Afghan District Makes Own Peace

Southeastern area enforces local rules forbidding support for insurgent groups.
  • View of Zazi Maidan district, Khost. (Photo: Ahmad Shah Matunawal)

In one corner of the southeastern Afghan province of Khost, Pashtun residents say a local arrangement governed by customary law has kept the peace to an extent rare in other parts of the country.

Observing the rules of “nerkh”, a set of traditional laws, has meant that even though Zazi Maidan district, with a population of around 200,000, shares a border with the restive northwest of Pakistan, people here say they are able to work and travel without fear of attack.

Nerkh is a set of laws that enforces decisions made by consultative assemblies known as “jirgas”. It forms part of the wider code of conduct known as “pashtunwali” which sets out obligations such as hospitality, honour, loyalty and justice.

The rules agreed in Zazi Maidan say that no one is to support or assist insurgent groups, criminals and the like, on pain of serious penalties. Under nerkh, the community can burn down the offender’s home, confiscate livestock, impose a substantial fine of 2,000 US dollars, and ostracise him.

A tribal elder in the district, Malek Eid Akbar, said respect for traditional law had maintained security over the last 35 years, during which time much of the rest of the country had been wracked by conflict.

“We’ve always had treaties among the tribes here,” he said. “When the present government was established, we decided to protect our district from foreigners and from the Taleban’s war. We don’t want to see our district turn into a battlefield between different groups, so we have maintained security in collaboration with the Afghan security forces.”

“Fortunately, no one has breached the treaty yet,” he added.

Sitting in his shop, wrapped in a blanket against the cold weather, local man Naqibullah told IWPR, “Where there is security, there is life and business, so we are happy with the situation – we can earn an average of 60 to 100 dollars a day, all because of this blessed security.”

Elyas Wahdat, a political analyst in Khost, says Zazi Maidan enjoys an enviable level of calm, not just compared with other parts of the province but with the rest of the country, too.

Wahdat explained that government had always had a weak hold in this part of Afghanistan, so people organised themselves to create justice and security mechanisms.

“During the time of [the anti-Soviet] mujahedin, they tried to occupy the district on many occasions, but they couldn’t do it because of the staunch resistance they faced,” he said. “People in Zazi district say they will always defend their area and the country.”

Wahdat said the nerkh system had been effective in “maintaining order and justice” among Pashtun tribes over many centuries.

Afghan government officials say Zazi Maidan’s residents cooperate with the authorities and have come out in force to block Taleban incursions.

“The insurgents have tried many time to attack this area from across the Pakistan border, but fortunately they faced serious resistance from local people,” district police chief General Azizullah said. In one such raid, he said, “elders, young people and even women gathered to resist them, so the attackers were defeated.”

While some people possessed Kalashnikov rifles and other firearms, Azizullah said, “I have seen people using weapons like scythes, adzes and sticks to fight. That shows how patriotic they are in defending their country.”

The police chief said the Afghan authorities would be willing to supply weapons to the local population, but no one had asked for any so far.

The district government chief in Zazi Maidan, Zemarai Haqmal, said security problems were “zero” there.

“If people hadn’t supported us through effective tribal treaties that deliver security, we wouldn’t have been able to secure the entire district with only 100 police to cover an area that borders on an unsafe part of Pakistan,” Haqmal said.

Tribal leader Nafiya Khail confirmed that local residents teamed up with the regular security forces to offer “ferocious resistance” to Taleban coming in from Pakistan.

This came at a cost, however. Nafiya Khail said that he had been threatened by the Taleban several times, and the militants viewed all civilians from the district as fair game, to be killed at will.

“We have lost many of our young people defending our district, including some who were captured – we still don’t know whether they are alive or dead,” he said.

Some residents complain that despite all they have done to keep the district safe, central government has neglected reconstruction work, so that education, healthcare, and agriculture are all under-resourced as a result.

Rahman Gul, an elderly man, said, “We have protected our district with sticks for the past ten years. Neither the Afghan security forces nor the foreign forces have caused any civilian casualties or property damage so far, and this is all because of the support of local people. However, we have grievances against the government because it hasn’t addressed our problems yet.”

The public affairs officer for Khost’s provincial administration, Baryalai Rawan, insisted that efforts were being made to improve life for people in Zazi Maidan.

More than 60 projects were being implemented there under the National Solidarity Programme, run by the Ministry for Rural Rehabilitation and Development, and Rawan said another 36 were soon to start, designed to address needs expressed by the local community.

“These projects will not only contribute to the rapid advancement of this district, they will also provide job opportunities for many people there,” he said.

For young men in Zazi Maidan, upholding the nerkh contract is a matter of pride. Slinging a Kalashnikov over his shoulder, an ammunition belt around his waist, one said he was happy to have an opportunity to defend his own region.

“If there weren’t tribal treaties in this district, our area would been attacked by suicide bombers, and it would have become a battleground for the national and international forces,” he said. “Innocent people could have been killed every day. I am proud to carry a Kalashnikov in order to protect my own people.”

The young man said he was particularly glad that international troops had not been sent in to stabilise the district.

“If other people don’t want to see either foreign forces or the Taleban, and if they want to be free from suicide attacks, then they too should protect the security of their own areas,” he said.

Ahmad Shah Matunawal is a freelance reporter in Khost, Afghanistan.