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Tribal Council:

“Don’t Blame the Taliban for Everything”

by Patrick Cockburn

The Independent in Mohammed Agha, Afghanistan

In a field in an arid valley south of Kabul a hundred local leaders, all powerful in their own districts, assembled yesterday to debate the future of their province at the same time as Afghan politicians were meeting in Germany to try to create a stable government for their country.

There was tension in the air at this tribal council, or jirga, in the Mohammed Agha district of Logar province, once known, before the present disastrous drought, as the “breadbasket of Kabul”. People here are from the Pashtun community, and the Northern Alliance is mainly Tajik and Uzbek.

Just off the road we saw the menacing guns of two Northern Alliance tanks pointing at Mohammed Agha.

It was clear that many of the leaders, most of whom fought against the Communist government in the 1980s or come from prominent local families, do not much like either the Northern Alliance or the defeated Taliban. After the fall of Kabul, leaders in Logar even raised the blue United Nations flag over their headquarters in a bid to assert their neutrality.

The jirga’s purpose was to appoint a new governor, but all the problems of Afghanistan were addressed. It was self-deception to blame everything on the Taliban, said a giant military commander called Ajap Khan Masud. At least 6ft 5in tall, dressed all in black and wearing a large silver ring with pink amber in it, he told the meeting: “These difficulties we are now facing are our own fault.”

He spoke of the murderous anarchy in Afghanistan in 1992 and 1996 before the Taliban took over, before adding defensively: “I was a commander here then, but I did not rape women, I did not oppress people.” Then some of the leaders start to heckle him, shouting: “Don’t say these things, don’t remind us of that time.”

But another commander called Izatollah Kouchai rose to defend him. He said: “The Taliban were not foreigners. They were our brothers. We have to retain our humanity. Whoever says the Taliban were pagans is not a Muslim himself.”

The sense of the meeting was that somehow they had to avoid the savagery of the pre-Taliban era as well as the authoritarianism of the Taliban.

More circumspectly–perhaps with an eye to the tanks down the road–there was no enthusiasm for domination by the Northern Alliance. Gholam Ghaus Nasri, the 34-year-old commander of Mohammed Agha district, the man who had raised the UN flag, said: “Local people must rule in their own districts even if we send troops to support the government.”

As elsewhere in Afghanistan, the provincial leadership is intent on retaining power despite the political earthquake of the past month. Gholam Gaus, who inherited his position from his brother, who was killed fighting the Russians, seemed nervous.

He explained that he had been forced to leave the country by the Taliban. He went to live in Peshawar in Pakistan. When he left he had 1,000 armed men at his command. “I now have only 50 men with guns,” he said. “The rest were disarmed by the Taliban though they are still loyal to me.”

He hinted that he would like to see them rearmed, but the Northern Alliance would not allow it. He added that he had taken down his UN flag, but “I still have it, though the Northern Alliance does not know it, in this very room.”

The problem for the Northern Alliance is that its spectacular military victories were only possible because of the support of US air power. It is now over-extended. It also has to reach an accommodation with Pashtun leaders, like those who attended the jirga yesterday.

Ajap Khan told the meeting that “we have never had any problems between Pashtun, Tajik and Uzbek around here, though they do in the north of the country.” But the very fact he raised the subject showed what is in people’s minds.

The raising of the UN flag indicates that their acceptance of the Northern Alliance victory is grudging and probably only temporary.