Category Archive 'Pathans'

20 Oct 2009

America’s Pashtun Predicament

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19th century Pathans

The Pathans (as they used to call them in English), or Pashtuns (as is preferred currently), the largest ethnic group (c. 42,000,000 people) without a state, are the hosts of al Qaeda and Taliban’s prime recruiting base. Their inhospitable mountainous tribal homelands are the base of the insurgency in Afghanistan and the safe refuge of Islamic terrorism.

In their very significant paper No Sign until the Burst of Fire: Understanding the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier, Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason address the issue at length, providing a quick background in history and ethnology, and explaining how Pakistan and the United States created the problem in the first place by facilitating the preaching of jihad to oppose the Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan. The authors contend that efforts to impose external authority on the Pashtuns only provoke greater fanaticism and more enthusiastic resistance, and argue that the key to defeating Islamic extremism among the Pashtun tribes consists of strengthening indigenous self-rule and conducting diplomatic relations with the tribes in a fashion consistent with a Pashtun perspective and sense of honor very different from our own.

According to tradition, members of the Pashtun Hill Tribes who inhabit the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Area) are descendents of Karlan, a foundling adopted as the fourth son of Qais Abdur Rashid, a contemporary of the Prophet Mohammed and the ur-ancestor of the Pashtun ethnic group. The Hill Tribes, or Karlanri, include many of the most warlike tribes, such as the Afridis, Daurs, Jadrans, Ketrans, Mahsuds, Mohmands, and Waziris. Of all the Pashtun tribes, the Waziris of greater Waziristan (a region that includes North Waziristan Agency, South Waziristan Agency, and the Bermol District of Afghanistan’s Paktika Province) are reputed to be the most conservative and irascible. The Waziris pride themselves on never having paid taxes to any sovereign and never having their lands, which they consider veiled, or in purdah, conquered. (Considered good but unreliable fighters by the British during the colonial era, the Waziris and several other tribes were prohibited de facto from enlisting in native regiments of the Indian Army.)

Historically, the rural Pashtuns have dominated their neighbors and have avoided subjugation or integration by a larger nation. As one elderly Pashtuntribesman told Mountstuart Elphinstone, a British official visiting Afghanistan in 1809, “We are content with discord, we are content with alarms, we are content with blood . . . we will never be content with a master.” This characteristic makes Pashtuns the perfect insurgents.

With more than 25 million members, the Pashtun represent one of the largest tribal groups in the world. …

Pashtuns identify themselves in terms of their familial ties and commitments, and have a fundamentally different way of looking at the world. As the preeminent Afghan scholar M. Jamil Hanifi wrote in 1978: “The Afghan individual is surrounded . . . by concentric rings consisting of family, extended family, clan, tribe, confederacy, and major cultural-linguistic group. The hierarchy of loyalties corresponds to these circles and becomes more intense as the circle gets smaller . . . seldom does an Afghan, regardless of cultural background, need the services and/or the facilities of the national government. Thus, in case of crisis, his recourse is to the kinship and, if necessary, the larger cultural group. National feelings and loyalties are filtered through the successive layers.”

Pashtuns engage in social, political, and economic activities within these concentric rings; this engagement prevents government-oriented institutions from gaining a foothold in tribal areas.24 This segmentation is one reason why, historically, no foreign entity—whether Alexander, the British, the Soviets, the Afghans, or the Pakistanis—has been able to reconcile the Pashtun to external rule. During the nineteenth century, at the height of its imperial power, Great Britain struggled and failed to subject the Pashtuns to state authority. Even the most brutal of these foreign incursions, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, failed to subjugate the Pashtuns—despite genocidal military tactics and a massive commitment of military personnel and firepower that killed more than a million Pashtuns and drove at least 3 million more into exile in Pakistan and Iran. …

The obstinacy of the Pashtun tribes and the inability of the British Empire to control them led to a border policy of “masterly inactivity” that essentially used the tribesmen as a buffer between India’s northern frontier and the approaching Russian Empire in Central Asia. Successive Pakistani and Afghan governments were no more successful than the British or the Russians, and the designation of this region as a kind of tribal no man’s land over generations created the loose political system of tribal autonomy in the FATA seen today. Indeed the name for this area is actually a misnomer. It is not federally administered in any sense of the word. Constitutionally, Islamabad has never maintained legal jurisdiction over more than 100 meters to the left and right of the few paved roads in the tribal areas. …

Why have the Pashtuns provided a safe haven for the Taliban and al-Qaida, while their neighbors along the same border have proven so resistant to such religious radicalization?…

The explanation for the Pashtuns’ provision of safe haven to the Taliban and al-Qaida lies in their unique social code, known as Pashtunwali: a set of values and unwritten, but universally understood, precepts that define Pashtun culture. Pashtunwali, literally translated, means “the way of the Pashtun.” For U.S. policymakers seeking to address the challenges of the Pashtun tribal areas, an understanding of the core principles of this cultural value system is crucial. Pashtunwali is the keystone of the Pashtuns’ identity and social structure, and it shapes all forms of behavior from the cradle to the grave. Its rules are largely responsible for the survival of the Pashtun tribes for more than 1,000 years, but they remain little understood in the West. As Charles Allen writes, “[Pashtunwali is] an uncompromising social code so profoundly at odds with Western mores that its application constantly brings one up with a jolt.” A Pashtun must adhere to this code to maintain his honor and retain his identity. The worst obscenity one Pashtun can call another is dauz, or “person with no honor.” In a closed, interdependent rural society, a Pashtun family without honor becomes a pariah, unable to compete for advantageous marriages or economic opportunities, and shunned by the other families as a disgrace to the clan. …

Intrinsically flexible and dynamic, Pashtunwali has core tenets that include self-respect, independence, justice, hospitality, forgiveness, and tolerance. Not all Pashtuns embody the ideal type defined by Pashtunwali, but all respect its core values and admire—if sometimes grudgingly—those who do. When hillmen come down out of the mountains to buy staples in the bazaar of a valley town, with their long fighting knives visible in their waistbands, the towns-people are likely to sneak admiring glances and mutter something to their friends about “real Pashtuns.” …

For centuries, these interlocking elements of the unwritten code of the Pashtun—freedom, honor, revenge, and chivalry—have defeated every effort to subdue the Pashtuns and supersede Pashtunwali with a more codified and centralized rule of law. Nevertheless,Western policymakers continue to ignore or to downplay the primacy of these fundamental cultural values in their efforts to shape strategies for southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, while the Taliban and al-Qaida use them for recruitment, shelter, and social mobilization.

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