Finally, after eight years, the U.S. military in Afghanistan is acknowledging the fact that the war there is more against a Pashtun tribal insurgency than against the al-Qa’ida rump of a failed post-9/11 terrorism strategy. In support of this belated realization, there is now evidence of military funding for several research projects aimed at understanding the culture of the Pashtun tribes and what is needed to win them over.
The success, however, of this changed perception will rest on the Obama administration’s flexibility to accept the historical reality that the concept of jihad among Pashtuns, which is fueling this insurgency, is closely tied to external interventions. The U.S. intervention after 9/11 is the casus belli for the Pashtun uprising. It has nothing to do with a global jihad against the West, albeit some of the Taliban leaders have been greased with Arab al-Qa’ida money and imbued with extremist Wahabbism imported from Saudi Arabia.
Around 40 million Pashtuns live in a swath of some 150,000 square miles of contiguous territory running from eastern and southern Afghanistan to northwestern Pakistan. This region has been the crossroads of many past external invasions by nomadic Central Asian tribes and the armies of Persian kings and Alexander the Great on their passage to create empires in the rich plains of the Pakistan-Indian subcontinent.
These external interventions resulted in fierce opposition by rival Pashtun tribes who could only be united by the tenets of their immemorial Pashtunwali code that governed their independence, and later by the concept of jihad in Islamic times. The Pashtun tribes only converted to Islam in the 10th Century AD, more than 300 years after Islam was founded in Arabia, and they have traditionally followed a non-orthodox Sufi version of the religion.
The U.S. dilemma in trying to win the war in Afghanistan – and in staunching the support of fellow Pashtuns from Pakistan’s tribal areas – arises from not only a failure to learn from history but also a total ignorance of the Pashtun’s immemorial adherence to their Pashtunwali code that cherishes freedom from any foreign domination.
These blind spots in U.S. foreign policy have led to three giant missteps. They are:
First, is the cardinal sin of the invasion of the Pashtun-dominated government of Taliban Afghanistan as U.S. revenge for the 9/11 attacks. The Pashtuns saw this revenge as unjust because none of them were physically involved in those attacks. The hijackers were all Arabs. Their only sin was to offer sanctuary to Osama bin Ladin and his al-Qa’ida cohort because of the tenets of their Pashtunwali code that enjoin protection to those seeking refuge (nanawati) and accompanying hospitality (melmastia). While bin Ladin may have bankrolled the Taliban regime under Mullah Omar, the narrative remains to this day among ordinary rural Pashtuns that the 2001 invasion was a breach of the tenets of their Pashtunwali code. As a result, this breach has generated another tenet of their Pashtunwali code – badal or revenge – against those who have invaded their country.
Second, is the imposition of a non-Pashtun Tajik-dominated minority government after 9/11 on a historically Pashtun-led Afghanistan ever since it was founded in 1747. The Pashtuns are a plurality of at least 45 percent of the population and the Tajiks are no more than 25 percent. While President Hamid Karzai is a Pashtun, and there are several Soviet-era Pashtun mujahidin warlords in the government and parliament, the vast majority of rural Pashtuns despise them as quislings.
Third, is the knee-jerk support by the United States (and its NATO allies) of this non-representative and corrupt Kabul government at the expense of the rural Pashtuns in eastern and southern Afghanistan. This support is creating an Afghan national army and police force composed of a majority of non-Pashtuns – mostly Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks – who are unwelcome in the Pashtun areas. As a result, the Taliban, who are Pashtuns, have taken over the governance there.
The Obama administration has to wake up to these realities. Its escalation of military might to solve the Afghan-Pakistan problem is doomed to failure. Also, the idea that economic aid can be thrust upon the rural Pashtuns with a foreign military presence will simply not work.
I am reminded of a recent television video where American Marines are shown trudging through a Pashtun village in southern Afghanistan. They greet the villagers with the Pashtu “Singhay” (how are you), but the villagers all stare at them totally perplexed.
It looks like America cannot win the hearts and minds of the Pashtuns at the point of the gun. The gun has to disappear first before any meaningful aid can be given to transform them from opponents to collaborators to build a viable society both in Afghanistan and the tribal borderland of northwest Pakistan.
Afzal Khan, an American citizen from the region, was an editor with the U.S. Information Agency and Jane’s of London, and an analyst with West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. He is now writing a book on the Pashtuns.)