Tribal Jurisdiction and Agreements: The Key to Sub-National Governance in Southeastern Afghanistan


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  • Tribal agreements in South-eastern Afghanistan continue to be an important means to establish binding rules within and between tribal groups and to negotiate governance and security issues between tribes and the Afghan government (and supporting international military forces).
  • International actors promoting such local security arrangements need to understand existing local institutions, the geographic concepts of tribal jurisdiction (manteqas/wandas) and the level of tribal fragmentation.
  • Only where tribal institutions are still very much intact, links between formal and informal security institutions can strengthen Afghan government structures.


In many parts of Afghanistan, non-state institutions remain relevant to security and stability, despite repeated and concerted state-led attempts from the late 19th century onward to expand its administrative influence, including control over the provision of security and the administration of justice. In the East and Southeast, these relatively autonomous structures are very much a present day reality and largely linked to Pashtun tribes and the influence of individual elders. It is important to emphasize that tribal security and governance never was geared toward undermining the state. In contrast, tribes and their elders tried to cooperate with the state whenever possible to improve governance and reduce conflict in their areas, taking on state roles during times of state failure.

The importance of local customary structures has not been lost on policymakers of late. The “US Government Integrated Civilian-Military Campaign Plan for Support to Afghanistan”, written in August 2009 with the collaboration of United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), acknowledges the Pashtuns’ guarded independence “against the perception of a predatory central government” and the Afghan government’s “inability or perceived unwillingness to ensure security and justice” as “major dynamics” within Afghanistan.

In order to compensate for this latter gap, the report promotes employing “community security arrangements when local conditions necessitate and in association with Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).” Such generalized policy prescriptions to security issues, however, are not without dangers if implemented with ignorance of existing local institution and a lacking understanding of the fragmentation of communal structures in some parts of Afghanistan (especially the North and South).

Many community security arrangements are contiguous to a specific local context such as Eastern and South-eastern Afghanistan, where relationships between state and non-state actors are regulated through so called "tribal contracts or agreements" used by local representatives of the Afghan state to negotiate local governance and maintain security at the sub-national level.

Using the case study of Ahmad Aba district in Paktia, specifically field research among the Ahmadzai tribe in June 2009, this policy brief examines the historical background of tribal contracts, to what extent they still play a role in local governance today, and what implications can be drawn for the current promotion of community governance arrangements.