Taliban and Karzai Regime Undermine Pashtun Tribal Code

By: Michael Hughes  

For centuries the inner-cohesion and tribal balance of the Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s ethnic majority, has been maintained by an ancient tribal code of honor called Pashtunwali, or “way of the Pashtuns”. This value system has been decimated after three decades of war, corruption, dislocation and religious fundamentalism — the offspring of incessant foreign meddling, both direct and via proxy.

Today, the Afghan government and the Taliban have made a conscious effort to devitalize Pashtunwali in their respective quests to control the population. Although it’s been dramatically weakened over the years, the tribal code still represents the prevailing norms that regulate Pashtun behavior, at both the individual and societal levels, and is still the tribe’s “center of gravity”.

The core tenets of Pashtunwali are based on self-respect, justice, hospitality, love, forgiveness, tolerance, loyalty, equality and independence. Pashtuns value honor (izzat), above all, which cannot be overemphasized. Without honor he or she is no longer considered a Pashtun, and is not afforded the rights, protection or support of the community.

Because of the repressive form of Islamic radicalism that has dominated the Afghan narrative, most Westerners would find it shocking that Pashtuns are fiercely independent and value individual liberty. A Pashtun sees himself as a free man and accepts no other as his ruler, as a tribesman told a visiting British official 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.”

Afghan tribalism produced its own unique form of democracy, as formal and informal power structures were relatively distributed, vertically-structured, rarely abused and egalitarian in nature, in which nearly all decisions were made based on consensus-building as opposed to orders handed down from a hierarchical command structure.

For example, in principle, no adult male Pashtun can give orders to another — he must obtain consensus. When justice is served, a tribal meeting called a jirga is assembled where any punishments exacted must first be agreed upon by all.

Tribal elders became leaders because they earned the respect of the people, deriving their power from moral authority as opposed to today’s strongmen who derive theirs from the barrel of a gun.

Afghan expert Selig Harrison believes the coexistence and interaction of Pashtunwali with Islam is critical for understanding Pashtun culture:

On the one hand, it explains the inevitable and ritualistic religiosity of a Pashtun, and on the other hand it explains the futility of efforts to inject religious fundamentalism in Pashtun social and political culture as it stands in contradiction to Pashtunwali. In fact, the Islamic identity of the Pashtuns is only one thousand years old whereas Pashtunwali is reportedly five thousand years old.

Prior to hostile European invasions, Pashtunwali was a guide for a peaceful and hospitable Afghanistan that was known to accommodate Jews and Christians, considering them both to be religions of “the book”.

Contrast these characteristics with the rigid fascism of the Taliban’s perverted Deobandi-Wahhabist Islam which was exported from Pakistan. Wahabbism was relatively unknown in Afghanistan until the Soviets invaded in 1979 when the Pashtun code took a major blow.

Afghan individuality did not lend itself well to military command structures with one exception: when Pashtuns perceived an external threat they temporarily submitted to authority, typically charismatic religious leaders. This was usually followed by a return to normalcy. After the Soviet invasion radical Muslims from around the world flocked to Afghanistan to fight the godless infidels, and the Pashtuns had no problem subordinating to religious leaders to defend the homeland.

Unfortunately, once the Soviets were expelled, the mujahideen, controlled by Pakistan and U.S. intelligence, remained along with their non-indigenous radical ideology. The military might and warlordism of mujahideen commanders undermined the traditional structure of Pashtun society and its concept of equality.

Because of the Afghans’ lineal adoration and near-religious belief in the royal bloodline, the lack of a unifying leader, such as a king, provided requisite space and chaos for the mujahideen to secure a foothold.

The acephalous tribal society soon fissured and cracked — as warlord factions engaged in civil war, paving the way for the Taliban. Although the Taliban’s fundamentalist beliefs were an affront to Pashtun sensibilities, they were the only ones capable of bringing order to the madness.

Thomas Rutting of the Afghanistan Analysts Network described this lack of options: “In today’s violent atmosphere, between the anvil of the Karzai government and the hammer of the Taliban, there are no viable political alternatives for Pashtuns.”

According to a white paper by the New World Strategies Coalition (NWSC), tribal conventions were weakened during the Taliban reign as they tried to replace tribal-centered villages with madrassa-centered structures. The Taliban have continued to uproot the tribal foundation, evidenced by their assassination campaign against tribal elders.

Earlier it was illustrated how much Pashtuns despise being ruled, but the Karzai administration has been so inept it’s enabled the Taliban to fill the void with brute force. As Brigadier Justin Kelly once said: “Unless you are confident in the ability of your government to enforce its peace, then the man with a gun at your door at midnight is your master.”

It’s easy to see how the traits of the U.S.-installed Afghan government are anathema to Pashtuns, considering the Karzai regime embodies everything Pashtuns would consider dishonorable, such as its uber-centralization of justice and services, nationalization of defense forces, predatory nature, unprecedented consolidation of wealth, abuse of power, extreme hierarchical structure, fraud, graft, peculation and the fact it’s beholden to foreign powers.

Kabul has fought against restoring the tribal balance and inter-tribal solidarity, even ignoring the decisions of local jirgas. The Karzai clique is threatened by tribalism, seeing it as much too egalitarian, instead preferring an exclusive patronage network that has benefited a few societal elites, mafia figures and other maligned actors.

NATO forces must learn more about the Pashtun code according to U.S. Major John Cathell, such as the importance of revenge in protecting an Afghan’s honor, because they might better understand the impact that civilian causalities have on the collective psyche of the Afghan people.According to Cathell:

This is important to remember when conducting operations in Pashtun areas. If soldiers force entry into a Pashtun’s home, he is dishonored. If they enter the home’s female quarter, his women are dishonored. If he is detained and forcibly removed in front of his neighbors, he is disgraced. He must take revenge to restore his honor.

The Afghan people are caught in a violent nexus between the Taliban’s Islamic extremism, Western neocolonialism and the Afghan government’s rampant corruption, making it clear why a power-sharing arrangement between Karzai and the Taliban is a formula for disaster. This unholy alliance will further degrade tribal institutions such as the Pashtun moral code, guaranteeing that Afghanistan remains a shell of the nation it once was, before the global elite decided to use it as a geopolitical chessboard.

(Michael Hughes is a journalist and foreign policy strategist for the New World Strategies Coalition (NWSC), a think tank founded by Afghan natives focused on developing political, economic and cultural solutions for Afghanistan).

NOTE: This is a cross post from Huffington Post.

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  • Ayesha Khan  On March 25, 2011 at 9:37 am

    Sound Analysis and would have been plausible but for one strange note: “Deobandi-Wahabism” was exported by Pakistan. Mon Cher, Saudis supported by US exported this “ism” both to Pakistan (esp Northwest or Pukhtunkhwa/FATA) and to Afghanistan. When you study British history or even Swiss history or even that of tribes of North America, all tribes, Clans etc have a pragmatic code of life which in fact is close to Islam. (That is why Islam appeals to the true Afghan). Karzai is not Afghan, he is American as is the Govt and military set up and sponsored in Pakistan. The Taliban of today are not an issue for the Afghan people, nor are the Pakistani neighbors if they are not funded by the US. The problem is the US presence continued on the pretext of one “ism” or another. First it was communism, now its Islamism after this they (US govt) will shoot at the stars because it will be aliens attacking. Someone is always shooting at the poor misunderstood well-intentioned Americans. (Irony is the white man in USA ran away from persecution in his country of origin, i.e. Britain/Europe but now he is persecuting others being the global bully). My advice to the think tanks is study your own history and understand your own drives and the destructive elements within your governments and society and then consider teaching civilizations centuries older than your own about how to live with neighbors and their own people). Remind the war mongerers and the weak whose fears fund wars that “love conquers all” not hate and violence.
    Just withdraw, Uncle Sam, just leave with dignity and peace and find peaceful ways of having your hand in the South Asian or CAR pie! Pukhuns/Afghans like nations before them will come up with their own solutions if the US govt stops attacking them and stops funding other elements to attack them. The genocide of the Pukhtun-Afghans on both sides of the border was instigated by some twisted mind within the US army or CIA and certainly local elements on both sides of AfPak supported. In Pakistan it was Musharraf who started the anti-Pukhtun drive, but that is another story. So conveniently attributing blame to Pakistan and Karzai is ludicrous… as if they are separate from the US govt …its like blaming puppets for killing on the stage which is also set. There is a saying in Punjab, which loosely translates: “he who wields the stick, owns the buffalo” or simply “might is right”. And in global today the US of A is the stick wielder, they’ve got the funds, they’ve got the guns, they’ve got the propaganda machines/ know-how and now they want to tell us that its Pakistan and Karzai against Afghan-Pukhtuns!!!????? This region had problems before the US invaded Afghanistan and established strongholds in Pakistan but after a decade of war that decimated Afghan and Pakistan populations, annihilated families, /crippled children and traumatized communities, now again its Pakistan’s fault? And that too for an “ism” which is actually exported by the British created and American supported Saudi Royals.
    Can someone tell me how many of the enemy there were before and how many are there now after years of bombardment? Then tell me how many of my elders have been assassinated. Tell me what has been achieved, and I will tell you who the “bad guy” is. How about telling me how much is the military industry of the US worth? How many war machines are manufactured and sold annually and to whom? What happens with the revenue generated? (Ask France and other Industrialized Greats). Also, why does the US govt give aid to corrupt govts around the world when the populations tell them, not to give aid. Why do they fund our armies. Why is there such an unholy presence of US military, intelligence and other unaccounted white man presence on Pakistani soil, which locals can see but their govt on US payroll cannot. I am Pukhtun by ethnicity, Pakistani by nationality and a Muslim by Allah’s grace, that was never an issue before why is it now. Al-Qaeda is BS, this US war has only created and somehow armed more “terrorists” than ever before. I define terrorists as mercenaries gone freelance, they have no religion, their purpose is like that of the devil’s, Chaos and Fear. So who has money to pay mercenaries,? Who uses mercenaries as a strategy? Who employs the set a thief to catch a thief strategy..Uncle Sam, own the mess and go home.
    “…before the global elite decided to use it as a geopolitical chessboard” this now I agree with and for this our own people Afghans and Pakistanis must wake up. And Insh’Allah that time is not far now. Good writing and my apologies for the digressive flow in the feedback but I’m sure you get the underlying theme. Wa salaam

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