A few years ago I ran into a former student of mine, a Marine Lieutenant Colonel who had gone directly from the Command and Staff College to General Franks’s planning staff for Operation Enduring Freedom. I asked him if anything he learned at Quantico helped him fight an actual war — as an educator, I’d like to think we made some contribution. The campaign-planning process perhaps? No, he said, that was largely cookie-cutter stuff; you can pick that up by doing it. But he mentioned that he benefited a great deal from the section we did on Thucydides. I was pleased, being a proponent of more classics in the curriculum — “You already got your grade,” I said, “no need to blow smoke.” But he explained that Afghan warlords behaved the same way the Greek city states did — they were a strictly amoral group with no permanent friends, only permanent interests. Today’s friend became tomorrow’s enemy and the next day’s tomorrow’s ally. The path to success in that part of the world was to keep your eye on the interests involved.
This is true with all tribal societies. To operate well in them one must know and understand the patchwork of interests, and see how and when they lead to changes in behavior. Begin with the assumption that long-standing tribes also have long-standing grudges. Lumping the enemy into one category as we often do is counterproductive — by giving them a common adversary we keep them bound together. The key is to wedge them apart, promote disunity, and exploit the preexisting tensions. It is noteworthy in Thucydides that many if not most battles (particularly sieges) are won through acts of betrayal by one faction against another. It is important to know how to create conditions where this dynamic comes into play. It doesn’t mean groups we assist are our friends forever or we condone everything they do. It means that at a specific moment in time, in a specific political situation, interests coincide. We may not even be working together, but we seek the same ends.
Take for example Maulvi Muhammed Nazir. A few months ago he was a Taliban commander based in South Waziristan, pledged to establishing sharia law and waging jihad on NATO forces in Afghanistan. A bad guy, right? Well yes he was and still is, but right now he is doing his best to run al Qaeda and the rest of the foreign terrorists out of his portion of Pakistan. Did he switch sides? Decidedly not. He has always been on one side, his own. And what he is doing represents our best chance yet at getting hold of Osama bin Laden.
The story starts last November when Nazir was named by the Taliban as their local branch manager in South Waziristan, replacing previous ineffective leader Haji Omar. Nazir had a great record in the company, having gotten his start at entry-level during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. He stayed on to back the Taliban government, and only quit Afghanistan when Taliban resistance crumbled. He went underground for three years in Pakistan, emerging in 2004 after a deal was reached with Islamabad giving tribal leaders a measure of local control. His elevation to management in 2006 was reportedly blessed by Mullah Omar personally.
Nazir was well liked locally because he respected Pushtun traditions, and was seen as a moderate (to the extent such terms make sense in this context) because he did not seek battle with Pakistan’s security forces. But he was also a law-and-order leader whose religious adviser issued edicts enforcing strict shariah law. Some Uzbek militants were put to the lash for criminal activity, for example. But Nazir was not content with that punishment; he wanted these and all other foreigners to leave. He and others in the area saw the foreigners as the root of their troubles, particularly the outsiders who grew bored with jihad and turned to crime.
The bulk of the foreign fighters (i.e., the Arabs, Uzbeks, Chechens, and others not from around there) came to that part of Pakistan in 2001, and availed themselves of the Pushtun code of ethics known as Pushtunwali. In particular they sought to invoke melmastia (hospitality) and nanwati (sanctuary). The Pushtuns accepted them under these principals.
But Nazir believes the guests have overstayed their welcome. He issued an 11-point policy statement on taking over local leadership, which included the expulsion of foreigners. Furthermore the Taliban organization in South Waziristan had been fragmented, and Nazir banned the splinter groups. The response from the troops to this new sheriff in town was mostly negative, and in December the Taliban leadership sought to placate them by mandating that none of Nazir’s decisions could be implemented unless they passed muster with a three-member oversight panel, which included a local Taliban member, an Arab, and an Uzbek. Also the decision to expel foreigners was rescinded. Nazir rightly understood this as a vote of no confidence and soon left the position.
Meanwhile other local tribal leaders came out against the presence of foreigners, particularly Uzbeks, and found themselves in trouble. In November 2006 Maulvi Haji Khanan, began opposing the foreigners and was treated to several assassination attempts. Wazir Tribal leader Malik Zarwali, who supported Khanan, was kidnapped, his bullet-riddled body found a short time later. In March a tribal elder and opponent of foreigners named Malik Saadullah Darikhel was attacked and two of his cousins killed. All of this tended to reinforce Nazir’s point that the foreigners were not the most polite guests.