KABUL (Reuters) - With a grand sweep of his arm, the great-grandson of Afghanistan’s “Iron Amir” says he is the answer to American prayers, the man who can mobilise the country’s tribes to throw out the Taliban and al Qaeda.
“Why are you defending us against our enemies? Has anyone bothered to ask our Afghans if they want to defend themselves?” said Prince Abdul Ali Seraj, the colourful president of the National Council for Dialogue with Tribes of Afghanistan.
“I am the tribes,” says the descendent of Abdul Rahman, the charming, shrewd but brutal ruler who united the country at the end of the 19th century. “Why don’t you come and ask me if I am willing to defend my country against the Taliban and al Qaeda?”
“If I say no, no, no, if I hide behind my wife’s skirts, then you have every right to go and defend me. But I want to defend myself. Just as we dealt with the communists, just as we dealt with the people who came to Afghanistan over the centuries, we will deal with these people.”
Seraj, who has thrown his hat into the ring to become the country’s next president, says U.S.-led forces have ignored Afghanistan’s tribes for the past seven years, mistakenly placing their trust in warlords and politicians.
Instead of sending in more American troops, as President Barack Obama has promised to do, he wants to see the tribes enlisted and armed, to throw out the Taliban and close the porous border with Pakistan where many of the militants shelter.
Instead of viewing all of Afghanistan’s ethnic Pashtuns as Talibs, of giving them the impression the Americans and British want to kill them, the people should be harnessed to the fight.
“If I get my people activated, we will put up a chain that not even one fly will get across the border, not one ounce of drugs will come the other way,” said Seraj, who is in his 60s.
It sounds appealingly easy, but Afghanistan’s ancient tribal structure has been badly undermined, first by Soviet rule, then by warlords, by the Taliban, by political patronage and corruption, and by billions of dollars of drugs money.
Revitalising the tribes will not be easy, and critics say a tribal security force, already being piloted in one province, will just put more guns in the hands of more Afghans.
Seraj looks like an outside bet for the presidency, but he does have influence and may have more of a say in the future of this country than most.
His house is filled with old photographs of his ancestors, the Barakzai dynasty who ruled Afghanistan from 1818 to 1973. His is an appeal not just to the tribes, but to the ancient past, to what ethnic Pashtun’s call “our dearest kings”.
One by one, he lays business cards on the table of his house, and counts off his ancestors who ruled the nation. “This is Dost Mohammed... this is Abdul Rahman, this is Habibullah, this is Amanullah.... this is Zahir Shah, this is Daoud.”
Then, with a dismissive twist of his wrist, other cards are scattered on the table and the floor. “This is Karzai, this is Ashraf Ghani, that is Jalali,” he scornfully says, dismissing the current president and his rival challengers in the August poll.
“This is 300 years of history that is standing behind you.” he says. “We are bringing the history back to Afghanistan.”
Seraj may be eccentric, but he has a vivid sense of theatre.
When tribal leaders pay him a visit, he sends them away not with money to buy their loyalty, but with a ziplock bag of dirt.
“This is Afghanistan,” he says. “In this dirt is the blood of our people and our forefathers.” Any time you are tempted to betray the nation, take out a piece of dirt and wipe it across your forehead, he urges. “That is your mother.”
But what of the darker side of his great-grandfather’s rule, of the way he effectively made slaves of the entire Hazara people of central Afghanistan as he crushed their independence bid, of the way he converted entire provinces to Islam by the sword?
“To some historians he is called a tyrant, to other people he is a hero,” he said. “But what did Abdul Rahman give us? He united Afghanistan under one king and one flag.”
Seraj ran a string of businesses in Kabul in the 1960s and 1970s, including the country’s first nightclub.
But when he heard he was on a list of 10 people to be executed after the communist coup in 1978, he fled — disguised as a hippie, on a bus full of hashish-smoking Australians and Brits.
His American wife and child were at the front of the bus, the long-haired Seraj was at the back. The hippies gave him a guitar. which he could not even play. “When we start playing, you start playing,” they told him.
“Whenever they stopped us at checkpoints and the communist soldiers would get on board, the hippies would light up their hashish pipes. They are strumming their guitars, I am strumming the guitar, and the soldiers would just look at each other and say ‘ah these hippies’”.
He made it to the United States, set himself up in business again, and returned to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban.