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Outside View: Afghanistan’s center of gravity

By LAWRENCE SELLIN, UPI Outside View Commentator

WASHINGTON, Oct. 15 (UPI) -- Numbering more than 25 million, Pashtuns are the largest tribal group in the world. They are also by far the dominant ethnic group in the Taliban. The center of gravity of the war in Afghanistan is the confluence of the Taliban's Islamic radicalism and traditional Pashtun culture.

In their brilliantly written article, "No Sign until the Burst of Fire -- Understanding the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier," Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason emphasize that the key to addressing the current instability and radicalization on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is a proper understanding of Pashtun tribal and social framework known as the Pashtunwali. It is important to note that these Pashtun mores predate Islam and shape insurgent behavior. A more thorough comprehension of Pashtun culture may provide a wedge to separate Taliban radicalism from the more time-honored and relatively stable characteristics of Pashtun tribal society.

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To a significant extent, the description of Afghanistan as the "graveyard of empires" and its resistance to outside interference has resided in the individual obligations and collective expectations dictated by the Pashtunwali, whose core tenets include self-respect, independence, justice, hospitality, forgiveness and tolerance. Among Pashtuns, group consensus remains the primary source of power, not a hierarchical central administration. According to Afghan scholar M. Jamil Hani, Pashtun culture is bottom-up, forming a series of concentric rings surrounding the individual, consisting of family, extended-family, clan, tribe, confederacy and major cultural-linguistic group, all of which resist central government influence.

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The current strength of the Taliban both in Afghanistan and Pakistan can be directly linked to the uninformed and misguided policies of the Soviet Union, the United States and Pakistan over the last 30 years. It has been the subversion of the long-established Pashtun tribal culture and the intentional injection of religion as a driving force to support the aims of outside powers, which has helped lead to the rise of the Taliban.

In the early 1970s, fearing Pashtun nationalism, Pakistan embarked on a program to substitute Islam for Pashtunwali as the unifying force of the Pashtun tribal regions. Soviet military brutality and the resulting Pashtun Diaspora further contributed to the breakdown of tribal culture. The United States leveraged Muslim extremists during the Soviet occupation and then abandoned Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal.

Alarmed by the subsequent political vacuum and civil war in Afghanistan, Pakistan, particularly its intelligence agency, the ISI, began to support a small Kandahar group called the Taliban. During its reign in Afghanistan and after its retreat into western Pakistan, the Taliban forcibly replaced traditional tribal political and social structure with religious-based ones, creating a "Talibanized" Pashtun base of operations. Chronically unchallenged by the Pakistan government or the Punjabi-dominated Pakistan army, the Taliban have flourished.

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The Taliban seem on the threshold of regaining control of Afghanistan and, ironically, have become an increasing threat to the stability of a nuclear-armed Pakistan, the nation responsible for creating them. Although they may profess otherwise, no one should doubt that a Taliban victory will lead to an increase of attacks in Pakistan as well as the Taliban becoming a transnational organization for the training and export of terrorism to Europe and the United States.

As Johnson and Mason correctly note, traditional forms of Pashtun governance directly conflict with a short-sighted attempt to impose central control from Kabul into its tribal areas. Regrettably, this approach has long been a cornerstone of U.S. civilian and military policy since the onset of the war in Afghanistan. It is interesting to note, however, that the Taliban, to some extent, are taking a similar approach by imposing top-down religious control. A recent report describing the influx of up to 4,000 foreign insurgents into Afghanistan also contravenes one of the core tenets of Pashtunwali, independence. It is not rare for Afghans, even the Taliban, to describe these foreign fighters contemptuously as "camels."

Journalist and Pakistan expert Selig S. Harrison wrote last May that conventional wisdom indicated either an Islamist or a Pashtun triumph. An equally plausible result, however, could be a cross-border radicalized "Islamic Pashtunistan." According to ethnic mapping, such an area spans one-third of Afghanistan and a large swath of northwest Pakistan. The former Pakistani Pashtun ambassador to the United States, retired Maj. Gen. Mahmud Ali Durrani, said in March 2007: "I hope the Taliban and Pashtun nationalism don't merge. If that happens, we've had it, and we're on the verge of that."

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A new strategy for Afghanistan can correct many of our past errors, if we do so in time. By effectively addressing the Afghanistan-Pakistan cultural environment within the context of a comprehensive and bottom-up counterinsurgency program and in cooperation with allies and regional partners, it is still possible to reverse the momentum of the Taliban and avert a disaster potentially affecting all of southwest Asia.

Mr. President, faster please.

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(Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and a veteran of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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