It was a gathering like any other that the Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan and Pakistan have held for centuries.
Tribal leaders, clerics, and elites convened at a jirga, or tribal assembly, which is held to mediate disputes or reach a consensus when faced with collective threats.
The jirga on September 21 on the outskirts of Quetta, the capital of restive southwestern Balochistan Province, was something out of the ordinary. Hundreds of people gathered to hear the ruling on a five-month mediation effort aimed at resolving a feud dating back three years. One person died and three were injured when members of the Tareen and Akakhel, both Pashtun tribes, clashed over a land ownership dispute in nearby Quetta in 2016.
Toward the end of the hourlong meeting, an Afghan cleric wearing a white turban announced the results of the mediation.
“After securing their confidence and long deliberations with the two sides, the [Islamic] Emirate [of Afghanistan] has decided to settle this dispute,” the unnamed cleric announced in a video recorded by a local journalist.
While the cleric refrained from giving his name, the Islamic Emirate is the formal name of the Afghan Taliban. For the movement’s leaders and supporters, the title underscores the aim to resurrect their hard-line regime, which in their view implemented a pure form of Islamic Shari’a law during the Taliban’s stint in power in the 1990s.
“Our decision is that the aggrieved party [Akakhel] should receive a fine of 17 million rupees (eds: $108,400) and five Kalashnikov rifles [from the Tareens],” the middle-aged cleric said. He also announced that members of the Tareen tribe will refrain from entering an Akakhel neighborhood on Quetta’s outskirts.
The ruling is significant because it showcases the influence of Afghanistan’s hard-line Taliban within Pakistan, where the authorities have denied sheltering the Afghan rebels. This year, Islamabad took credit for facilitating the peace talks -- which ultimately failed -- between the Afghan Taliban and the United States.
Jamal Taraki, a Quetta-based journalist, participated in the jirga and even captured most of its proceedings on his phone. He told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website that the Afghan Taliban’s mediation of a tribal dispute in Balochistan is unprecedented.
“It is the first time that the Taliban have presided over arbitrating a tribal dispute in this region [Balochistan],” Taraki said. “In this region, decisions made by court often do not end feuds, but settlement by a jirga -- to which the parties involved had consented -- seems to last.”
Since early 2002, the Pakistani authorities have vehemently denied the presence of the Afghan Taliban in Balochistan, which shares a long and porous border with southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban movement emerged in the mid-1990s.
Taraki predicted that members of the Tareen and Akakhel tribes are expected to soon petition the authorities to end a court case about the clash, in which one member of the Akakhel tribe was killed and three more were injured when unidentified members of the Tareen tribe attacked them with firearms three years ago.
In a video recorded by Taraki, lawmaker Sardar Shafiq Tareen, a leader of the Tareen tribe, tells fellow leaders of the secular Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PMAP) that his tribe agreed to the Taliban mediation after the Akakhel tribe approached the Taliban and granted them consent to end the feud.
“Intermediaries approached us after they [the Akakhel tribe] had given Afghanistan’s Taliban Shura (or leadership council) their consent to settle this dispute,” he said in the video recorded before the September 21 jirga. “We eventually agreed to the mediation and after months of deliberations, the Taliban delivered their verdict. In today’s gathering, they are formally making their judgment public.”
Sardar Shafiq Tareen said the Taliban first became involved in the dispute because the Akakhel victim’s family had ties to the Taliban.
It was not immediately possible to reach members of the Akakhel tribe for comment. Journalists in the region said the tribal leaders are reluctant to talk about an issue considered sensitive because of the Afghan Taliban’s involvement.
The PMAP, a Pashtun ethno-nationalist group, is known as a vocal opponent of the Taliban’s presence in Balochistan and has criticized Islamabad for allegedly extending covert support to the Afghan insurgents.
“We did not know that Afghan Taliban leaders were involved in arbitrating the dispute,” Rahim Ziaratwal, a former minister and senior PMAP leader, told Radio Mashaal. “But once we were there [as guests to witness the dispute resolution], it was not possible for us to undo the jirga [process and the decisions it made].”
The authorities in Balochistan have remained largely silent. When contacted, Zahoor Ahmed Buledi, a provincial cabinet minister, said he wasn’t aware of the issue. “I am in the United States now, and I don’t know anything about a dispute being resolved [in Balochistan],” he told Radio Mashaal.
Liaqat Shahwani, a spokesman for Balochistan’s chief minister, or the most senior elected official, promised to look into the matter. But despite repeated attempts, he could not be reached.
In the years following 9/11, Islamabad vehemently denied the Taliban’s presence in Balochistan. But in an unusually candid admission in March 2016, Sartaj Aziz, a former minister and senior adviser, said Islamabad has “some influence over them because their leadership is in Pakistan.” Two months later, a U.S. drone killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansur. He was traveling in a remote part of Balochistan after returning from Iran.
Members of the Tareen tribe consider the rural district of Dukki their homeland while a sizeable part of the community also lives in the district of Pishin. The Akakhels were traditionally nomads and part of the larger Ghilzai confederacy of Pashtun tribes. But today’s members of the Akakhel tribe have distinguished themselves as textile merchants in cities across Pakistan.
Jirgas, or tribal councils, remain an important mechanism to settle disputes among many communities in Afghanistan and Pakistan.