In Spin Boldak district of southern Kandahar province, two sons of a prominent Achakzai tribal leader were killed by unidentified men. Pro-Kabul and Western commentators claim that an ethnic cleansing of the Achakzai tribe is looming, but that’s only half of the story.
In the first weeks of July, the Taliban launched an offensive on Spin Boldak, a district in the southeast of Kandahar province. The district is situated on the Durand Line. The district centre is a prized commercial and political asset, functioning as one of the most important border crossings connecting Afghanistan with Pakistan. On 19th July 2021, various Facebook pages in Afghanistan reported the assassination of Sher Muhammad and Mahmood Khan, sons of Haji Fida Muhammad Afghan. Afghan, also known as Haji Fida Aka (or uncle) is an important tribal elder of the prominent Achakzai tribe, and member of Kandahar’s Provincial Council.
Social media accounts from Kandahar claimed that the two men were either killed by the Taliban, members of the Noorzai tribe, or Taliban fighters from the Noorzai tribe. The specific implication of the Noorzai tribe, based on the manipulation of tribal dynamics over past decades, has merit. More on that later.
As news of the assassination started to create a frenzy on social media, further reports emerged of an alleged targeted massacre of Achakzai tribesmen by the Taliban in Marufyan village, as well as other areas in Spin Boldak. Predictably, and understandably, pro-regime accounts were quick to pounce. Some accounts even shared a voice recording of an unidentified person, allegedly in the Taliban, instructing fighters to go door to door killing people. The unidentified man is heard saying ‘they’ have secret prisons and cash-filled containers buried beneath the ground.
It wasn’t long before rumours of the alleged massacre were picked up by Western journalists. PBS’ Jane Ferguson, whose Afghanistan coverage rarely goes beyond her focus on ethnic dynamics, also tweeted that she had received reports alleging the Taliban were going door to door to kill civilians.
The assassination of Sher Muhammad and Mahmood Khan was described as retribution against the Achakzai tribe by the Taliban. The Achakzai (pronounced Atsakzai) belong to the Durrani tribal confederacy of Pashtuns; the Durrani are the largest tribal grouping in the Loy Kandahar, or Greater Kandahar, region in southern Afghanistan. The Durrani are further divided into the Zirak and Panjpay branches. The Zirak have traditionally been predominant; former royal families have belonged to the Barakzai, or Popalzai, within the Zirak branch. The Achakzai too belong to the Zirak.
The Panjpay, on the other hand, consist of smaller but significant tribes like the Ishaqzai, Noorzai and Alizai.
Spin Boldak is, as of the writing of this article, under firm Taliban control. Western journalists are notably absent. Tolo News, however, published a report claiming that unidentified men had killed over a hundred civilians, yet its source was the Afghan Ministry of Interior Affairs. When asked by Tolo News about the assassination of his two sons, Fida Muhammad was unable to identify the assassins of his son. Local sources have confirmed that civilians have been killed but no further details have emerged as to the death toll.
In light of recent events, many overnight experts have started to ring the alarm bells of impending inter-tribal warfare in Kandahar. Not only are such claims sensationalist and gross generalisations. They also curiously make no mention of the role of the United States in manipulating, often with deadly ramifications, Kandahar’s tribal dynamics. Indeed, if the details yet emerging from Spin Boldak do confirm a massacre of Achakzai tribesmen, this could only be understood in the context of the US’ role in stoking and fomenting tribal rivalries. Most notably, this policy revolved intensely around the US’ local allies in Kandahar: Gul Agha Sherzai, Abdul Raziq Achakzai, as well as former President Hamid Karzai and his family.
Roh Yakobi, a Fellow at the London-based Human Security Centre, tweeted that the Taliban were targeting the Achakzai in their entirety.
Spin Boldak’s History and Tribes
Spin Boldak is inhabited primarily by the Noorzai and Achakzai. It first emerged as a tribal flashpoint during the Soviet occupation, prior to which the two tribes had worked out a tenuous but generally stable modus operandi. In 1984, General Ismatullah Muslim, an Achakzai, defected from the Mujahideen to the communist government and seized the lucrative border crossing at Boldak. Muslim was kicked out of Spin Boldak in 1988. Mansur Achakzai, Ismat’s cousin and uncle of General Abdul Raziq, took charge of the militia. Mansur changed sides, joining the mujahideen once again.
In 1994, the Taliban, led by ex-mujahid turned vigilante Mullah Muhammad Omar, became organised as a political movement. The movement was dedicated toward eliminating the anarchy plaguing Kandahar in the post-1992 civil war. The new movement expanded its control across the province and later the country. They hanged Mansur.
Spin Boldak and Kandahar After The Taliban
By late 2001, the US was determined to overthrow the Taliban Emirate. Within Kandahar, where the Taliban were strongest and deeply rooted, the US’ principal ally was Hamid Karzai, the son of a prominent Kandahari noble from the Popalzai, also a branch of the Zirak Durrani. Karzai relied upon a network of tribal connections, attempting to create a united front to provoke an uprising in the Taliban’s strongholds to lay the groundwork for a US invasion. In this, he partnered with the Barakzai Gul Agha Sherzai, another CIA asset later to become a political rival. Sherzai was the son of the renowned Haji Latif Sagwan (dogfighter), and a rapacious warlord exiled by the Taliban. Most notably, it was his sexual abuse of young boys that he was unabashed about and notorious for.
Another ally was the aforementioned Fida Muhammad Afghan, the father of the two young men killed in Boldak’s recent upheavals. In 2009, Afghan was interviewed by investigative journalist Matthieu Aikins. Afghan recalled that the Americans told him: ‘We will help you to take your country back from terrorists.’ Afghan also confirmed that the young General Abdul Raziq, soon to ascend up the opaque nexus of drugs, politics and the security apparatus, had also been a member of Sherzai’s militia.
After the fall of the Taliban Emirate, the shape the new government took in Kandahar was contoured largely around these men, now emboldened by the dollar filled black bags the CIA had showered upon them. In Kandahar City, Sherzai ruled as governor until 2004, during which time he became notorious not just for corruption, but for using his position to empower himself and his cronies, almost all of whom were fellow Barakzai. President Karzai’s brother Ahmad Wali Karzai sat as chief of the Kandahar Provincial Council, a position he was accused of exploiting for his allegedly booming involvement in the drug trade.
In Spin Boldak, like his Achakzai predecessor Ismatullah Muslim in the mid-80s, Raziq was in charge of the treasured border crossing. As chief of the border police, Raziq gained infamy. These revolved not just around rumours of his deep involvement in drug smuggling, but for his brutality. Raziq was discovered to have killed sixteen people, including the businessman Sheen Noorzai, who had crossed from Pakistan. Raziq claimed that those killed were Taliban. US investigations later discovered that those murdered were not insurgents, but those involved in a long-standing feud with Raziq. The others were simply collateral damage.
The incident was not a one-off, yet it demonstrated the lack of inhibition of Raziq to use his official position to carry forth personal, often tribal feuds. In the summer of 2006, Raziq and his militia had been deployed to the Noorzai dominated Panjwayi, west of Kandahar city, the site of increasing Taliban activity. The deployment failed and by September a Canadian-led offensive, Operation Medusa, was required to rid the area of a swelling Taliban presence. Canadian journalist Graeme Smith wrote in his book ‘The Dogs Are Eating Them Now’ that Haji Muhammad Qassam, a local Barakzai elder, confessed that despatching Raziq and his Achakzai militia, notorious for their abuses against the local population, had been a major factor in the burgeoning support for the Taliban in Panjwayi. A similar approach was employed by Raziq against the Ishaqzai in Maiwand and Panjwayi, who were blanketly targeted as pro-Taliban. Naturally, this led the Ishaqzai to lean toward the insurgency, especially as the embattled Taliban Amir Akhtar Mansour, an Ishaqzai, was keen to bolster his ranks with loyalists, often including, as his critics alleged, his fellow Ishaqzai.
The Fallacies of Tribal Analysis
The analysis of recent events has been an obfuscation on two accounts. First is the total silence in the US’ role in stoking tribal tensions. The second is using tribal rivalry as the sole lens through which to view the conflict.
Whilst the alleged massacre at Boldak could be motivated by tribal animosity, the ongoing coverage of it is amusingly dishonest. Not only are the numbers reported uncorroborated, but ignore a critical reality. If tribal rivalry alone were responsible for recent events, it wouldn’t be some aberration in the conflict initiated by the Taliban. It would be a continuation of the hostilities initiated, sustained, funded and armed by the United States itself.
Karzai, Sherzai and Raziq were US allies. They continued to remain as such, even as their government was instituted based not on the provision of services or popular participation, but manipulating tribal rivalries to create their own patronage networks. These networks were funded by Washington and operated parallel to the new government. In the resultant tribal hostilities, the US was an active participant; it funded, armed and protected Raziq, as he brutalised Noorzai and Ishaqzai alike, amongst others. US intelligence agencies attempted to use ‘economic initiatives’, a euphemism for the infamous cash filled black bags from the CIA, to erode tribal support for the Taliban. Such ‘economic initiatives’ were best exemplified by the US funding its allies, looking away as they smuggled drugs and brutalised their commercial and tribal rivals, propelling themselves to the apex of power.
The tribally oriented nature of Afghan state formation, reliant on inequality and the predominance of tribes like the Barakzai, is a historic fact. Despite that, the deadly scale of the consequences wrought by America’s destructive policy of recruiting local allies to inflame tribal tensions was a watershed. The military, financial and diplomatic support for Raziq’s faction, against others, killed thousands of Kandaharis. Western sources, unsurprisingly, only bothered report a fraction of this. (See here, here, here and here)
Focusing solely on tribal dynamics, however, is erroneous. Realities on the ground contradict the very essence of the tribal divisions which in many instances exist only on paper. The former communist general Abdul Jabbar Qahraman, later a stalwart foe of the Taliban who eventually killed him in 2018, was Noorzai. Mullah Abdul Ghani Bradar, co-founder of the Taliban and head of its Political Office, is Popalzai. Two major Taliban posts in Kandahar are currently manned by Achakzai commanders. The leader of Kabul’s negotiating team in Doha is Massoum Stanakzai, whilst his kinsman Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanakzai is senior member of the Taliban Political Office. When Raziq ran into trouble, it was Kandahar’s Ghilzai governor, Asadullah Khalid, who protected him.
In the simplified black and white depiction of Afghanistan, one be aloof to the complex and overlapping series of actors, many of whom belong to the same tribes and families, yet finding themselves on opposite sides due to ideological differences, material gain, personal grievance or life’s many coincidences.
The attempts to use ethnicity, or tribe, as the sole lens through which the Afghan conflict is to be viewed, are predictable and boring. Even more predictable is the preponderance of Western journalists to attempt as such. This fits neatly into the neo-orientalist monopoly discourse surrounding Afghanistan. Afghans were, are and will remain tribally divided, but not ideologically or politically. That would necessitate that Afghans actually think, and are capable of reasoning. That, in turn, would suggest that the reason the adventure of the West’s war over the last two decades failed was not due to some ancient conflict, but because of the unpopularity of a military occupation amongst Afghans. That would hurt the West’s claims and credentials of being a benevolent, altruistic actor. By focusing inexorably on ethnic or tribal divisions, the approaches toward Afghanistan and those that enacted them can be exonerated. For if the conflicts preceded and succeeded the West’s military adventurism, how could it be the West that is to blame?