The tribes of Southern Afghanistan

Afghanistan is first and foremost a tribal society.  Understanding the country requires knowledge of the tribes.  In my archive I found a useful diagram of the Pashtun (Pathan) tribes of Southern Afghanistan, produced by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

If life (and Afghanistan) were simple, much of the conflict in the country could be explained by age-old tribal feuds, in particular the one between the Durrani and Ghilzai – the two main Pashtun tribes which have been vying for power for centuries. In the country’s recent history, there is the fact that most (but certainly not all) supporters of the Taliban can be found in the Ghilzai tribes.

The leader of the Taliban, mullah Mohammed Omar, is a Hotak Ghilzai. President Hamid Karzai is a Popalzai (Popolzai) Durrani. But so is the Taliban national military commander, mullah Beradar. That is just one illustration of the fact that in Afghanistan, one’s tribal descent doesn’t necessarily define one’s political stance or allegiance.

Now, I’m not an expert on Afghan tribes. Still, the other day I was discussing the situation in Uruzgan (Oruzgan) province and pointed out that, in my humble opinion, ISAF hadn’t managed yet to help bridge the gap between Durrani and Ghilzai Pashtuns.  We were looking at an area to the North and East of the provincial capital Tarin Kowt/Tirin Kot.

When the Dutch ISAF troops moved into Uruzgan in 2006, the ‘front lines’ in this particular area by and large followed the tribal division, as this slide of the excellent 2006 PRT Briefing (published by the Atlantic Council of the United States) illustrates:

The reddish areas depict those where Ghilzai Pashtuns are in the majority. They also depict the areas where Afghan, American, Australian and Dutch forces have fought some of the fiercest battles in the conflict. The Dorafshan area, and the Baluchi and Chora valleys to the North of Tarin Kowt; the Mirabad valley to the East.  The latter valley has been ‘pacified’ only recently. And four years after ISAF deployed in the province, parts of the Dorafshan area and the Baluchi valley certainly aren’t safe, yet. I wonder to what extent this is due to the fact that the real power in the province is in the hands of two key Popolzai figures: the former governor Jan Mohammed Khan and his nephew Matiullah Khan…

Over Hans de Vreij

Retired Dutch journalist. Covered EU, NATO, UN, security & defense. Was correspondent in Berlin, Brussels, Geneva, Prague. Studied Russian language & literature.
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