When al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the Taliban fled Afghanistan, they made their last stand in Paktia province on the border with Pakistan. The Zazi valley, known during the Soviet occupation as "the gateway to Afghanistan," is located on the southeast of the Tora Bora, literally white mountain. In 2001 hundreds of al Qaeda slipped over the fluid border into Pakistan, crossing through Zazi, to the 'badlands' of Pakistan's Waziristan province, which continue to be insurgent hotbeds. Sympathizers straddle both sides of the Durand Line, which divides the two countries, and Zazi remains strategically significant.
Earlier this year Chief Ajmal Zazai, an Afghan Canadian, decided to unite his 11 tribes (of many thousands in the country) to form a Tribal Police Force. His idea was to start the process from his valley, which he hoped would eventually create momentum across the country, against historic precedent. It was something his father, Raiss Afzal Khan Zazai, had tried unsuccessfully in 1984 when he formed the Zazi Tribal Unity to fight the Soviets.
Recent motivation came when three local tribesmen, including one who had earlier denounced suicide bombing as 'un-Islamic,' were beheaded by Taliban fighters. He was found in his home with his eyes gouged out and his ears slashed. Zazai appointed a former mujahuddin fighter, Amir Mohammed, as his head of security and gathered 30 armed men to protect the tribal chiefs of his valley.
Originally the force was to consist of 450 men, but only a few dozen patrol Zazi Valley and they use their own weapons. They have no uniform and go for months without salary. "Money from other sources -- the Russians or Iranians," says Zazai, "tempts them away, and creates obstacles so grass roots level partnerships between the tribes and the Nato forces will not take place."
Security remains at the heart of Afghanistan's problems if it is not to become a failed state. Setting up Tribal Police Forces, arbakai, the Pashto word for militias, is an attempt under discussion and scrutiny and is highly controversial. Concerns revolve around these forces creating new warlords of their leaders, as well as concerns that tribal Pashtun rivalries could be reignited. There are hundreds of Pashtun tribes so there is also the question of who to arm and how to control these militias. Some think the arbakai provide a role model for stemming the violence elsewhere in the country. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown spoke about "community defense initiatives" as a way of dismantling the insurgency. It received a cold reception from Washington.
Afghan human rights' activist, Orzala Ashraf Nemat, says that there is no evidence to show that arming local militias has ever worked in bringing stability. "We are supposed to be committed to promoting governance. How can you ensure that if there is no accountability, and the militias are only accountable to local commanders or tribal elders. Villages in Afghanistan don't always have such well-defined borders. What's most important is that the arbakai do not undermine the rule of law."
Recently, after Zazai spent a month's fellowship at Johns Hopkins enrolled at the Central Asian-Caucasus Institute Silk Road Studies program, he met the former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who shook his hand and addressed him at 'Mr President.' There are harrowing echoes of the disastrous role Rumsfeld played in the king-making process in Iraq and his relationship with Ahmad Chalabi, the neo-cons choice as post-invasion leader. After a tour of Washington discussing the need for a tribal role in bringing peace and stability, Zazai formed the TPF in June last year. "I got the impression that many people in Washington think the tribal structure has been destroyed (due to decades of war)."
"The whole structure of Afghan society changed after 30 years of war," says Afghan political analyst, Haroun Mir, director of the Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS).
Zazai, who is the chairman of United Afghan Tribes, a movement aimed at uniting disparate tribes, disagrees and decided to take some practical steps of his own to show that not only does the tribal structure exist but that it could be the best way of achieving Afghanistan's goals."
"The tribes need to be engaged with NATO forces in order to fight the insurgency more effectively. Tribal members know the terrain, they know the local people and they know who the outsiders are. We have identified no more than five commanders and 35 members of the Haqqani network, closely related to al Qaeda and based in Waziristan, who intimidate 250,000 people in Zazi. My commander, Amir Mohammed, provided a list of names and locations to the commanding officer of the US 10th Mountain Division (based in Paktia)." The TPF is designed to work in coordination with the Afghan National Army and Police to provide another layer of protection.
The big question now is whether the Taliban are fighting for political power or not. A few of their leaders have political objectives but most of them are brainwashed in the madrassas of Pakistan. according Mir. The reason this matters is that it is now easier for al Qaeda to recruit from Canada and the US than in Afghanistan, says Mir when we spoke in Kabul. "This radicalization of the Pashtuns (who dominate the southern region of the country) has been a deliberate policy of Saudi Arabia, a Sunni country, to counter the influence and expansion of Shia Iran."
"Canada should be worried about al Qaeda," continues Mir, who grew up in France (and whose mother lives in Montreal). He does not see much light at the end of this particularly dark tunnel. "Canada has lots of immigrants from Pakistan, India and Afghanistan and it is too close to the US. If al Qaeda and other terrorists groups cannot reach the States, they will try in Canada."
Just after the Soviets invaded eleven-year old Zazai and his family took refuge in Pakistan in 1980. Some years later Zazai ended up working for a medical charity as assistant director of public relations. During an ambush in mid-December 1990 his boss was killed. The bullets missed Zazai and he drove to the house of a French friend who was head of an NGO, and where he stayed for 15 days.
The UN contacted the Canadian government, and on January 1st, Zazai left Peshawar and moved to Toronto where he lived until 1997. "The Canadian government saved my life by offering me asylum." One of his four children was born in Canada. He returned to Peshawar to help his father fight the Taliban, but few months later in 1998 he was imprisoned by Pakistan in a case he says was 'concocted' by the ISI (Pakistani intelligence). No charges were brought against him despite spending two and a half years in prison.
His father did not have such a lucky escape when an attempt was made on his life in 2000 on the orders, believes Zazai, of top Taliban officials. "My father led our Zazi tribes in the fight against the Soviets and later he organized the tribal chiefs from three (of Afghanistan's 34 provinces) in order to raise up against the Taliban. Some ex-commanders were visiting him at our family home, which is where he was killed. I have not found who gave the orders yet but the motive behind this was to bring a full stop to this movement and also to frighten the rest. My father was one of our country's first industrialists. He and my uncle founded the first Afghan transport company, Mrastay Transport, and they established a raisin processing factory where over 600 people worked." His father believed that the tribes were the past and future of Afghanistan. Zazai and his family now live in the United Arab Emirates, close to Afghanistan, where they moved after he survived two further attempts on his life in 2007 and 2008. Subsequently he asked his elders to meet with me in Kabul. In a guesthouse called the Cedar Inn in the Shar-e-Naw district, fifteen local tribesmen entered bearded, wearing turbans, shalwar kameez and covered with a patoo, the heavy blanket Afghan men wrap around themselves to keep out the bitter winter cold. They ranged in age from young to old, and each shook my hand.
As we sat around a large table each one stood up and introduced himself. The key points they made during our two-hour discussion was what we are all familiar with -- they need security. After security they need jobs. They need education and they want help with reconstruction. The corrupt government has left people feeling powerless. Afghanistan is the fourth poorest country in the world so when the Taliban offer money, "they feel obliged to go," said one tribal leader.
"Al Qaeda came to Zazi with the help of the government," says one of the tribal elders. He shows me a picture of two suspected al Qaeda operatives. They were with Mohammad Daoud, an MP from Zazi, supported by the Wahabi vice-president and former warlord Rasoul Sayyaf, and Commander Mohammed Nabi, the Border Police Chief. Zazai alleges that Nabi "works closely with the ISI and assists al Qaeda members to cross the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan. The enemy," he continues, "in Zazi is in the government."
Four or five months ago, explains one of the tribal elders, before the TPF, "the Taliban would tell us to bring food, bring tea for us, do everything, and nobody was allowed to go out of their house. We weren't even allowed to take people to the hospital. Three people were beheaded just because they spoke out against the ill treatment of Taliban. They come to destroy everything."
"For 30 years everything has been going wrong." says Mr Qazi, an elder. "We like peace. Our place is the nearest place to Pakistan, when the Taliban came they destroyed our schools, our roads, we have no work and the economic situation is terrible, we are very poor. The Taliban are terrorizing our lives because there is a gap between the people and the government. Because the government is corrupt and inefficient many local tribes are assisting the the Taliban. The main reason we are united is that we want a viable alternative to the present worsening situation and we need to bring peace and stability to our homeland. We want reconstruction. We want libraries, hospitals, universities. The reason we are so poor is that our girls don't go to school. That is why our community is backwards."
He continues, "We want education for our mothers and our daughters, we want education for older women too, we want women to be able to work, to make things that they can sell in the bazaar. But we also want medical aid. We need maternity wards, and first aid. None of that exists."
"We had 14 girls graduate from middle school," he boasts. "Unfortunately there is no school building, so they did their studies in the shadow of the sun, but even under the Taliban we had a secret place to teach them. I have good ideas for girls," he continues, "we just are not able to develop them. Why can't women be doctors, ministers or engineers?" he asks. "Or even journalists? The most difficult issues are solved by people taking positive and practical steps. We too can solve our own problems this way. I believe aid should reach the poor and needy but the mafia of the present Afghan regime doesn't allow this to happen."
"In this modern time," he concludes. "In the 21st century, in the age of the computer, we are in search of a loaf of bread for our children, crying out for peace and stability."