SP: Welcome back, Chief Zazai, for this second installment of our multi-part interview. As our readers know from last week, you are a paramount chief of eleven tribes in your home district, the Zazi Valley in Paktia province. Your father fought the Soviets and the Taliban and was assassinated in 2000; you yourself have fought those fights and have survived two recent attempts on your own life. It’s a pleasure and a privilege for me to be able to talk with you today.

Chief Zazai: Thank you, Mr. Pressfield, for affording me this opportunity to tell a side of the Afghan story that we see very little of in the American media.

Chief Zazai, second from right, and bodyguards on the way to Kabul to speak with the British ambassador

Chief Zazai, second from right, and bodyguards on the way to Kabul to speak with the British ambassador

SP: Chief Zazai, I wanted to ask you today about how your Tribal Police Force is working with the American 10th Mountain Division, whose Area of Operations includes your home valley. But something else came up this week that I’ve got to ask you about first. It’s about warlords.

Chief Zazai: Steve, you may get an answer from me that you don’t like!

 SP: There was an article in the Washington Post last week by David Ignatius, a very good one, I thought. In it, Mr. Ignatius quotes a “former CIA officer” who seems to be advocating an approach that I believe you’d agree with, of working with “the locals,” by which he means (I think) the tribes. But then he refers to them, twice, as “the warlords.”

Chief Zazai: If a CIA officer can’t tell the difference between a Warlord and a Tribal Chief, then how would an ordinary American citizen? This is pure ignorance and it is sad to read such embarrassing stuff in the papers.

SP: What exactly is the difference between a tribal chief and a warlord? 

Chief Zazai: A tribal leader is elected by the tribes. A warlord is a self-imposed body on the tribes and the people. A tribal leader does not get elected if he has blood on his hands. A warlord cannot survive unless he has killed many innocent people, looted people’s livelihoods and been involved in the opium and drug trade. A tribal leader only gets elected when he, his father and grandfather have been servants of the community. A warlord does not need these recommendations. A warlord gains his position by force of arms and is only interested in personal gain. A warlord has no problem with reelection as this summer’s so-called election has shown. In this case the gun is mightier than the pen.

SP: So when you are talking about organizing Tribal Police Forces, you’re envisioning these as a counter-power to the warlords?

Chief Zazai: Yes, and to other forces—the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and insurgent forces. The tribes are Afghanistan. To say “the people,” you mean “the tribes.” But the tribes have been weakened terribly over time and are vulnerable to coercion and intimidation by armed, extremist (and warlord) forces. This is why it is so important for the American people to understand who their friends are. Without the tribes, the U.S. cannot win. And without help from the U.S., the tribes cannot protect themselves. 

SP: Tell us a little about how today’s warlords originally came to power. They literally ruled the country in the 80s, didn’t they, after driving out the Soviets and later destroying the Afghan communist government that the Russians left behind?

Chief Zazai: During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, seven or eight freedom-fighting groups were formed by the Pakistani military, mainly by the ISI. When the last regime of the Communist party (PDPA) was thrown out, these power-hungry men started a war against each other in order to get to the throne of Kabul. They used artillery and rockets against each other and turned Kabul into rubble. These brutal men continued their animal acts for a long five years, which resulted in the loss of 60,000 innocent men, women and children in Kabul alone. These men committed atrocities, kidnapped many young boys and girls, and looted people’s livelihoods.

SP: Where are these warlords now?

Chief Zazai: Where? They are running Afghanistan!

It is worse now because these same men have the muscle of the US and NATO behind them and full-fledged support when they wish to do something. These warlords are now kings and princes of Afghanistan. They can kidnap anyone for money and no one would ask them; they are in Mr. Karzai’s Cabinet, in his National Security Committee, in the Parliament; they have control in the Defense and Interior Ministries as well as the National Security Directorate, they are all over the governement and much to our surprise the International Community is treating these thugs and criminals as if they were world-class politicians.

Let me give you a straight answer here: Let’s suppose we bring guys like John Gotti and Al Capone and Scarface and make them Vice Presidents, National Security Advisors, Foreign Secretaries and members of the Congress and Senate in America. How would the American people feel about that?

SP: Let my ask you about power on the ground. What is the makeup of a typical warlord’s forces? Hekmatyar for example, and his party, Hezb-e Islami. Are they made up of tribes-as-tribes?

Chief Zazai: Absolutely not. As I said, most warlords used ethnic division for their own benefit back in the 90s when they were fighting each other to get to the throne of Kabul. The local tribes have no choice but to support these insurgent groups (the Taliban, Hezb-e Islami, al-Qaeda, Uzbek and Tajik fighters) because these groups are always in the area and are brutal people. They have killed hundreds of tribal chiefs and driven many, many others off their land. Why? To weaken the tribal structure, which they know is their enemy.

SP: What about American troops? Isn’t their presence helping?

Chief Zazai: The local tribes cannot stand against these extremist elements because they have got no support from the American forces and the Kabul government. [The warlord] Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is no stranger to the Afghan conflicts; he is a player and has deep roots all over the world. His main agenda now is to continue fighting the U.S. and NATO.

SP: This brings us back around to your formation, this summer, of a Tribal Police Force of eighty men in your valley. Can you work with American forces? Do you think such local forces can make a difference?

Chief Zazai: My commander (Amir Mohammed) and my team met with the U.S. 10th Mountain Division commander in Ali Khell and explained the aim of the force. The 10th Mountain Division’s commander was overjoyed to know we will be working in partnership and simply looking after each other’s backs. The U.S. 10th Mountain Division commander is a great guy … I have been in touch via e-mails and have provided him with some intelligence about some very nasty elements that are based in my Valley and their networks and supporters.

SP: How do you envision working with U.S. forces? Will you be sharing intelligence? Going on joint patrols? Would you welcome a 24-hour U.S. presence in your villages?

Chief Zazai: Absolutely. The main aim of this program is to collect accurate and good intel and be able to share those and then make plans to attack the hideouts of these elements, pinpointing them jointly [to] prevent collateral damage and the loss of innocent lives. I and my tribes do not have any problem with U.S. forces being in our Valley as our guests and we will treat them as guests and not invaders. As I have mentioned to you earlier, these insurgents (Taliban, AQ and other groups such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s men) are getting safe refuge with the tribes within the villages, towns and in the provinces. But if we are able to get the complete support of the tribes, we can turn this grass root level force against these groups. The Tribes will fight them in the villages, in towns & in the mountains. At this time and stage, there are other regional powers who play smart and to an extent they are winning. The US & NATO should not always use their muscles, they have got to use their brains as well and take the time to study this nation, its rich culture and give respect to its warrior tradition.

SP: What would you hope the U.S. would do as an immediate next step in your valley?

Chief Zazai: The U.S. should take charge now, step in and sign treaties with the tribes directly without any middlemen (I am sure Alexander the Great would have done it in the same fashion.) Once the treaty is signed (thumb-printed) by the chiefs and elders, they are honor-bound to do what they have agreed to.

SP: Chief Zazai, you have indicated how dangerous the anti-tribal elements are. In your valley alone, we know they have already, just a couple of weeks ago, tried to attack Amir Mohammed and your Tribal Police with an IED planted in a mosque. How realistic is it that the tribes can stand up to these elements?

Chief Zazai: If all the people of my Valley (or in general the Afghan people) were 100% siding with the Taliban, Hezb-e Islami or al-Qaeda, then the formation of our Tribal Police Force would have been a dream. Over 2000 individuals have registered to take part in our TPF program. If the [local] people were all pro-Taliban, we could not have recruited even twenty!

As the history of Afghanistan is a witness, when the Tribes have gone against a power, they have defeated that power, but when they have sided with a power, they enabled it to rule and expand. The Afghan tribes are loyal, dedicated people; they have never stabbed anyone in the back, when they join hands with a friend that’s for life until the friend betrayed them. [If] the tribes living in one province will sign Unity treaties among each other … this could be expanded to the neighboring provinces as well. I have done so in my Valley with the eleven tribes. It’s a small-scale achievement but it could be applied all over and enlarged.

[To be continued next week with more about the warlords, their relation to the Taliban and to the Karzai government; also further conversation on the grass-roots movement that Chief Zazai envisions and is working for to strengthen Afghan- and tribal-centric governance from the ground up.

[Also don’t miss our ongoing Monday/Tuesday series, “One Tribe At A Time,” by Special Forces Major Jim Gant.  Maj. Gant’s vision of a light-footprint “tribal engagement” strategy coincidentally mirrors Chief Zazai’s—only from the point of view of the U.S. military.  Maj. Gant is a Silver Star winner who has served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.]




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  1. Gene on October 2, 2009 at 3:51 am

    As I have monitored this blog from day one, my perception of the situation in Afghanistan has evolved from what I perceived during Alexander’s invasion (that I learned from the ‘Pressfield histories’), the British occupation (that I learned from Flashman), the Soviet invasion (that I learned from Rambo II), and now the U.S. involvement that I’ve monitored since 2001. No, I’m not ashamed to display my ignorance because in doing so, I’m learning a lot. I find this discussion with Chief Zazai very interesting and thought provoking. The Chief’s distinction between the ‘tribal chief ‘and the ‘warlord’ is very enlightening.

    Can the Chief or some one help clarify this? For years, every time I heard the word ‘Taliban,’ I thought in terms of ‘tribe.’ It seems that was a great misconception. I’m beginning to understand that ‘Taliban’ is a ‘religious and political movement,’ not a tribe.

    1. Are tribes in Afghanistan designated by names as tribes in America are (Apache, Iroquois, Cheyenne, etc)?
    2. Can a tribe or a member of a tribe be Taliban or is that relationship incompatible? Why or why not?
    3. IF “the tribe is the most primitive form of social organization,” and IF “You can’t sell freedom to tribesmen any more than you can sell democracy [because he] doesn’t want it. It violates his code. It threatens everything he stands for…” Why is the tribe so concerned with freedom? Why can the tribe/s not stand against these extremist elements because they have got no support from the American forces?

    Question three is probably rhetorical. I’ll point to Mr. Pressfield’s defining tribal narrative “The Last of the Amazons” that continually refers to the Amazon tribe as the tal kyrte, the free people. While the tribe may be the most primitive form of social organization, I believe that freedom, independence or some more appropriate variation of that word is the fundamental basis for the tribe’s existence. I further believe that the current technological environment explains why the tribe/s can’t stand against these extremists without American support. Consider the alliances made in the 18th century between the Iroquois Nation with the French, British and Americans. The Iroquois Nation could not avoid involvement with one side or the other if it was to survive the European invasion and the technology that came with it. In the final analysis, no treaty was able to protect any Native American tribe from being swallowed by advancing technology. Sad, but true.

    • Jay Taber on October 2, 2009 at 8:40 am

      Native American tribes and other indigenous forms of governance worldwide today have indeed struggled to overcome genocide, assimilation, and incorporation in maintaining their societies. The cosmopolitan nature of the world indigenous peoples’ movement, as they band together to confront globalization and privatization through venues at the UN and elsewhere, is the result of studiously raising consciousness about the unfairness of state-centric standards of the original international human rights regime. As they prepare to challenge the UN member states over such issues as climate change, the indigenous peoples’ greatest strength is legitimacy, something many governing state entities lack.

  2. MBMc on October 5, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    Chief Zazai:

    I admire your courage and appreciate your wisdom.

    Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge and increase our understanding.

    In the cauldron of hard choices, many that should have known better have neglected the tribal leaders in favor of warlords, and indeed many educated opinion shapers on this side of the Atlantic do not know there is a difference between the two.

    If history is to be our guide, arming bad men often brings unwanted consquences down the road. Perhaps we are now seeing such consequences as violence abounds and many call Afghanistan “unwinnable”.

    Yet, as many American and Afghan warriors have made clear, it is not too late to turn the tide and stop those who are fighting to turn Afghanistan back towards theocracy or anarchy.

    Thank you for putting yourself on the line to help turn that tide, and for undertsanding the impotance of educating your western allies.

  3. MBMc on October 5, 2009 at 8:49 pm

    That should have been “importance of educating your western allies” not “impotance”.

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