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RR's Reporter in Afghanistan, Colin Kane. Part 1.


There is something exceptional about the Afghan-Pakistani border region that makes it a particularly attractive habitat for Al Qaeda and its affiliates. This is evidenced by the fact that every major terrorist attack—or would-be attack—on Western soil since 9/11 has had some connection to the region. That critical element that makes Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan such a suitable logistics base and sanctuary is an entrenched social network that is a product of the region’s unique culture and history. If you understand that, you’ll be able understand the magnitude of the challenges we face and why it is absolutely essential that the United States, Britain, and their allies stabilize Afghanistan.

The Pashtun

In October of 2001, the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan in an effort to eliminate a terrorist sanctuary and reduce Al Qaeda’s ability to carry out attacks against western targets. Mistakes were made, resources were diverted to the war in Iraq and, as a consequence, the insurgency was able to grow in scope and intensity. Anyone who watches the news will be aware of this history. What news reports rarely inform us about, however, are the historical, social, and cultural contexts of the war.

The Pashtun are the largest of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups, constituting about 42 percent of the population. Although there are communities of Pashtuns in northern and western Afghanistan, most can be found in the “Pashtun Belt”, which covers southern and eastern Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP). The Pashtun are a fiercely independent tribal people who, unlike the more hierarchical tribes of Iraq, emphasize the rights of the individual. Pashtun communities have traditionally settled disputes and made collective decisions through sociopolitical mechanisms known as Jirgas. These institutions are essentially ad hoc gatherings of the tribes’ adult males and elders, who debate and rule by consensus. These councils have traditionally been the most powerful player in a triad of powerbrokers that also includes religious leaders (mullahs) and government representatives.

Behavior and relationships in Pashtun society have traditionally been governed by a pre-Islamic ideology and code of conduct known as Pashtunwali. Pashtunwali’s central tenets include Nang, Melmastia, Nanawate, and Badal, which roughly translate as honor, hospitality, asylum, and revenge. However, these concepts of Pashtunwali differ from our translations in that they are socially and culturally reinforced obligations. Thus, a Pashtun that adheres to Pashtunwali is obligated to be hospitable to travelers, provide asylum to anyone in danger, and seek retribution when he has been dishonored. The following passage underscores the power of that sense of obligation.

“The obligation of Badal (revenge) rests with the aggrieved party and it can be discharged only by action against the aggressor or his family. In most cases the aggressor is paid in the same coin. If no opportunity presents itself he may defer his revenge for years, but it is disgraceful to neglect or abandon it entirely, and it is incumbent on his relations, and sometimes on his tribe, to assist him in his retaliation. When a [Pashtun] discovers that his dishonor is generally known, he prefers to die an honorable death rather than live a life of disgrace.” (khyber.org )

The combination of Pashtuns’ delicate sensibilities and the extreme consequences for dishonor under Pashtunwali, often lead to long-running blood feuds between clans and tribes. Complicating these feuds is the Pashtun kinship system, which is based on patriarchal segmentary lineage and is characterized by a complex strata of tribes, clans, sub-clans, and extended families (for more on Pashtunwali and the tribal system see the 2006 Economist article entitled “Pashtunwali”).

As one student of guerrilla warfare once mused, “All counterinsurgency is local”. Our lack of understanding of the intricate and convoluted Pashtun social system at the local level has been a major impediment to the state-building effort in Afghanistan. Perhaps even more disconcerting is the public’s lack of understanding of the regions recent history, and the implications that that history has for our national security.

History, Conflict & Culture

In 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in an effort to prop up the ailing communist regime that had taken control of Kabul the year before. This provocation led to an alliance of convenience between the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and various ethnically-based, anti-Soviet Afghan militant groups (I’m not going to entertain the debate about whether or not we could have prevented the invasion. The point is, it happened and the aforementioned alliance was formed. We are where we are.). Unfortunately, none of these parties seemed to anticipate the consequences and the influence that their actions would have in the context of a traditional, conservative, tribal society. The fact is, these external forces eroded the traditional tribal system of governance, wove foreign fighters into the social fabric of the Pashtun belt, and allowed for the radicalization and manipulation of thousands of young Pashtun refugees.

In 1893, a representative of the British Raj, Sir Mortimer Durrand, demarcated the border between British India and Afghanistan. Following the partition of British India in 1947, the Durrand Line, as it is known, became the de facto border between Afghanistan and a fledgling Pakistan. The Afghans, who claimed that the border was null and void upon the dissolution of British India, never accepted the Durrand Line as the official border and the issue remains a bone of contention between the two nations to this day. To support their case, the Afghans point to the divided Pashtun population as unnatural and unjust, claiming that it is only right for the Pashtun to be united in one political entity. Of course, the subtext is that Afghanistan is that political entity.

In the 1970’s a Pashtun nationalist movement—embodied in the Awami National Party—took root in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Given the fragility of the nation and the history of conflict with Afghanistan over the Pashtun lands, the possibility and probability of a Pashtun uprising made Islamabad very uncomfortable. In an effort to undercut and marginalize the Pashtun nationalists, Islamabad began to support one of the political currents opposing the nationalists: the Islamists. Support for the Islamists at the expense of the Pashtun Nationalists represents one of the first steps toward the erosion of the Pashtun tribal system and the introduction of radical ideology. This process was accelerated when the United States and Saudi Arabia began funneling money through the Pakistanis to various Mujahedeen groups. The Pakistanis naturally channeled Saudi money and American weapons and funding to the more radical Islamist organizations and away from any secular Pashtun militias. The influx of weapons and money also empowered certain individuals and undercut the more democratic traditional tribal system. These empowered individuals became the much talked about warlords.

At the same time that weapons, money, and Pakistani politics were tearing at the fabric of Pashtun society, foreign fighters and Saudi funded madrassas were acting as the vehicles for the dissemination and indoctrination of extreme strains of Islam. Many of the truly radical foreign fighters that flocked to Afghanistan and NWFP during the 1980’s fought with, lived among, and married into the Pashtun community (for example, Al Zawahiri, AQ’s second in command, reportedly has a wife from the Mohmand tribe). These bonds between foreign fighters and local women not only infused the Pashtun community with radical elements, but also afforded foreign fighters the protection and cooperation of the tribes. Think that’s fucked up? It gets worse.

The Soviet’s brutal, scorched-earth approach to counterinsurgency drove millions of Afghans to flee to NWFP, where they were packed into sprawling, squalid refugee camps. With little food and few resources, many families chose to send their children to (Saudi funded and radical) madrassas, where they would be fed and clothed at no cost. The children that were raised in these madrassas were not only spoon-fed radical strains of Islam, but were also raised outside of the traditional tribal structure. Fast-forward 20 years and you have thousands of military age males whose allegiance is not to a council of tribal elders, but to a radical mullah. Literally millions of refugees have returned to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban and, undoubtedly, thousands of brainwashed and violent young men have returned to their families’ villages, where they actively and passively undermine the tribal system.

In 1989, ten years after the invasion, the Soviet army withdrew from Afghanistan. Having successfully pushed back the Soviet bear, the United States disengaged from the region. Against all odds, the Soviet backed Najibullah regime managed to stand in Kabul for a couple years, but eventually fell. The war with the Soviets blended seamlessly with a civil conflict; anarchy reigned, and the Afghan population suffered. After decades of war and abuse, Afghans wanted nothing more than peace and stability. It was out of this environment that the Taliban was born.

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