Afghanistan, in person: From tribal ties to pleas for help

Afghanistan, in person: From tribal ties to pleas for help

Ann Scott Tyson

From left to right: Mohammad Jalil, then a Taliban sympathizer and member of the Mohmand tribe; Mohmand tribal elder Malik Noor Afzhal; and then-Special Forces Maj. Jim Gant, at Malik Noor Afzhal’s house in Mangwel in Afghanistan’s Konar province, in May 2011.

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August 23, 2021

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It was 2011, and Ann Scott Tyson and her then fiance, Jim Gant, were living in eastern Afghanistan. Jim was a Special Forces officer on an extended mission to train and equip a tribal security force to keep the Taliban out of its territory. Ann had left her journalism job to document Jim’s mission for a book.

Malik Noor Afzhal, a Pashtun tribal elder, was worried about his fellow tribesman, Mohammad Jalil. Jim saw an opportunity to offer an olive branch, through the tribal connection, to Mr. Jalil’s Taliban brothers. The tribes offered not only a time-honored way to recruit local forces for village defense, but ultimately a path for reconciliation.

Why We Wrote This

In Afghanistan, the author and her then-fiancé in the Special Forces experienced firsthand the country’s close-knit tribal fabric, which plays a crucial role in peace and war.

Afghanistan’s close-knit tribal fabric is at the center of the rural-based strategy that propelled the Taliban’s comeback this month. The tribes connect everyone from government officials and soldiers to farmers and Taliban fighters.

Those same tribal connections are in play today, we are seeing, as Afghans who helped the United States and other Western powers, try to find temporary safety as they seek a path for longer term security abroad.

Seattle

Noor Afzhal, a wise, white-bearded Pashtun tribal elder, a malik, or chief, whose imposing presence commanded respect, was worried about his fellow tribesman, Mohammad Jalil.

A burly man with dark, deep-set eyes, Mr. Jalil was in a bad spot. He served as a low-level government official in a district in Afghanistan’s eastern Konar province, but his two brothers were both leaders in the local Taliban.

After Afghan soldiers raided Mr. Jalil’s house, finding two rifles, they put him in jail. Seizing the weapons was the ultimate peghor, or shame, for a Pashtun male – and jail a harsh punishment.

Why We Wrote This

In Afghanistan, the author and her then-fiancé in the Special Forces experienced firsthand the country’s close-knit tribal fabric, which plays a crucial role in peace and war.

“This is wrong,” the malik said, as he sat on a pillow in the large greeting room of his mud brick-walled compound, or qalat, carefully deliberating as he always did over tribal matters large and small.

It was the fall of 2011, and we were living in Mangwel, a village of the Mohmand tribe, surrounded by lowland fields of corn and wheat and bordered by the wide, glistening Konar River.

Jim was a Special Forces officer on an extended mission to train and equip a tribal security force to keep the Taliban out of its territory. I had left my journalism job to document Jim’s mission for a book, and we were engaged.

Always at Malik Noor Afzhal’s side, Jim saw the situation as a chance to offer an olive branch, through the tribal connection, to Mr. Jalil’s Taliban brothers.


How the Taliban won: They leveraged Afghan history and culture

For Jim, the tribes offered not only a time-honored way to recruit local forces for village defense, but also ultimately a path for reconciliation – a means to draw the insurgents down from the mountains and back home.

Those same tribal connections are in play today, we are seeing, as Afghans who helped the United States and other Western powers try to find temporary safety as they seek a path for longer-term security abroad.

Working together in 2011, Jim and Malik Noor Afzhal managed to get Mr. Jalil released to celebrate the feast after Ramadan. Later, Jim visited Mr. Jalil in jail, offered to meet his brothers, and promised he would take care of his family until he was freed. Mr. Jalil was deeply moved.

“Commander Jim,” Mr. Jalil said, “no one has come to see me, not even my own sons, but you come? My life is yours from now until the day I die.”

After that outreach, some Taliban members did switch to Jim’s side – with one becoming a tribal security force commander. It was a microscopic example of how the tribal umbrella can accommodate constantly shifting local alliances – often driven by calculations of raw power.

Taliban’s comeback strategy

Afghanistan’s close-knit tribal fabric is also at the center of the rural-based strategy that propelled the Taliban’s comeback this month. The tribes connect everyone from government officials and soldiers to farmers and Taliban fighters – often in the same clan or family.

The Taliban’s success hinged on their ability to leverage and pressure these tribes to dominate the countryside – isolating cities, the Afghan National Army, and ultimately the central government in Kabul.

The Taliban prevailed in part because they hewed far more closely than did the central government to Afghanistan’s tribal, valley-by-valley culture, in keeping with the country’s long tradition of decentralized rule.

In Konar, a strategic province on the border with Pakistan, the Taliban used deals and coercion to capture the most heavily contested northern districts in late July. By August, almost all the province’s rural areas were in the hands of the Taliban.

Today, as fate would have it, Mr. Jalil is the Taliban’s newly installed district chief in Khas Konar, overseeing Mangwel and other villages.

“We met with Mohammad Jalil; he says we are OK,” Asif, the son of the late Malik Noor Afzhal, said by phone from Mangwel on Sunday. “At least for now,” he added. “There are Taliban everywhere.”

Ann Scott Tyson

Niq Mohammed (in center with cap), a former Taliban member who switched sides to become commander of the tribal security force in an insurgent-influenced village, looks over maps with Special Forces Maj. Jim Gant, his back to the camera, as they meet in Mangwel in Afghanistan’s Konar province in September 2011.

Yet while fellow tribesmen may find a modicum of security in their kinship bonds, those who sided mostly actively with the U.S.-backed Afghan government against the Taliban are running for their lives, with reports of the militants going door to door tracking enemies.

“Only you can help me”

Niq Mohammed, a fearsome former Taliban member who helped lead an element of Jim’s tribal security force, told us through an interpreter on Sunday that he is in hiding. Now a farmer, Mr. Mohammed, his voice tense, asked for help in making an escape.

Indeed, tens of thousands of Afghans face imminent danger from the Taliban, and are frantically seeking a way out. They are sending an onslaught of emails, calls, and texts with desperate pleas to military veterans like Jim and Afghans who’ve already made it to the United States. “Wror [brother],” they say, “only you can help me.”

“I feel like a drowning man,” says Ismail Khan, a former interpreter with Jim’s team who also lived with us in Mangwel, his voice shaking. “I am grabbing whatever I can, to try to hold on.”

Mr. Khan, nicknamed Ish, chokes back tears, afraid for his friends and family and dismayed by the sight of the white Taliban flag raised on Aug. 15 over the presidential palace in Kabul. “I was overwhelmed with sadness,” Ish says of seeing that image.

Since Jim retired from Special Forces after 22 years of service in 2012, we’ve helped resettle his interpreters and dozens of other Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders in the Seattle area, greeting them at the airport and loading up U-Hauls with donated furniture.

We’ve been present at the birth of a vibrant and growing new Afghan community here, lending support as they adjust to a new country, learn English, navigate homeownership, and become U.S. citizens. Sitting on pillows in Ish’s Afghan-style living room sipping milk chai, we feel comforted knowing at least he made it out and is thriving, with five beautiful young children, including a newborn.

More will be welcomed soon. On Saturday came word that a leader of the Safi tribe, another Konar tribe we lived with, managed to get a flight out of the chaotic Kabul airport. A longtime fierce opponent of the Taliban, he was a marked man.

U.S. vetting

But too many risk being left behind, in part because the U.S. government’s extreme vetting has created a backlog of thousands of SIV applications, often imposing years of waiting on the Afghan men and women who have proved their loyalty to the U.S. in the combat zone.

One interpreter Jim worked with, Najibullah, served with Special Forces teams for nearly a decade starting in 2003. In 2008, he took part in a battle for which Staff Sgt. Robert Miller was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. But after waiting almost a decade, Mr. Najibullah still has no visa. Recently, one of his sons was killed by the Taliban.

To speed the evacuations, maverick teams cobbled together by veterans of U.S. Special Operations and civilians who served in Afghanistan are stepping into the gap, working day and night to open up new channels for exiting the country.

Motivated by a mutual love and respect, these U.S. and Afghan veterans lean upon one another as a way to heal the wounds of combat – intensified by the war’s sudden turn.

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“Don’t lose hope,” Jim said recently to an Afghan interpreter seeking a way out for his family. “I hope,” the interpreter said, his voice cracking, “but I don’t believe.”

Ann Scott Tyson covers China and northeast Asia for The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of “American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant.”

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