The Role of the Pashtuns in Understanding the Afghan Crisis

The Role of the Pashtuns in Understanding the Afghan Crisis

by Isaac Kfir


The paper reviews the current state of affairs in Afghanistan and argues that the failure to understand the nature and structure of Pashtun society is responsible for a lack of progress towards peace and security. The first section offers a review of Afghanistan and Pashtun society, the second an analysis of the situation in Afghanistan after 9/11, the third concludes with some recommendations as to how to progress.

The West's Afghan policy is in deep crisis, as eight years since the removal of the Taliban regime the country is experiencing rising violence. This is due to internal Afghan politics and history coupled with political and military mistakes made by the international community. The current situation has naturally led western politicians to suggest contradictory approaches to Afghanistan with some calling for talks with 'moderate' Taliban [1] which have largely been rejected, [2]whilst other call for a continued commitment to countering the Taliban and the other armed groups. In reality, the effect of the debate is to emphasize how rudderless the Afghan policy is, whilst the Afghan political system remains moribund. [3]

The international community, with America in the lead, has made Afghanistan and Pakistan key issues in world affairs, and despite rising costs (the US has annually doubled its official defense costs in respect to Afghanistan, moving from under US $21 billion in 2001-2002, to a projected US $ 180 billion in 2009-2010, [4]), there remains a deep failure to understand the underlying dynamics of the area. Policymakers seem to believe that as long as money and soldiers are 'thrown' at the problem it would eventually come to an end. In reality Afghanistan is a bottomless pit. This is something that the Soviets discovered - the more men and money they poured into Afghanistan, the more difficult it became to extricate themselves from the Afghan quagmire. [5]

The author argues that new efforts [6] are unlikely to succeed because of the Pashtun culture and the legacy of the Afghan Jihad. For this reason, the international community should - instead of trying to 'fix' the Afghan problem by sending more troops and money - adopt a policy of containment that calls for a redeployment of resources. It is abundantly clear that despite billions of dollars and massive international efforts, many Afghans do not feel connected to their state. [7] If anything, Afghans increasingly see the presence of the international community as an occupying force keeping a corrupt and decadent government in power. On the other hand, in the words of an Afghan man, "They [Taliban] collect 10% tax on all income, even from the government fields… So if you grow 100kg of wheat you pay 10kg and they give you a receipt and never charge extra or more." [8] The Guardian journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad ,following a meeting with some tribal elders in Kunduz, Northern Afghanistan ,recounts what a local man had told him: "For 30 years we lived under the rule of war. Only in the last six years have we had some peace. The solution is not to send foreigners – the more foreign troops there are, the more resistance they create. The Afghan army and police should secure the villages." [9]

Understanding Afghanistan

The state known as Afghanistan emerged in the mid eighteenth-century, when a jirga of nine Abdali sub-tribes selected a tribal leader by the name of Ahmed Khan to serve as the successor of Nadir Shah. [10] Ahmed Khan was an effective military leader; he expanded and consolidated his dominion. However, Khan's legacy has been a double edge sword: although he forged a state, it was one with deep division between the Pashtun and the other groups that resided in the area such as Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara, and Turks. The Pashtun live mainly in the south and eastern parts of the country, with a large portion living on the Pakistani side. The Tajik, making approximately 25% of the Afghan population, inhabit in the northeast of the country and the urban centers. The Hazaras, around 13% of the population, reside in the central mountains area of Afghanistan. The final major group, the Uzbeks and Turkmen (less than 10%) is inhabiting the north-center. [11] Other important differences are linguistic with about half the population speaking Dari, around 35% speaking Pashtu while the rest converse in their own tribal dialects. [12] In addition to ethnic differences, Afghanistan also contends with continuous tensions between the centre (Kabul) and the countryside. This eventually brought down the Afghan monarchy in 1973. [13] Ironically the same situation is occurring nowadays as attempts at legitimizing the Kabul government have created angered in the countryside, where the capital is viewed Kabul as corrupt and decadent.

The second issue affecting Afghanistan's ability to exist, as a viable state is its strategic location with the Hindu Kush dominating its centre. [14] Afghanistan lies at the heart of the ancient silk route of China to the West, with the famed Khyber Pass located between Afghanistan and Pakistan allowing for movement from the Far East to Europe and vice versa. [15] Conquerors have found that to reach the wealth of India they must traverse Afghanistan, which is why they have repeatedly sought control of the country. In religious terms, Afghanistan was the conduit by which Buddhism reached China and Japan. Louis Dupree, the American expert on Afghanistan, described Afghanistan also as "…a bridge between the Persian and Indian worlds, transmitting elements of each to the other."[16] Thus, Afghanistan's importance is that to its north is Central Asia with its vast mineral resources, whilst to its South are Pakistan and Iran, providing access to the Arabian Sea and with it to the world. [17] Moreover, recently there are indications that Afghanistan itself may contain important minerals. The Aynak copper deposit, located 30 kilometers from Kabul is a good example; it has a solid level of grade ore (in November 2006, nine companies from Australia, Canada, China, India, Kazakhstan, Russia and the United States submitted tender offers for the deposits [18]). Thus, whereas in the past, Afghanistan's importance was as a conduit, now it may have its own natural wealth, which may exacerbate tensions within the country, as individuals and groups will fight over its control.

The Pashtun Factor

The Pashtun inhabit the area between the Indus, Hindu Kush and the Syistan plateau in South Asia and Central Asia. The majority of them are residing along the Afghan-Pakistan border (a combined area of approximately 250,000 square miles) from Dir along the Indus, westward to Dera Ismail Kera and all the way south to Baluchistan. Interest in the Pashtun rose not only because they make up the largest single ethnic group in Afghanistan and play a central role in the Afghan Jihad and in the Taliban. In addition, among the various ethnic groups in Afghanistan, they are arguably the only ethnic group to have maintained a strong tribal identity. [19]

Legend holds that the Pashtun are descended from a male ancestor known as Qais, making all Pashtun relatives. However, over time, kinship bonds have weakened, leading to a four-tier system. The first is the Pashtun ethnic group, which exists as a confederation that, when needed, operate en masse. This can, for example, be seen in elections when they vote for their 'Pashtun' candidate, opposing a Hazara or a Tajik. The second tier is the quam (tribe), which lives in a specific territory, with its own dress codes, laws, practices and politics. The next dividing element is the Khel (large lineages or clan) with a number of clans making up a tribe. The fourth tier is the Khol (smaller lineages / family groups). The latter is of immense importance for the Pashtun and explains why they have more than seventy kinship terms in Pashto. The head of each Khol is a malik. In theory, there is a malik at each group-level, though in reality they operate as primus inter pares ('first among equal') when it comes to the jirga (importantly different tribes will have different hierarchies [20]). Applying the four-grouping layer to the Pahstun, the system means that one owes allegiance, first to the family, then to the clan, followed by the tribe and finally to the confederation. [21]

The Pashtuns live by to a tribal code – Pashtunwali (Code of the Pasthun), and they generally subscribe to the Hanfi and Deobandi interpretations of Sunni Islam, though Pashtunwali dominates their way of life. [22] At the core of Pashtunwali is badal (honor, though some define it as revenge). Badal is mainly personal but it also has bearing on the group, as it mean that an offense of any form or magnitude demands retaliation, which is not only a personal duty, but a family one that also effects the sub-clan, the clan and the tribe. Characteristics of the Pashtunwali are: melmastia (hospitality) and badragga (safe conduct) and these are linked to badal in that they refer to how one treats one's guests; failure to treat one's guest properly amounts to an offence on one's honor. Syed Abdul Quddus, an experienced Pakistani civil servant with intimate knowledge of the Pashtun, recounts a story told amongst the Pashtun in which an old Pashtun woman loses her sons to a group of bandits who demand hospitality and sanctuary from her. She granted it because even though the bandits killed her only sons, she was honor bound to provide asylum once the bandits claimed it. [23]

The violent nature of Pashtun society is often attributed to the geography of their area, which has some merit especially when one applies the concept of Tarboorwali which refers to the enmity of brother's son / cousin rivalry. The tarbur concept has become synonymous with enemy and has contributed to making the Pashtun so conflict-oriented. [24] The daftar (tribal land) concept and daftari (an individual share of the tribal land) are central to understand Tarboorwali. Daftari means that only those that own land may have a say in the business of the village . A person without a land becomes a faqir – one without a voice. A faqir status affects an individual's position; reducing it to a position of servitude in the village from which it is very difficult to rise above – faqirs have no say in the jirga, which, in turn, prevents them from acquiring land. [25] Tarboorwali becomes a factor when it is time to divide the land. It is in such situations that cousins can become enemies; the family's land is divided amongst male heirs (and cousins tend to marry), and each male wants to acquire land for without it, they and their families are consigned to a faqir position. Thus, land disputes are often at the root of local conflicts leading to bloody feuds and the splitting up of a family line.

In sum, Pashtun society begins with a man, who is the head of the family (malik). The more wealth and land he has the greater the likelihood that he will have several wives. His sons most likely marry their first cousin (i.e. the daughters of his brother – patril-lineal parallel/cousin marriage), in order to ensure that dowries remain in the family. The son will receive a piece of land, making him into a daftari, giving him a say in the village jirga. When the family is small, it resides often in a single house or compound. After a generation or so, the family becomes too big and some members move out and establish their own khol, and the process repeats itself. After a few generations, the family is no longer a khol but a khel and so on (see Figure 1). It is also important to note, that at times, a large Khol or even a Khel would move en masse to a new area in search of land. [26]

Figure 1 - The Breakdown of the Pashtun Structure


The Afghan Jihad Effect on the Pashtun Structure

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 meant that millions of Afghans - mainly Pashtuns - sought refuge in Pakistan and Iran However, the process of crossing the Durand Line began prior to the Soviet invasion, with Afghan Islamists escapi