Fifty-three-year-old Abdul Ahad Helmandwal is accustomed to being the go-to guy in one of southern Afghanistan's most violent areas.
From his mud compound in Helmand Province's Nad-e Ali district, the turbaned ethnic Pashtun has for years looked after an extended family whose 110 members -- particularly the young -- were expected to obey him without question.
It had been that way since the day his father was killed by a Soviet Army mine 25 years ago, leaving Helmandwal to step into his shoes. Helmandwal's "mashartoob," the Pashto word for leadership, in his community was unchallenged.
It is evident that things have changed.
Whereas Helmandwal's ancestors built legitimacy by regularly holding jirgas, or local councils, to peacefully resolve local disputes, he is finding that consensus no longer garners respect even among his own Noorzai clan.
Elders Losing Control
Instead, Helmandwal finds himself in a competition for influence against a foe employing a much harsher method, and it's a competition he and his fellow Pashtun tribal leaders are not winning.
The Taliban, by use of a brutal assassination campaign that targets tribal leaders and other influential locals, has gained the upper hand in Pashtun-populated areas such as the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.
The strategy has weakened tribal solidarity among Pashtuns, effecting a societal breakdown that has both reduced their collective ability to resist extremists and made them wary of cooperating with government and coalition forces.
The traditional clan hierarchy has eroded, leaving elders vulnerable to reprisals from young clan members who have broken family ranks and joined with the Taliban. Whether in remote Pashtun villages or in bustling cities, Al-Qaeda and Taliban ideologues lure illiterate Pashtun youth to their side by way of propaganda, cash, or the promise of revenge for personal tragedies.
As head of the 45-member Nad-e Ali district shura, or council, Helmandwal is the closest thing to a bridge between his Noorzai clan and the Afghan government. But getting too close to the government over insurgents is fraught with hazard, as Helmandwal explains. "Our aim is to extract ourselves from the calamity we are caught in. We don't have the kind of government that can protect us," he says.
"If you side with the Taliban then you will face raining bombs and be prepared to die," Helmandwal adds. "When we tell the Taliban not to plant bombs in front of our houses [to kill Afghan and Western troops], they tell us: 'You are trying to prevent us from waging jihad. You have become an infidel.' And then they beat us."
Fashioning A New Order
It is a Catch-22 that has ravaged the social fabric in Pashtun communities. Drawing on Al-Qaeda's employment of "takfir," which justifies the killing of Muslims accused of apostasy, local extremists in areas straddling Afghanistan and Pakistan have killed hundreds of Pashtun politicians, tribal leaders, and clerics. Local leaders get little protection from their governments, whether in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Few, if any, of the killings are resolved, and communities are often left deprived of the leaders most likely to resist the Taliban.
Saleem Afghan, a pseudonym for an Afghan researcher who declined to give his real name out of security concerns, has looked into 400 such killings that have taken place in Kandahar Province -- located between Helmand Province to the west and Pakistan to the east -- over the past nine years. He found that an overwhelming number of those assassinated were tribal leaders, with other respected locals, such as clerics, government officials, and former leaders of the resistance against Soviet occupation in the 1980s, also among those targeted.
As a local jirga member, Helmandwal is in a position to arbitrate anything from marriage disputes to complex clan relations, sometimes involving generations-old feuds. His authority, based on his lineage, has been cemented over the years due to his personal charisma and the respect he has gained from serving his clan.
This places Helmandwal in a very risky position in the current environment, according to Saleem Afghan. "The aim of these murders is to finish off everybody in this society who has the potential to lead the society in the future, and who can lead them toward peace and stability," he says. "Anybody who is identified as such has been eliminated."
The Taliban's use of targeted assassinations to systematically eliminate real or potential opponents, has clearly left its mark.
The assassinations in Kandahar for example, have weakened Durrani Pashtun leaders, preventing them from stabilizing southern Afghanistan -- a region of crucial strategic importance to the Taliban insurgency.
Across the border in Pakistan, Taliban assassination campaigns and suicide bombings dissuade Pashtun tribes from resisting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. On July 9, twin suicide bombings in Pakistan's northwestern Mohmand tribal district killed more that 100 people as anti-Taliban elders from the Mohmand tribe were negotiating measures against the insurgents with the local civilian administration.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Pashtun tribal leaders have perished in similar attacks across Pakistan's western border region with Afghanistan during the past five years.
And sometimes, the Taliban effort receives a recruitment boost from the very enemy they are fighting, revealing itself in radicalized youth who join the fight against the international forces whether their family approves or not.
Mohammad Qasim, a tall bearded man in his mid-20s, and his younger brother Kareemullah provide just one example. As the two worked as day laborers in Kandahar, their parents and a younger brother tended the family fields and lived in a sprawling mud house in Babaji, a small farming village in neighboring Helmand Province.
But a NATO bombing raid that hit the family home two years ago changed everything. Kareemullah never recovered from losing his parents and younger brother. "He was deeply shocked and told me that he wanted to go to the Taliban to fight for them," Mohammad Qasim recalls. "He used to ask" 'Why were my parents killed? Tomorrow they are going to kill my uncle and others, too. I must take revenge for my parent's death.'
"I told him: 'Brother, we can't do this. Stay here, we are poor people and need to work to survive.' But he left to fight."
Today Kareemullah is known as Mullah Kareem and heads a 10-member Taliban squad in Helmand. Every few months, Mohammad Qasim makes an attempt to persuade his younger brother to return to Kandahar with him, but to no avail.
"I don't think he will ever return. He has changed so much that he doesn't even want to see me anymore," Mohammad Qasim says.