At Large

Judgment in Waziristan

A political outing with an Afghan tribal leader.

By 10.23.09

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The job of an Afghan tribal leader has as much to do with settling disputes among his own people as it does dealing with traditional or new enemies. Khairullah was very proud of his ability to keep his people happy, or if not happy, at least not at each other's throats. He was particularly annoyed with a lesser village chief who apparently thought he was tough enough to defy Khairullah's edicts regarding water rights between clans.

"Come with me," he said to the American. "I will show you how government works." Khairullah used his school-learned English as a weapon.

Government in this case meant Khairullah.

They formed a small group: Big K, the American, and four AK-47's slung over the shoulders of an equal number of hard-eyed bodyguards. Familiar? They started off on a set of small, spirited ponies that trotted along at a good pace. The trick to handling these steeds was to try to stay glued to the multiple small carpets that passed for a saddle.

It was definitely an impressive little patrol. Khairullah had a submachine gun slung across his back and the American fixed a really mean expression on his face. A farangay is not much feared in this part of Afghanistan, but tough tribal khans with solid reputations get the respect they deserve.

They came upon the target village after about a half hour riding. It wasn't much of a village, just the usual mud brick homes and some corrals for horses and donkeys. Interestingly the village was entirely ringed by a mud wall. Perhaps at one time it had been a fort. Red coats tumbling out of the mud brick barracks to man the wall against the wild Pathans, as the British called the Pushtuns… an instant bridge to the past -- or the future. 

Khairullah dismounted and picked up a young child much to the delight of the crowd. Several elders in turn sought to touch Khairullah's knees in the old custom of showing loyalty to their khan. He quickly pulled them up as a gesture of modern democracy, but he was clearly pleased with their attention. A middle-aged man embraced Khairullah and they exchanged multiple kisses on the cheek, first one cheek then the other, perhaps five times. It was perfect Pushtun manners.

So this was the man who was the reason for the trip. He was also a khan, though as a simple local headman he was of considerably lesser rank than Khairullah, a khan who led an entire tribe.

Here was the typical Afghan scene: Mafia-like politics, ghosts of past regiments, effusive greetings which combine the customs of Arabia, Central Asia, and the Macedonian legions of Alexander -- and more. To get on to the social aspects of the visit they were quickly served tea accompanied by collections of berries. Squatting on hastily spread rugs, a pleasant exchange began between Khairullah and the village headman.

The conversation became more intense between the two men; the elders drifted off, disassociating themselves from the controversy. The American wondered if he, too, should make a diplomatic exit and put forth an effort to unwind from his own sitting position. One of Khairullah's soldiers shot him a look that froze him in place. He went back to drinking tea.

The tense conversation ended abruptly. Both men stood up unsmiling and embraced as they had earlier but with more formality. Miraculously the elders all appeared again and stood around as if they had never left. That was their way of signifying approval of whatever had been agreed while not interfering in the process of the negotiation -- or at least that was how it seemed.

As abruptly as the discussion had ended, the visitors mounted their ponies and headed back on the trail without ceremony. This had been a business trip in every sense of the term, and now that business was over it was time to leave.

Khairullah did not speak at all during the return trip. He rode on ahead alone, leaving his bodyguards straggling in the rear. Every now and then one of them would quicken his horse's pace to move closer to his khan, but never close enough to annoy him. The American was acutely aware that if any danger lurked in these craggy highlands, it could come from any angle. Marksmen could take a quick shot from anywhere above or behind. It all seemed far more dangerous than the ride going to the village.

It took quite a while after they returned to Khairullah's home community, but eventually he treated the American to an explanation of what had transpired:

"We have a custom that if a man -- or clan -- is wronged, then the victim can call for a punishment. There were many goats stolen. The other side said they weren't stolen but that they were taken as payment for the goats eating the grasses where they should not have been, on the other family's land. The village khan, the man you saw, decided that the crime had been greater by the man who took the goats than the one who let the goats eat on the other's land. So the village khan decided to take away the goat stealer's water rights and give them to the goat owner as payment."

"Why didn't he just make the man give back the goats and then maybe pay something?" was the American's obvious question.

"It is a very bad thing to take a man's goats even if they have been eating on your land. The man should not have tried to make the penalty himself. He should have gone to the khan. So he also had broken the law. It was an insult to the khan."

"So the khan was mad and took away his water rights?"

"Just so…and gave them to the first man."

"Is that fair -- is it right?"

"It is right, but not right. A khan has to be wise. He must see beyond what is there. The elders and the entire village want that. They do not want everything settled before a jirga, although I thought this was something that should be. I told him that. He did not like it. He said it made him look without strength. I said it didn't. I said it made him look stronger. But he didn't believe me," Khairullah sighed.

"So what happened in the end?"

"It will go before a jirga and they will decide. I think they will give the man back his water, but I think he will pay much to the village. The value of the goats eating the grass will be taken away from the goats the man stole. He will return the goats left over. That's what I told them should be done. I think they will do it, but the village khan did not like me telling him. I didn't want to, but I had to. That is my job."

Khairullah seemed very sad. Being a great khan is a very difficult occupation in South Waziristan.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.