Khost’s Tribes: Between a Rock and a Hard Place


Khost is one of Afghanistan’s Southeastern provinces on the country’s border with Pakistan. Since 2005, the region has been increasingly destabilized by the Haqqani-led insurgency, which over the years has weaved a tight web over the local population and which transits across the province’s porous border with Pakistan with relative ease. Current military operations in the region led by international and Afghan forces, as well as diplomatic pressure on neighboring countries are part of counterinsurgency efforts to stabilize Khost province. However, the conflict between international military forces, the Afghan government and the Haqqani-led insurgency in Khost is putting considerable pressure on local tribal leaders who are often forced to deal with a number of very different stakeholders in order to survive. Tribal leadership is crucial to contributing to stability by bridging the gap between communities

and the government, yet these leaders are increasingly caught between the international military, the Afghan government and the insurgency.

Shedding light on the relationship between the state and tribal leaders is crucial to understanding the current situation, not only in Khost, but in Loya Paktia in general. Since 2001, the new Afghan government has failed to formulate a coherent tribal engagement strategy to bring tribes on board. As a consequence, tribal leaders in Khost have felt, and still feel, sidelined, which has had the adverse effect of rendering Khost a haven and transit route for insurgents as well as bolstering cross-border religious networks, some of which are putting enormous pressure on the local population (mullahs included) to support an increasingly robust insurgent network. The failure to develop a tribal engagement strategy is concerning, given that state policy towards tribes in Loya Paktia has been a central concern of all Afghan rulers since the establishment of the modern Afghan state, an issue which has at times been partly placated through the implementation of a tribal policy by the state designed to co-opt tribes.


Circumstances today certainly cannot be compared to what they were during the times of King Nader Shah or Zahir Shah, when the tribes of Loya Paktia were held in high esteem by the central administration and accorded a number of privileges, including partial autonomy from the state. As a result of 30 years of war, migration, and changing economic conditions and lifestyle, tribal structures in Khost have partly eroded. Since the coup d’état of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) in April 1978 and the ensuing jihad, factional commanders and mullahs emerged as community leaders, providing communities with protection and guidance in times of great instability and challenging tribal leaders’ traditional authority. This has fostered a number of social divisions within tribes themselves, which are still very much felt to this day. Furthermore, while resource-based and family disputes have always existed in tribal communities, the erosion of tribal leadership has weakened their ability to resolve them and implement decisions or resolutions, which has led to a reemergence of protracted inter- and intertribal conflicts. These are having a devastating effect on people’s livelihoods and general security in the province, compounded by the manipulation of outside actors, such as insurgents or strongmen. While the war-induced processes of social change and resource conflicts cannot be reversed, the current Afghan administration has exacerbated them by its failure to formulate a clear tribal engagement strategy.

Acknowledging the importance of tribal leadership, this brief argues that defining a tribal engagement strategy (taking into account religious leadership and networks as well) may well be the government’s last chance to ensuring the type of stability that could help the Southeast region out of its present quagmire, provided the right focus and approaches are taken and supported by both the Afghan Government and International Community.


  • Tribal unity in Khost has slowly eroded over the past 30 years, due to internal leadership divisions exacerbated by pressure from foreign, Afghan and Pakistani Islamist insurgents, as well as the international military.
  • The Afghan government has contributed to the weakening of tribal leaders by failing to develop a tribal engagement strategy that could have prevented a power vacuum subsequently exploited by militants.
  • The current insurgency and counterinsurgency dynamics is eroding tribal leadership, which is under pressure from both sides.
  • Nonetheless, tribal elders wish to be included in important decision making processes, as well as in a reconciliation process. They see themselves as the main viable interlocutors with ‘their’ Taliban.
  • The government must formulate a coherent tribal engagement strategy to help the Southeast region out of its present quagmire.


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