Guns For Hire: Tribal Mercenaries Turn A Profit In The Afghan Borderlands

Abid has found an unlikely combat role in a country where most such jobs are taken up by the Afghan security forces and the Taliban as fighting between the two sides continues.

Abid, who is in his 20s and like many Afghans goes by one name only, is not even part of the larger conflict that his country’s leaders and global superpowers are attempting to resolve through peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban.

Instead, he is paid to take up arms in a drawn-out dispute between two Pashtun tribes in the southeastern Afghan province of Paktia, where such conflicts are commonplace. He and others like him man trenches, fire light and heavy weaponry, and step up for other tasks when tensions escalate into fighting.

“Sometimes we are paid less, but we do get more on other occasions,” Abid told Radio Free Afghanistan of his various stints in the tribal conflict over land ownership in Paktia. “My current patron, who works in Dubai, pays me some 30,000 Afghanis ($400) every month to take part in the fighting on his behalf.”

This particular dispute has raged between the Mangals and the Kharotis as members of the two major Pashtun tribes have clashed over ownership of mountains in Paktia’s Dand Aw Patan district. Dozens have died and scores maimed in this tribal dispute in recent decades, with at least seven people killed in a clash last June.

Abid is reluctant to name his patron or his tribal affiliation. His role as a mercenary is a recent innovation in tribal disputes that are rooted in fierce local competition over resources and often assume the form of vendettas and feuds that can last for generations.

‘No Choice But To Join In’

Previously, combatants were tribal members who volunteered out of clan loyalty and cultural expectations of bravery and chivalry. But recent changes in Afghan society have opened up such disputes to the gig economy.

“War is ugly, it is messy, and it never brings us happiness, but we have no choice but to join in,” he said. “Our circumstances have forced us into this war.”

Khalilur Rahman Qalamyar’s family is part of the dispute between the Mangals and the Kharotis, but he says he keeps his tribal affiliation under wraps because of his business and reputation in the capital, Kabul.

He says his life and work in Kabul make it impossible for him to personally engage in the occasional clashes or remain mobilized. For those in such a situation, the only option is to hire mercenaries to guard their villages, man their trenches, and remain vigilant to any flareup in tensions.

“My tribe gave me two choices: Either personally participate in the fighting or pay us money so we can employ someone on your behalf,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “I now pay 35,000 Afghanis ($450) per month so I can continue with my life here.”

Qalamyar says the payments are a burden on his income but he cannot abandon his ancestral land and tribal ties.

“Even if you go to London, you cannot escape your tribes,” he said while reflecting on the blood bond among tribe members in close-knit communities. “You either have to completely give up your property and identity or join in and pay for the tribal disputes,” he added. “It is becoming an unbearable burden.”

Conflicts among Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan and Pakistan mostly simmer because of weak or non-existent rule of law and state control. In Paktia, the fledgling provincial administration invokes ancient tribal customs and traditions to end such disputes.

Provincial Governor Mohammad Halim Fidai says that after weeks of mediation he recently secured an agreement between the Mangals and Kharotis to observe an indefinite cease-fire.

“We are working on resolving such disputes and will act on policy and administrative directions from the presidential palace [in Kabul],” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.

But the dispute has defied resolution despite years of efforts by Paktia’s tribal leaders, politicians, and others. Even the hard-line Taliban, which controls large parts of the countryside in Paktia and other provinces that are home to Pashtun tribes across Afghanistan, appears helpless in ending tribal warfare.

Officials in Paktia say the dispute between the Mangals and the Kharotis is one of 53 tribal conflicts they hope to resolve in the region. But only two such disputes have been successively ended through mediation in the past 20 years.