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A civil war is brewing in Pakistan. Thanks to President Barack Obama, who is shifting the American war from Iraq to “the real enemies” operating from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Cash-strapped Pakistan could not defy Obama persuasion and decided to wage a war against its own people, the Pashtuns inhabiting the Northern Province and the tribal areas of Waziristan. Decades ago, Pakistan waged a similar war against its own people, the Bengalis in East Pakistan. In 1971, the Pakistani military charged to wipe out Mukti Bahini, a Bengali resistance force, paved the way for the nation’s dismemberment. In 2009, the military is charged to eliminate the Taliban, a Pashtun resistance force. History is repeating itself in Pakistan—as it frequently does for nations that do not learn from past mistakes.
With a willful caricature of the Pashtuns, who are successfully resisting the occupation of Afghanistan, Obama advisers are forcing Pakistan, a subservient ally, to help win the war in Afghanistan. This help is suicidal for Pakistan. The civil war will unleash intractable sectarian, ethnic, and secessionist forces. As the warfare intensifies in coming months, Pakistan will face economic meltdown. If the civil war spins out of control, Pakistan’s nuclear assets would pose a security threat to the world, in which case Pakistan might forcibly be denuclearized.
A failing war in Afghanistan has persuaded American policymakers to generate a make-believe caricature of the Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan. For all practical purposes, the Pashtuns are now subsumed under the title of the Taliban. The caricature is simple and compelling: It highlights the Taliban as the paramount enemy without ever mentioning the Pashtun resistance to the eight-year old occupation of Afghanistan. The Taliban fighters are presented as religious brutes addicted to oppression and violence, who wish to impose a barbaric version of Islam under which there is no concept of individual freedom, particularly for Muslim women.
To further distort the Pashtun resistance in Afghanistan, the Taliban are co-equated with the Al-Qaeda, an undefined terrorist group allegedly scheming to detonate weapons of mass destruction, particularly against the United States. Burqas, floggings, and beheadings are accentuated to paint a repulsive caricature of the Taliban. In this caricature, no mention is made that the American bombings of villages, extra-judicial killings, torture, and secret prisons have failed to subdue the Pashtuns in one of the poorest countries of the world.
Credit goes to President Obama for rightfully diagnosing the fact that the Pashtuns of Afghanistan cannot be separated from the Pashtuns of Pakistan across the Durand Line— a more than 1600 miles long border that ineffectively separates Afghanistan from Pakistan. Nearly 41 million Pashtuns live on both sides of the border; around 13 million in Afghanistan and twice as many (28 millions) in Pakistan. Concentrated in geographically contiguous regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Pashtuns live in big cities, small towns, and remote villages. Kabul, Kandahar, Peshawar, Swat, and Quetta are their big cities. Going back thousands of years, the Pashtuns are united through culture, dialects, and traditions. Most have embraced the Sunni sect of Islam. Like other cultural groups, however, the Pashtuns have fused Islamic laws with their pre-Islamic honor code, known as the Pashtunwali.
Pashtunwali is the unwritten Pashtun Code that regulates social behavior and interactions with foreigners. This Code belongs to the Pashtuns, not just to the Taliban. Hospitable and gracious, the Pashtuns go out of their way to respect and protect guests and strangers. Invaders, however, are killed without mercy. Nang (honor) is the founding principle of the Pashtun Code. Khushal Khan Khattak (1613-1689), a Pashtun warrior and a poet, summed up the nang principle in decisive words: “Death is better than life when life cannot be lived with honor.” Badal (revenge) is the integral part of honor. Badal requires that insult be avenged with insult, death with death, and no price is too high to seek revenge. Until the revenge is taken, the Pashtuns are restless, anxious, and uncomfortable with themselves. Forgiveness is available if the injury were unintentional. No forgiveness is rendered to invaders and occupiers. No enemy is too strong to deserve any exception to the Pashtun Code. Brits, Sikhs, Moguls, Russians, and Americans, whoever violates the Pashtun Code faces an unremitting resistance until badal has been consummated. Mighty armies have perished in the land of Pashtuns.
Revenge and Civil War
Since 2001, Pakistan has been resisting the pressure to join the American war against the Pashtuns. A war against the Pashtuns of Afghanistan is also a war against the Pashtuns of Pakistan, and vice versa. No concept of the nation-state or territorial integrity could separate the Pashtuns across the border—certainly not when the Pashtun lands have been invaded and occupied. No vilification of the Taliban could similarly separate them from their Pashtun tribes, even if the Taliban subscribe to a strong religious ideology. For the Pashtuns, the Taliban behavior is deeply rooted in nang and badal of the Pashtun Code. The divide and rule policy practiced in Iraq, which pit Sunnis against Shias and Kurds against Arabs, cannot work against the Pashtuns. Discounting the Pashtun Code, Americans continue to ignore this writing on the wall.
Betting on changing the lessons of history, the Obama White House has coerced Pakistan to close the doors of negotiation and begin to kill the so-called Taliban. Pakistani leadership knows that the Pashtun tribes cannot abandon their sons and brothers whether the invading armies label them Taliban, miscreants, or terrorists. The suicide attacks in Lahore, Islamabad, and Karachi reflect nang and badla of the Pashtun Code. The foremost Pashtun loyalties are to their own people and to their own Code. The Pashtun Code, long before the advent of Islam, has been their way. In order to receive billions of dollars from the United States, the Pakistani leadership has succumbed to the caricature of the Taliban and plunged the nation into a civil war with the Pashtuns, the nation’s second largest ethnic group.
LIAQUAT ALI KHAN is professor of law at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, and the author of the book A Theory of International Terrorism (2006).