs. But they acknowledged that the tribe was uniquely positioned to defy the Taliban with its sizable militia and a history of unity against outsiders.
The Shinwari, which dominate five districts of about 600,000 people in Nangarhar province, agreed in the document signed by 170 elders to stand unified against the Taliban. Tribal leaders said the agreement was borne as much out of frustration with the Afghan government as the desire to keep out militants.
The agreement affirms that the tribe "recognizes that the Afghan government supports their cause." But it adds that "defensive preparations have to be taken" in case of a fallout with the government.
"We can't go to the government for anything," said Malik Niyaz, the white-bearded head of one of the most powerful of the tribe's 12 subgroups. He said his people are used to defending themselves.
Going to tribal elders
Niyaz alone oversees a militia of about 400 men who successfully fought off a Taliban attack in July, killing at least four insurgents. Niyaz said it was an unprovoked attack on his people, though accounts differ. Some in the area said the fighting began as a feud between families rather than a stand against the Taliban.
U.S. military working in the area said that they had to learn to work around local officials and go straight to the tribal elders, who serve as a de facto government.
The Shinwari tribe spans the volatile Pakistan-Afghanistan border area that serves as a sanctuary for the Taliban. However, the Afghan Shinwari faction is not commonly seen as a major supporter of the extremist group, partly because of the strength of its traditional hierarchy.
"We determined that the tribal elders were the ones that really represented the people," said Lt. Col. Randall Simmons, commander of U.S. troops in eastern Nangarhar. He said other Shinwari leaders have forces similar in size to Niyaz's — informal groups of men who are ready to be called up to fight.
Despite the tribe's misgivings about the government, U.S. officials called the decision a step forward because the tribe has at least said it is willing to work with the Afghan leadership, for example in reintegrating tribe members who have joined the Taliban but are ready to abandon the insurgency.
At a conference Thursday in London, the Afghan government plans to unveil a similar plan of economic incentives and jobs for Taliban fighters willing to turn against the militants.
"What it shows is that the community wants to have a little more cohesiveness and to reject destabilizing elements, which means their orientation is basically toward the Afghan government," said Dante Paradiso, the senior U.S. civilian official working with the American military to secure the area.
The agreement followed six months of meetings between tribal leaders, starting in July when Niyaz and a few others renounced the Taliban. Each round of meetings brought in a few more leaders until the final document emerged on Jan. 21. American diplomats helped smooth over some feuds to bring tribal leaders together but otherwise were not involved, Paradiso said.
The more than $1 million in funds is an acknowledgment of a major step taken by the tribe, Simmons said, adding that the U.S. hopes it will empower the elders to continue to take the lead in establishing security.
"If we can empower them a little bit, then in the grand scheme of things it is a bargain," he said.
The tribe will have to agree on how to use the extra funds. Those who have participated in early discussions say likely options are health centers, schools and funding for additional border police to help defend the area.
But underneath the optimism, the Shinwari say they recognize they are in danger and perhaps more so now that they have taken such a public stand.
Malik Usman, another powerful tribal leader who helped push through the pact, said he's been fighting the Taliban since they killed his brother a year ago. As recently as last week, he found out he had been targeted by a suicide bomber.
He worries Americans will leave soon, saying the U.S. already made that mistake once, by pulling out and leaving the area to be run by criminals after U.S.-backed fighters helped oust the Soviets.
"If the Americans leave us now, that will be their second big mistake," Usman said. "When we were fighting the Russians they supported us, then they deserted us."