Southeastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan have operated under tribal law, probably since before Islam came to this part of the world. Tribal laws and ways still govern much of daily living in these areas, and creates unique problems for us here. We have been embroiled in some international border disputes and tribal warfare, none of which are at all related to Taliban activity, and has taken a lot of our focus away from fighting terrorists and into issues which are completely foreign to Americans. In fact, at times these issues are a huge distraction from our ongoing War on Terror.
I cannot go into details on the border disputes, but suffice it to say that Afghanistan and Pakistan are not in agreement about where their border is exactly, and there has been some confrontations about this. The US is stuck in the middle, being an ally of both countries.
US Army forces have been an occasional intermediary of meetings between Pakistan and Afghan border police forces. While this has been helpful, it’s troubling to think of how much energy is lost arguing about lines in the desert, while terrorists continue to plant bombs and commit murder here in this country. Hopefully, we can help resolve some of these problems fairly quickly.
Some of the problems arise from the prevalence of tribal ways of thinking. Both sides of the border are largely tribal populations, and think differently than people in more urban areas. In fact, there have been cross-border tribal wars unrelated to the border dispute, with murders being committed on both sides.
In a tribal culture, so-called honor is often the prevailing “virtue” of these male-dominated societies. If a male member of the tribe feels slighted, he may seek revenge on the perceived offending tribe. He may damage property or cause harm. Often, these situations end in a murder. The tribe of the murdered man then feels compelled to avenge the death, resulting in another murder against the offending tribe. If the tribal elders do not call for a cease-fire, a tribal war often results.
In the last week, there have been three murders in our AO. The ABP Police Chief apprehended four men and brought them to our FOB for questioning. However, there is no jail or holding cell on our FOB. So the chief used an empty CONEX box with one airhole in it to detain them.
CONEX containers are useful for shipping cargo, but in the Afghan heat, they become oven-like. Unfortunately, there are no existing laws governing how prisoners (or suspects) are to be handled in our province, and this is police business, not US military.
Alarmed as I was to hear these men were brought to our FOB and left in the CONEX, I was even more alarmed to learn no one had been left to guard them. There were three BP Soldiers left behind on the FOB while the rest were out pursuing the murderer: a tower guard, a Soldier, and a cook. I instructed the Soldier to keep a watch, but he had to watch the front gate. So the cook ended up guarding the detainees until the rest of the ABP returned to the FOB. I stood guard watch with him, as well.
The following day, three of the detainees were released. The fourth, the brother of the reported murderer, was held as bait to get the murderer to come forward. When this did not happen, the Police Chief went to the village of the tribe which committed the last murder and demanded an end to hostilities. We went along as “muscle” to prove his seriousness. The threat worked - the village elder agreed to stop the violence.
Unfortunately, three men had been killed before the agreement was made. No arrests were made of any murderers, no warrants issued, no charges filed - the murderers were left alone, free. The blood retribution had been fulfilled, so each tribe seemed content with this result.
Bringing the rule of law into this type of society will be a long, uphill battle.
If you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call 212-864-5436
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.