Throughout its complex history Afghanistan has been a thorn in the side of most conquerors. Apart from Ahmed Shah Durrani, who was himself an Afghan, no other conqueror has been able to hold this land with its inhospitable terrain and disparate peoples. Why?
The two characteristics of this country cited above are the basic reasons. First, the terrain: the north is divided by a low extension of the Hindu Kush, ideal for guerrilla warfare. The south is desert, and those familiar with the exploits of T. E. Lawrence will be aware that the desert is equally friendly to guerrillas. Division on ethnic lines is also impossible since, however far the ethnic groups might go in their internecine wars, and there is nothing inhuman that they have not been guilty of, they cling very fiercely to their ‘Afghan’ identity and heritage: a fact, apparently incomprehensible to the western mind.
It is essential to dwell briefly on some background, to understand the present. I keep reading learned western authors explaining the concept of Pakhtoonwali, the traditional Pashtun code of honor, their traditional sense of egalitarianism and justice, their respect for elders and tribal and personal honor; all of which observations were indeed true. However, the most learned of historians do not take into account the events of the last three decades to understand the extent of the metamorphosis.
A few aspects of the traditional Pashtun tribal system merit understanding: a) Justice in the tribal system is egalitarian and is meted out irrespective of class, color, creed, religion, wealth, or political influence. Paradoxically, however, only scions of selected families can qualify to become ‘Tribal Elders’ and, therefore, members of the Jirga, The Tribal Council of Elders. Not all members of these can become elders, nor is the membership of the Council hereditary, but those selected are scions of these few families; the ‘Blue Blooded’ families of each tribe.
The Tribal Council elects its leader by tribal customs. Traditionally, the Jirga has acted as the policing authority, prosecution, judge, and jury. Traditionally, the system seldom erred.
Finally, the Cleric, though as equal as any other member of the tribe, under law, was traditionally held in low social esteem. He had no real means of livelihood and, therefore, was dependent on hand-outs from locals, not far above a menial. Since the absence of traditional leaders left a vacuum, it has often been filled by a Cleric, in defiance of traditional tribal custom.
When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the Uzbeks and Tajiks in the north were the first to face the brunt and their tribal leaders led them. Though real generals (Ahmed Shah Masood, the Lion of Panjshir, being the most prominent of them) were thrown up amongst them by the war, they too were from the traditional tribal elders. Inland, however, amongst the Pashtun tribes, most tribal elders delegated responsibility for the ant-Soviet campaign; some to their sons, like Hamid Karzai, others to nephews or other, younger and trusted relatives. After the Soviet withdrawal, many of those appointed warlords, decided to exploit the following acquired in the decade of war and assume tribal leadership; deposing traditional tribal elders.
No wonder then that the result was anarchy; not only in Kabul, where the jostling for power was for the premiership of the country, but also within tribes, for tribal leadership. Many tribes were splintered, with factions formed under their choice of leaders; traditional concepts of respect for elders, traditional leaders, and all that went with it were thrown out of the window.
Enter the Taliban. From ’95 after the capture of Kabul, to ’96 when OBL entered Afghanistan to change everything, things returned to normal, though traditional tribal leaders had fled Afghanistan. Women went back to work and could be seen shopping, unescorted even after dark; justice was swift and egalitarian, in traditional norms, but without the cruel inhumanity that the world was to witness post ’96. This brief period witnessed a government closest to being a representative democracy. The Taliban ruled through Tribal and Village Councils, who decided matters in the traditional tribal custom of egalitarian justice. Of necessity, however, since the traditional tribal elders were absent, fresh leadership emerged, from the non-Blue-Blooded Pashtun.
Post ’96, Mulla Omer, under the influence of OBL, imposed strict Wahabi’ism. Once again, women ceased to work and went back into their traditional veils, confined to the four walls of their house, to venture forth only under the escort of a close family member. But worse was to come; the religious police was empowered to mete out rough and ready justice on the spot. Hundreds of men and women would suffer public humiliation daily for the mildest transgression of whatever displeased members of the religious police. Men could be made to bend over and receive ‘Benders’ on their buttocks if their beards were not of just the right size. Accompanied women (wife, mother, sister, or daughter) could receive the same treatment if a member of the religious police felt that their veil was not worn correctly, or if their conduct, under veil, was ‘forward’, while her male companion watched in helpless humiliation! The proud Afghan was proud no more; he was a humiliated beggar, at the mercy of the Taliban. And their Pashtun brethren across the Durand Line, in Pakistan, witnessed all this helplessly, while seething in rage and hate for the Taliban.
And all this while, the traditional tribal elders lived in comfort and luxury in Pakistan, India, the US or any other corner of the world, having deserted the rank and file of their tribes to the mercy of what the Taliban had become.
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were the two Muslim majority countries supporting the Taliban, while the US also supported them, but less actively. No wonder then that a vast majority of the Pashtun on both sides of the Durand Line began to look on Pakistan as the principle Taliban supporter and transferred their hate to Pakistan. Much of it exists to this day, though with ever decreasing intensity.
Then comes the US to their rescue. I can testify that on both sides of the Durand Line the announced US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, was celebrated; the unexpectedly swift fall of the Taliban was not due to the extraordinary prowess of US forces, or the assistance of the Northern Alliance, but most of all, due to the mini revolts by the humiliated Afghans in each province. As the Taliban had conquered the bulk of Afghanistan, without battle, since supporters of marauding warlords deserted their chiefs to flock to the Taliban promise of a return to justice and equality; so too did the Taliban fall, without offering many battles, at the hands of those who had suffered their oppression and were offered fresh hope by American intervention.
Alas, that hope too was destined to be short lived. The American ‘liberators’ were soon discovered to be tyrants and oppressors and, the tribal elders who returned, after abandoning their tribe(s) to the Taliban, could no longer muster a following. In fact, they were often treated with contempt.
Thus began, what should have been referred to as the “Afghan Freedom Movement”, supported by their Pashtun brethren in Pakistan. This, more appropriate term was, for obvious reasons, unacceptable to the occupation forces in Afghanistan as well as their media. Consequently, the struggle for Afghan freedom from American/NATO/ISAF forces of occupation began to be referred to as a ‘resurgence of Taliban and Al-Quaida’.
With the passage of time, the Afghans began to forget their humiliation at the hands of Taliban and Al-Quaida and remembered only that they had challenged the all-powerful USA. They began to be viewed as the Afghan David vs the US Goliath. Consequently, Afghan Freedom Fighters willingly began to accept the title of Taliban and, in time, inevitably merged with them for the pragmatic concerns of weapons, munitions, and resources.
Witness Hamid Karzai, appointed President, surrounded by his tribesmen, Popalzai Durranis as his personal guards; six months later to date, he remains under the exclusive protection of US troops.
As a far more eloquent senior officer remarked after reading my first op-ed on the subject, in a local daily, in 2004, “the fabric of the traditional tribal structure has been torn asunder.” Something very similar has happened in the tribes bordering the Durand Line on the Pakistani side, though for slightly different reasons. In Pakistan, traditional tribal leadership has been systematically targeted and eliminated.
What this background information intends to put across is the fact that whenever there is a return to some kind of ‘normalcy’ in Afghanistan, and its resultant normalcy on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line, a fresh tribal system will emerge. If there is a return to the concept of Blue Blooded families; these families will not be the same as the ones before. Egalitarianism in justice will remain an essential ingredient, but this time it might be closer to a democratic system sans the social schisms that were traditional to the Pashtun tribal system and the Cleric will inevitably become ‘more equal’ than he was in the traditional system.
So, those dreaming of reviving the traditional tribal system and the traditional concept of Pakhtoonwali better take another long hard look at what has changed.
Time alone will tell how it actually works out, but it has to begin to work out, before a fresh tribal structure can emerge. And this is only possible when the Afghans are permitted to sort things out for themselves without interference by any outside party; least of all the American Army of Occupation.
SHAUKAT QADIR is a retired brigadier and a former president of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org