Prince Abdul Ali Seraj’s coffee table is littered with little plastic bags and he is busy filling them up with dirt from his garden.
This Afghan prince and presidential contender will soon be handing out the little bags of dirt to his supporters, who have travelled from all over Afghanistan to attend one of his regular pep talks in Kabul.
“When people ask for money, I give them a bag of dirt,” he said. “I say, ‘Here, this is your land, this is your country. You want to save your country, here it is, go save it. You want to sell it, be my guest, go sell it. Don’t look to me for money’.”
Prince Seraj may be royalty, but slick he is not. This big, blunt nationalist with 10 kings in his family tree has a tough message for his fellow Afghans: stop selling your country down the river. Stand up and fight for it instead.
It is a resonant message in a country so thoroughly corrupt that caregivers at orphanages steal the shoes from children’s feet.
It also resonates because of who Prince Seraj is: the nephew of Afghanistan’s most revered leader King Amanullah, who died in 1960, with a royal lineage reaching all the way back to Dost Mohammed Khan, an emir in the early 1800s. Weeping tribal elders who remember King Amanullah have been known to stop the prince in the street and try to kiss his eyes.
“They have the family stamp,” Prince Seraj said.
The prince is the presidential choice for a growing number of tribal elders in Afghanistan. After 30 years of war and the past seven years of acute disappointment, tribes from across Afghanistan are emerging to demand a louder voice in the country’s affairs.
Seven years ago, as they watched the rot of corruption settle in alongside the nation’s new constitution, the elders created a new group, the National Coalition for Dialogue with the Tribes of Afghanistan. They then set about finding a leader, settling on Prince Seraj. The tribes insist this is not a political party. They blame politics for all of Afghanistan’s troubles dating to the Soviet invasion. Instead, they say they are a tribal group dedicated to national unity, and although they acknowledge publicly that the monarchy is over, the word “king” does occasionally slip out.
“He has absolutely no tribal or religious affiliation,” Abdul Ahad Sarteeb from Kandahar said of Prince Seraj. “His family has proved that they can unite Afghanistan as one. He is even-handed, and acceptable to everyone.”
Prince Seraj’s broad appeal to this crucial group was apparent at his dingy office in downtown Kabul recently. The place was packed with elders in tribal dress. “Taliban” were certainly present – although Prince Seraj is at pains to clarify that the Taliban should not be seen as a monolithic organisation, classifying them as “black, grey and white”. Grey Taliban are highway robbers and thieves, an Afghan mafia exploiting the current lawlessness. White Taliban, however, are freedom fighters, taking up arms in fury at foreign occupiers using unmanned predator drones to bomb innocent Afghans.
For Prince Seraj, and for most of the tribes, the “black” Taliban – the real problem – are the followers of Mullah Mohammed Omar, a Pakistani grafted upon a swathe of leaderless Pashtuns in the 1990s by Pakistani troublemakers, and now under the influence of al Qa’eda,
This group is unwelcome on Afghan soil – even more so than the coalition forces.
And this is where western interests converge with the interests of the tribes – although one would never know it.
For Prince Seraj and his followers, identifying which Talib is which is easy; for westerners, it is virtually impossible. So it mystifies and angers Prince Seraj that the coalition does not ask the tribes for help and instead prefers to bomb them from the skies using unmanned predator drones.
The International Security Assistance Force, a Nato-led mission in Afghanistan, has killed more “innocent Afghans than the Taliban”, he shouted. “But they keep saying, ‘We killed Taliban leaders’. Excuse me, would you mind telling me the name of this leader? What is his name? Nameless! If he is a leader, they should know who he is and announce it to the world!”
Despite his views, Prince Seraj, known as Ali to his friends, regularly appeals to his supporters to find someone else to stand in as leader of the group, but that is not going to happen; he is simply too unusual.
Prince Seraj is a sixty-something retired businessman who was born and grew up in Kabul, and was enjoying a quiet retirement before the tribes roped him in.
He attended the University of Connecticut in the 1960s before returning to Kabul and establishing a dozen local businesses, among them Kabul’s first nightclub. When the Soviets invaded, he escaped across the border to Pakistan, found his way to the United States, and became active with the mujahideen resistance. Ultimately, he became a successful US businessman.
When the Taliban was routed in 2001 he returned to Kabul to work on reconstruction projects, until the tribes, which he has known all his life, asked him to be their leader.
Prince Seraj is unusual in that he is both a liberal thinker and a legitimate representative of the tribes of Afghanistan; a former royal with bloodlines linking him to every tribe in the country, a long-term resident of Kabul, and the chosen leader of a group with tribal representation from across the country.
As such, Prince Seraj is a potential bridge and an opportunity that should not be missed, according to Ken Guest, an analyst with nearly 30 years of direct experience in Afghanistan.
“What is it that President [Barack] Obama most has to achieve – make us feel good, or solve the problem? If the United States lends its support to the next Afghan leader based on the sole criteria that they are someone who falls within the West’s comfort zone, just like [current president Hamid] Karzai – they’ll be missing the point, just as they did before,” he said.
“The critical part of any workable Afghan strategy is the ability to talk to the tribes. That is what they need most. That is Seraj.”
But there is little evidence that Washington is listening. Prince Seraj was unable to find anybody to talk to when he visited the capital in November and has felt left out in the cold since, especially given that some of his rivals reside in Washington and even attended inauguration parties for Mr Obama. That unwillingness to reach out to a true Afghan, a leader in touch with the grassroots tribal members, bodes ill for the future.
“We Afghans, we may be illiterate, but we’re not stupid,” Prince Seraj said. “The West must understand that unless we unite the nation, this area will explode to the point it will affect the entire Central Asia. Afghanistan is no longer a local problem, it is a world problem. There are four billion people around Afghanistan and none of them are happy with the other. And all the surrounding countries have nuclear weapons.”
The situation could not be more urgent. Last week, Afghanistan’s defence minister said thousands of foreign fighters from Iraq were pouring into the country across the border with Pakistan, but the tribes who know the area best have not been asked to help. A missed opportunity, Prince Seraj said.
“We as tribes living along the border, when we look at the mountain, we don’t just see the mountain, we see 18, 19, 20, 40 goat tracks,” he said. “We know the enemy uses the goat tracks to get into the country. He does not go over the mountain, he uses the goat tracks, and we know which goat tracks he follows.”
Prince Seraj is amazed by the West’s insistence on fighting an enemy they do not understand on terrain they cannot manage, especially given their prior experience of supporting the mujahideen during the Soviet occupation.
“I am an Afghan-American,” he said. “Nobody has asked me if would I go to battle and fight my enemies.
“Why don’t we ask the Afghan tribes if they are willing to go and defend their nation, their tribes, their homes, their wives and their children against the enemies that are coming from across the border? Why don’t you ask if we are willing to die for our nation as we have done for the past 5,000 years? Why are you sacrificing your children for something that we can do, and that we would be honoured to do?”
This widening gulf between the Afghan reality and US policy has given rise to misunderstandings in other areas too, including resistance to traditional tribal methods that have worked for centuries.
An example is the community guard programme, now running as a pilot project in Wardak, under which tribal members assume responsibility for the security of their own areas. Critics say it is equivalent to arming the tribes and warn that it will create warlord militias. But Prince Seraj said almost every Afghan already has a gun and this is the way Afghanistan has traditionally secured its regional areas; and that is why it will work.
He also said a government that fails to accommodate both Islam and the tribes in a predominantly Muslim, tribal country is doomed to failure, and proposes that tribal leaders retain control of justice issues in their own areas while referring capital crimes and larger problems to a national civil court.
Perhaps most controversially, he also proposes dual heads of state, with the president responsible for the tribes and the prime minister responsible for the centralised government. This is probably the only way of effectively integrating the tribes into a modern, democratic constitution, he said.
“The card of Afghanistan has two faces, one face is the government, and one is the tribes,” he said. “I am the tribes. Anyone who comes here to govern cannot govern without me.”
The western-Afghan culture clash was nowhere more obvious than at the meeting, where tribal leaders hooted with derision at Americans who drive down the streets of Kabul in convoys of three large black vehicles with two police cars at the front and the tail.
“If they can’t guarantee their own security, how are they going to guarantee my security?” one elder said to applause.
Security in Afghanistan comes from the people you know, the elders said, not from a gun. When you go into the hills, you go with people, not with guns.
Still others warned that if the new election produces a leader who is more American than Afghan, the tribes will walk away in disgust.
“If a candidate can walk past that mountain, I will say he is a leader,” said Mahmud Mobin Nozai of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas as he gestured out the window. “I can do it, Ali can do it. But these people who fly in helicopters and say they want to be king of Afghanistan, I say, ‘Get out’.”
In general, though, the tribes were positive about the inauguration of Mr Obama, saying it signalled a turning point that might offer some promise.
“I want Barack Obama to understand what we say so he does not go in the wrong direction,” said Obaid Dullah, an ethnic Tajik. “I would put my head down for him. The Taliban, I guarantee, they will accept him.”
Prince Seraj is set to announce his candidacy for the presidency next week. If he wins the vote in August, he will inherit a narcostate with a capital city racked by suicide bombs, an economy in shambles, and a countryside impassable outside an armoured personnel carrier. He has little money and even less security. But he does have the loyalty of the tribes, as well as history on his side.
Prince Seraj is the spitting image of his great-grandfather, Abdur Rahman, the “iron emir” who inherited the country at the conclusion of the Second Anglo-Afghan War in 1880. Back then, as now, the nation was impoverished, corrupt and on the verge of disintegration. Installed by the British who knew nothing about him but were exhausted and desperate to leave, Abdur Rahman used a combination of force and wile to glue the country back together again.
Afghanistan’s monarchy ended only with the royal coup d’état that enabled the Soviet invasion in the 1970s and the country has known nothing but war since. Now, Afghans look back on the House of Seraj as a golden era.
“When people look at me, they don’t see me, they see an entire family, and that is where the support comes from,” Prince Seraj said.
“In my place it could have been anyone. It could have been my brother, any one of my cousins, but I was there and they came to me. There is no one in Afghanistan who can do what I can do, what my family can do. No one.”
The National – 15 February 2009
By Sarah Davison
Street 5, House no. 3, Qalai Fatullah Khan, Kabul, Afghanistan
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