The Pashtuns and the Two Wars in Afghanistan

Regardless of whether one is talking about the American effort as primarily aimed at snuffing out Al Qaeda or as an effort to enhance Afghanistan’s security by decimating the resurgent Taliban and developing the country, there is one common effort: operationally, this is a war against the Pashtuns.

Most Americans have not heard of the Pashtuns (also known as Pushtoons, Pathans, and several other linguistic variations), and official statements of American policy, objectives, and plans to achieve them hardly (if ever) acknowledge the role of this ethnic and tribal group. Who are they, and why do we need to know?

The Pashtuns are the largest tribal group in Afghanistan. Before the Soviet invasion in 1979, they represented a majority of the population, but estimates are that upwards of 85 percent of the 6.2 million Afghans who fled the country were Pashtuns, and many found their way across the border into Pakistan, where the Pashtuns are the largest minority group and have found themselves at fairly constant odds with the Punjabi majority that has ruled the country virtually since independence in 1947 (an exception was rule by Ayub Khan, who was a Pashtun).

Currently, the Pashtun live in and dominate the eastern and southern parts of Afghanistan and most of the tribal regions of Pakistan adjacent to the Afghan border (the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of FATA, as noted in the last entry). These, of course, are the areas most under contention in the ongoing war being waged by the United States, its NATO allies, and the Afghan government on the Afghanistan side, and is the area where the United States has most encouraged the Pakistan government to assert an authority it has never actually possessed in the region. Exacerbating this problem is the fact that the Pashtun (and Afghans more generally) do not recognize as legitimate the boundary between the two countries, the so-called Durand Line named after the British official who drew it in 1897.

In these regions, the Pashtuns form the core of the resistance to the achievement of US policies goals (as best one can figure out what those are). The vast majority of support for and participation in the Taliban movement comes from the Pashtun (which was originally formed by Pashtun Talibs–religious students–studying at madrassas–religious schools–in Pakistan). The Pashtuns of Pakistan, moreover, have provided the safe haven for Al Qaeda, for reasons discussed below. Also, any planned American incursions into Paksitan would have to be initiated from Pashtun-controlled territory in Afghanistan into Pashtun-controlled areas of Pakistan. Thus, the Pashtun are the major focus of the US military action in Afghanistan, whether ackowledged or not.

It is important to understand this distinction, because it has operational implications that affect the prospects of the American military effort in the area and the long-term prospects of success. Part of these deal with the problem of dealing with the Pushtans as a group, and part of it has to do with the geopolitics of the region. It is unclear that current American efforts reflect either aspect.

The Pashtun are a very fiercely independent, traditional Sunni tribal group. Historically, they have also been decentralized, meaning that their actions are focused on small, autonomous organization, not any carefully organized and centralized movements. Operationally, the problem they create is captured in the Pakistan Handbook of 1998 (http://www.crossroadto/Quotes/Islam/Pashtun.html), which states, “They are fearless guerrillas who know the hills and valleys intimately, are crack shots and wear clothes (known as khakis, which means ‘dusty’) that blend with their surroundings….No one has ever managed to subdue or unite them.”

The Pashtun code of behavior is relevent and is based on something known as the Pashtunwali (“Pashtun Way”). It has three basic values: honor, courage, and hospitality. Each helps explain why the United States faces a quandary confronting them.

The concept of courage gives the Pashtun their warrior spirit and makes them particularly difficult–possibly impossible–to subdue. The concept of honor includes, among other things the concept of badal (revenge), which impels a Pashtun to seek to violently redress acts of violence against his family or clan. US bombings of Pashtun villages and the deaths they inflict qualify as acts of violence requiring revenge. Finally, the concept of hospitality means that Pashtuns have an obligation to protect their guests from outsiders. The leadership of Al Qaeda, many of whom were part of the mujahadin that helped throw the Soviets out of Afghanistan, qualify as guests to be protected, which may help explain why Pashtun villagers in the FATA have not been cooperative in helping catch bin Laden and his band.

The present president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, is a former Pashtun warlord, but his presence has not translated into Pashtun support for his government, for several reasons. One is that Karzai has become part of the Kabul-based Afghan intellectual class, a group that is opposed by the relatively primitive, rural Pashtun majority. Part of the reason also is that the current government is heavily populated by ethnic Tajiks, whom the Pashtuns oppose. Finally, the Pashtuns join most Afghans in opposition to a strong central government, which Karzai and his American allies see as an important part of modernizing the country.

The Afghan problem is thus largely a Pashtun problem, and sensible American policy must take that reality into account. To make matters even a bit more complicated, there is also the matter of Pashtun nationalism and the repressed desire to create a place called Pashtunistan. More on that in the next entry.


3 Responses to “The Pashtuns and the Two Wars in Afghanistan”

  1. Phil Myers Says:

    Wonderful information. Why have we not heard about the Pashtuns before? Are they nomadic, industrious, and could their noble sounding ethics of honor, courage, and defending guests be advantageous to diplomacy by the current Afghanistani head of state? It does not sound that that is possible from your article. Will the Pashtuns try to overthrow Karzai, or is that what the tribe is trying to accomplish now?

  2. Richard Oxman Says:

    PLEASE, someone, I would appreciate help in locating Pashtun music, particularly lamenting music, or funeral music. I am writing a dramatic work which needs to focus on Pashtun music related to death.

    Thanks for your kind consideration.

    Richard Oxman

  3. ddominic Says:

    Hey. Interesting Stuff. Starting up a spot here:

    Will be for debate, but also expression…As an author I like to play around with notions of thinktanks the structures and the absurdities of many of them…

    What you say here has become clear to me too…but I think it is clear with the bombings and the discrediting of traditional councils and institutions in the region that NATO is deliberately discrediting traditions that unite and maybe attempting to carve the region more…but with authoritarian autocratic Neo-Liberals at the helm…in Pakistan Afghan and if as you say Pashtunistan…

    On the Home Front it feels like this :

    Create war that is atrocious on The Kalash so as to sell war by telling you it emancipates women and saves music…eradication of the genocider…divide then… sub divide…then conquering conquering…

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