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Struggle to unite Afghan tribes, one by one

On a recent day, a US Army officer offered to build a school if two embattled tribes would make peace.

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The land dispute had plagued two rival Afghan tribes for 70 years. Afghan military officers were to begin mediation efforts on a recent afternoon, to prevent further bloodshed.

But a US Army officer, intent on making a positive impact – and with $100,000 to spend on solving local problems as part of a broader US counterinsurgency effort – made an initial peacemaking bid that morning.

"Will it make a difference if I make a school on it?" asked the officer, hoping the project might provide extra glue for unity and in turn weaken the pull of the Taliban and other militants in this mountainous patch of southeast Afghanistan.

"They don't have to agree on whose land it is, just agree that we build a school there," the officer said. Otherwise, he added, "All that's going to happen is they will argue about the land until they are dead, then their kids will argue."

The peacemaking effort was an American input into an Afghan problem, on the sidelines of a recent US and Afghan military medical and veterinary clinic.

In the end, it wasn't clear to what degree the US offer had influenced the feuding elders. But the narrative of the day shows the difficulty of implementing a joint US-Afghan counterinsurgency effort amid tribal disputes.

'Brilliant futures' for your kids

On hillsides of this disputed area, a 16-square-mile parcel adjacent to the medical clinic – the Sultan Khel families have taken up residence and are cutting the trees. But, another tribe, the Piraangei, say decades-old official documents show the land is theirs.

In the first of two meetings that day, elders from the two tribes sat in a semi-circle beside stacks of thick, rough-hewn logs – a reminder of the raw material at stake.

An Afghan officer buttered up the elders. "Does everyone want their kids' future to be brilliant?"

"Yes," the elders replied in unison, as if in a classroom themselves.

"You see that school? It's like a horse stable," says the Afghan, waving toward a distant, old structure. "Do you agree, if well educated [your children] can be doctors and engineers?"

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