JALALABAD, Afghanistan - Six weeks ago, elders of the Shinwari tribe, which dominates a large area in southeastern Afghanistan, pledged that they would set aside internal differences to focus on fighting the Taliban.
This week, that commitment seemed less important as two Shinwari subtribes took up arms to fight each other over an ancient land dispute, leaving at least 13 people dead, according to local officials.
The fighting was a setback for American military officials, some of whom had hoped it would be possible to replicate the pledge elsewhere. It raised questions about how effectively the American military could use tribes as part of its counterinsurgency strategy, given the patchwork of rivalries that make up Afghanistan.
Government officials and elders from other tribes were trying to get the two sides to reconcile, but given the intensity of the fighting, some said they doubted that the effort would work. At the very least, the dispute is proving a distraction from the tribe’s commitment to fight the Taliban, not each other.
In return for the tribe’s pledge, the Americans are offering cash-for-work programs to employ large numbers of young people from the tribe as well as small-scale development projects, according to Maj. T. J. Taylor, a public affairs officer.
The one initial worry was that the Taliban might try to drive a wedge between different factions within the tribe, which includes about 400,000 people. The land dispute may have done that work for the insurgents.
'Not happy killing each other'
Questions for Shinwari tribal elders this week about whether the pact against the Taliban still stood went unanswered as the elders turned the conversation to their intratribal struggle.
“We promised to work with the government to fight the Taliban,” said Hajji Gul Nazar, an elder from the Mohmand branch of the Shinwari tribe. He added, “Well, the government officials should have taken care of this argument among us before the shooting started.”
“We are the same tribe, and we are not happy killing each other,” he said. “The provincial police chief and the governor should have taken care of this issue.”
The dispute began about 10 days ago when the Alisher subtribe of the Shinwari laid a claim to land also claimed by another branch of the tribe called the Mohmand. The disputed area covers about 22,000 acres near the Pakistani border and about 20 miles from Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar Province.
Staking their claim, the Mohmand set up tents on the land, according to tribal elders. The government called on both sides to hold a peaceful discussion among tribal elders, known as a shura.
The Alisher repeatedly asked the Mohmand to remove their tents from the disputed land. After more than a week of discussion and no sign that the Mohmand were budging, the Alisher called the police.
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The police arrived and began to remove the tents, infuriating the Mohmand, who became even more infuriated when the Alisher began to help the police knock down the tents. When some members of the Alisher began to burn the tents, the Mohmand attacked the Alisher, firing rocket-propelled grenades, mortar launchers, machine guns and AK-47 semiautomatic rifles, according to local commanders and Afghan border police officers, who did not wish to be quoted by name.
Several Alisher elders alleged that the police had helped the Mohmand.
“We heard that Gov. Gul Agha Shirzai and the local police chief gave arms to the Mohmand,” said Babarzai, a well-known Alisher poet in the area, who, like many Afghans, uses only one name. “We spent all of yesterday burying our dead. Now there are many widows in our tribe.”
The government of Nangarhar Province denied the accusation. “Gov. Gul Agha Shirzai would never do anything like that,” said his spokesman, Ahmadzia Abdulzai. “Our goal is always to bring the tribes together.”
A deputy interior minister arrived from Kabul on Thursday with several other dignitaries from the capital to attend funerals for those who were killed and to encourage peace.
Elders from the Khogyani, another local tribe, met with 100 elders from each of the feuding subtribes to participate in a a peace shura to defuse tensions.
“I don’t think the shura will work,” said Hajji Gul Nazar, a Mohmand elder who was not able to attend the shura. “The Alisher have lost people and have so many wounded, and lots of their tents were burned by our people, and motorcycles were burned, and cars. They must be waiting to take revenge on us.”
A NATO service member was killed by the explosion of an improvised explosive device on Thursday in southern Afghanistan, according to a NATO statement.
In Khost Province in eastern Afghanistan, Taliban fighters ambushed a security detail for a road construction project between Khost and Gardez, killing a South African security guard and his Afghan driver, said Sakhi Jan, an Afghan in charge of the project. A South African and an Afghan were also injured.