For decades, the neighbouring Afghan tribes agreed on only two things: the high ground between them was unremarkable, but it was a hill worth dying on.

The Balkhel say a blood feud that has left around 200 people dead began at least half a century ago. The Sabari insist it started in 1998. The vendetta is either over three scrubby ridges or a sloping cemetery, depending on who you ask.

Each blames the other for violence spasming back and forth, year after year, as the Pashtun tribesmen turned heavy weapons on each other in eastern Khost and Paktia provinces.

"We understand that these are mere stones -- this mountain and land is not worth a single human life," said Badshah Khan, a 50-year-old schoolteacher and chief of the Balkhel.

"The fight was forced upon us."

But the facts hardly matter: the conflict's real currency was honour, which can supercharge Afghan feuds into consuming communities and unravelling the rule of law.

"Pashtuns will put their lives on the line for honour," said 45-year-old Sabari chief Saddam Mukhlis, a pistol slung under his waistcoat.

"They stand ready to die before giving ground."

Now the twin tribes have been made to agree the fighting must stop.

Afghanistan's Taliban government has established its writ over the age-long conflict.

- 'Honour should be upheld' -


The Balkhel and Sabari are indistinguishable to outsiders -- sub-tribes of the Pashtun ethnic group considered Afghanistan's largest.

The majority of Pashtuns live in southern and eastern Afghanistan, where an ancient code of honour called "Pashtunwali" still holds sway.

At its heart are ideals of vengeance, independence, loyalty and hospitality.

The usual stakes are women, wealth and land. Houses nestle inside high-walled compounds and women are mostly shut away inside.

In the 1600s, Pashtun poet Khushal Khan Khattak composed one of the earliest accounts of Pashtunwali.

"If a rebel appears in one's state, troubles its citizens, loots their properties, here honour should be upheld -- no one should be able to steal even a morsel of bread," he wrote.

Current Pashtun culture has similar sayings: "Better to be killed by 100 men than shamed in front of one", and "A Pashtun who took revenge after a hundred years said, 'I took it quickly'."

Lutz Rzehak, a lecturer in Dari and Pashto languages from Humboldt University of Berlin, told AFP that "Pashtunwali is an ideal of behaviour."

"Where there's no government, people need some rules," he said.

- 'Land like a mother' -


But that pride has its cost.

Balkhel elders wind their way through a graveyard strewn with sun-bleached scraps of tinsel.

The chief says more than 110 of their people were killed in fighting after an outsider started chopping wood that wasn't his.

"We have seen tough days," said 65-year-old Zera Gul, whose son was shot dead in 2017. "It's as though he was lost for nothing."

He lifted his shirt to show his own bullet scars.

"Some countries have such stubbornness in their people," he told AFP. "They turn to force and want things to be theirs."

On the Sabari side, it is said 93 were slain after graves were dug on their land without permission.

Tribesmen share hazy accounts of fighting: shepherds cut down, roadside executions, women and children killed by errant mortars, a blockade on the road linking the two communities.

"The public mindset is that land is like a mother: if you don't protect its honour, you wouldn't stand for your mother either," said Ahmad Shah Lakankhel, who helped mediate on instructions from Taliban interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani.

The Taliban government reportedly resolved around 200 feuds in 2023, with 100 more mediations in the works. Eight people were reportedly killed in the last fighting of this feud in 2022.

A council of local leaders mediated the ceasefire, while the core dispute is still to be adjudicated. In 2005, the United Nations said it brokered peace this way over two months, but it didn't last.

Lakankhel says under the Taliban a deal was reached in just one week to install peacekeeping outposts.

Both sides got a message, he said: "You shouldn't become another government, making decisions and killing people."

- 'Peace has its own taste' -


For years, the Taliban were the "other government" -- challenging the writ of the foreign-backed authorities in Kabul, whom they ousted in 2021.

"They have been playing that role -- so that's why they're quite sensitive if there's an open competition that could undermine or challenge their position," said Nemat Bizhan, a development policy lecturer at Australian National University.

Khost's deputy governor Mahboob Shah Qanit says the Taliban's success stems from a popular mandate.

"We are from the people and the people are from us," he said. "We are like flesh and bones to each other."

But behind the rhetoric is also the threat of force.

"They say, 'If we managed to fight the world for 20 years, we can also fight a tribe'," said Mukhlis, the Sabari chief.

Administering justice is a tough task for the Taliban. They may reward those who backed them as insurgents, but being one-sided risks seeding resentment and resistance to their rule.

Two goats butted heads atop the gravel mound where the Balkhel-Sabari feud once unfurled. For the Balkhel chief, only one calculation now matters.

"We are tired of war, they too are tired," he said.

"Peace has its own taste, and we have experienced it."