Digging Deeper into the Pashtun Tribal Areas

by Joshua Foust on 5/7/2008 · 6 comments

First off, here are two excellent segments from Al Jazeera English on the issues facing the NWFP and FATA in Pakistan.

Oh look, there’s Bill Roggio arguing with Pakistanis about the issues facing their own tribal areas. It is interesting to hear Jalil Afridi, the editor of the Frontier Post, lend his perspective. He cops to being a “tribal,” meaning a member of the Afridi tribe, one of the few Pashtun tribes not split in some way by the Durand Line. They are also, in a totally unrelated tidbit, renown arms dealers—the largest of which is featured in this amusingly amateurish video on VBS, hosted by a man named Naeem Afridi… of the exact same tribe. Mr. Afridi (the editor, mind you) sees the main problem facing the FATA’s relationship with the outside world to be the century-old Frontier Crime Regulation law, which governed the area’s relationship with British India and later influenced its turbulent history with Islamabad (see my thoughts on this matter here, which contains many of the same points raised by Mr. Afridi and Mr. Nawaz).

The regional history is very important. So important, in fact, that I think Roggio is discounting it needlessly as Afridi hypes it too much—the traditional relationship between tribes and the central power is a relatively unchanging thing, and has been for a long time. This is a perfect segue into discussing a paper written by Thomas Johnson and M. Chris Mason of the Naval Post Graduate School, written for the journal International Security: “No Sign Until the Burst of Fire: Understanding the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier.”

Unfortunately, discussing the work of Johnson is a difficult task: much of it amounts to literature reviews, which are not in and of themselves crimes, but the lack of analysis reduces discussion to focusing on how he frames events, histories, and authors—which is a vastly more complicated prospect. Nevertheless, there are some broad points to make that bring this paper up disappointingly short, and ways it could have been so much more useful. (My research into this matter makes me something of a biased observer, but the points I raise should still be valid. I hope.)

On a macro level, this paper is riddled with clichés. From the weird prevalence of intelligence analyst lingo in describing the general “tribal temperament” of various tribal groups and ethnicities—this one supports the Taliban, these people are peaceful and would never harm a lamb—to the curiously racist notion that there is something rooted in the idea of Pashtunness that makes them particularly susceptible to religious demagogues, there is no escaping Johnson and Mason’s relentless romanticism of the people of the region. Warfare is “savage,” Pashtun bloodlust makes them “the perfect insurgents,” the Balochi are “testy but not insurgent,” the Waziri are “irascible,” and the Uighurs are “restive” and violent relics of ancient Kashgaria. Are these guys trying to be Robert Kaplan or what? This doesn’t touch the adjective-laden descriptions of the region’s geography that sound, for all the world, like they were cribbed directly from Louis Dupree.

Furthermore, there are some rather glaring factual errors. On page 44 (the report starts on page 41) there is a footnote about the Kuchi nomads. Johnson and Mason claim they have seventeen seats set aside for them in the Wolesi Jirga; there are really only ten. They claim the Kuchi “dislike the Taliban intensely,” except that the Kuchi were early supporters of the Taliban and later rather brutal foot soliders during the long brutalization of the Hazarajat. To this day, there are simmering tensions between Hazara settlers and brutal campaigns of forced eviction by the Kuchi, many of whom are said to remain loyal to the Taliban’s goals. While this is most likely rooted in a more traditional nomad-settler dispute common to interface areas, rather than some deep-seated ideological affiliation with the Taliban, the authors don’t allow for this depth of analysis, and their simplification confuses the issue.

On page 47, the make a series of claims: a) “Nuristanis” are a single, distinct ethnic group; Hazara are Hanafi Sunnis; all the various regional minorities speak mutually unintelligible languages and can’t communicate; and only the Nuristanis demonstrate syncretic traditions within their practice of Islam. This last part is certainly true—thanks to an ancient and sheltered history, many peoples within Nuristan do maintain some animist and polytheist-like traditions (which I think makes them one of the most fascinating people on the planet), but many Pashtun groups—hell, most groups all over Central and South Asia—have incorporated pre-Islamic traditions into their religion. The Afridis, for example, still worship human figures at shrines, something explicitly forbidden in the Koran. And that big about languages is just silly; most people in the region, even the Nuristanis, speak Pashto as a lingua franca. The Nuristani are also the only “ethnic group” in the list that probably isn’t—as Richard Strand has documented, they comprise at least fifteen separate ethno-linguistic traditions, and those traditions are what are not mutually intelligible. Again: Johnson and Mason hopelessly oversimplify the situation.

One enormous snafu that leaps off the pages and should make any Afghanistan expert bristle is the assertion, on page 51, that “the best documented of the many fault lines running through Pashtun society is the 300-year old conflict between the Durrani and Ghilzai tribes in Afghanistan, a conflict that forms one of the underlying reasons for the struggle between the Taliban and the government of Hamid Karzai.” This is, flatly, wrong. The authors don’t bother to inform a non-expert which tribe is which, because the statement itself is incoherent. They reference both Steve Coll and Ahmed Rashid in other places, so the existence of this claim is puzzling: both of those authors refute the tribal argument about the Taliban… mostly because the Taliban does not focus on tribal affiliation. Hamid Karzai was supporting the Taliban in the 1990s as a stabilizing force until they murdered his father; then he turned into an opponent. There is nothing tribal about the rivalry.

But the history they tell, is that history any good? Sort of. Right off the bat, the authors make the claim that the majority of the violence and extremism in the border areas is not only caused by Pashtuns, which is well enough on its own, but that this fact “has not been fully grasped by a governmental policy community that has long down-played cultural dynamics.”

This is, in a word, wrong. I would make the argument that in Afghanistan the government (i.e the Military) tends to over-filter things through a tribal, or cultural context. There is an over-emphasis on Pashtunwali (more on this later), and an over-emphasis on tribes to the detriment of other qawm or identity layers that influence social relationships. In fact, in one of Noah Shachtman’s many overheated tirades against the Army’s Human Terrain System—which was formed to address these kinds of distorted priorities—he noted a curious success:

In western Afghanistan, the 4th Brigade of the 82nd Airborne had come under a steady stream of attacks, despite “a very aggressive outreach effort to village elders,” the report notes. The Human Terrain Team embedded with the brigade observed that the true power brokers in the area were the mullahs — the local religious leaders.

“After redirecting their outreach effort to the mullahs,” the 4th Brigade “experienced a rapid and dramatic decrease in Taliban attacks…. In the words of the brigade commander, ‘For five years, we got nothing from the community. After meeting with the mullahs, we had no more bullets for 28 days; captured 80 Afghan-born Taliban, 10 Pakistanis, and 32 killed or captured Arabs.’”

That doesn’t sound like a community systematically ignoring cultural dynamics. Where are Johnson and Mason pulling this from? The assertion isn’t footnoted. In Husain Haqqani‘s work, he notes something very much the opposite of the authors’ claim:

State Department talking points for President Nixon, prepared for [Zulfikar Ali] Bhutto’s Washington visit in July 1973, stated:

…Over the longer run, if Pakistan is internally unstable and deeply divided, the Indians, Afghans, and Soviets may be tempted to place pressures on Pakistan. In this environment, we see the resolution of Pakistan’s security problems primarily in political/psychological and economic terms and only secondarily in military terms.

In other words, going back at least to the 1970’s, the U.S. government was viewing events in Pakistan’s security sphere through a cultural, rather than a security, framework. This is backed up further by their explicit support of religious zealots during the mujahideen war, as they understood it would be easiest to draw in foreign fighters and broad support across the Muslim world by making an ordinary war of conquest for the Soviets into a holy war of God-warriors against Godless atheists. Saying the U.S. “governmental policy community” (which, to be fair, includes nearly everyone in Washington, DC, and lots more outside it) “has long downplayed cultural dynamics” in the Afghanistan/Pakistan border region is more than a bit of a stretch.

Other parts of their history are problematic as well. On page 52, Johnson and Mason claim that the segmentation of Pashtun society—into concentric rings of tribal levels, family levels, and so on—have made them irreconcilable to “external rule.” After stating earlier in that very same section that the Pashtuns probably migrated to the area 1000 years ago, they list Alexander the Great, who invaded the region around 400 BCE, as one reason why the Pashtuns don’t like foreigners. They then list the British, Soviets, Afghans, and Pakistani’s as hard proof the region is ungovernable by outsiders. This of course ignores that for several decades the British, Afghans, and Pakistanis had a pretty decent run with ruling the area, just in a reduced and locally-appropriate way under terms like the FCR. But this ignores the other foreigners who have ruled the land with varying combinations of appalling brutality and clever politiking: the Mongols, Ghaznavids, Safavids, Timurids, and Mughals come immediately to mind; I’m sure there are others. Similarly, the claim that the Soviets engaged in “genocidal military tactics” is ludicrously overblown; the so-called butterfly mines were horrific, yes, as were the attempts to raze the countryside to force the rural villagers into the cities (interesting that the Soviets preferred urban counterinsurgency to rural), but these do not rise to the level of genocide. Rosanne Klass acutely describes what genocide was like, when Genghis Khan’s son was killed during the seige of Balkh:

What was lost could never be truly restored. The land had been depopulated, its people were dead, fled, or enslaved… The scholars were gone, the artists were gone, the poets, the heroes, the kings were gone, the land was stripped of life, the fields were ruined and barren. My horrors die with me, yours with you, but such horrors as these are ineffaceable, and heal, when they heal, like an amputation.

They also say a million Pashtuns were killing during the Soviet War. There is no doubt a lot of Pashtuns died; but to downplay the sacrifice of the other ethnicities in Afghanistan during the struggle against the Soviets is simply offensive. Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen, and Hazara all sacrificed nobly and in great numbers.

Later on that page, Johnson and Mason claim—without sourcing anything more than Peter Hopkirk and a brief Martin Ewans book to claim the Afghans and Pakistanis were no better at “ruling” the FATA than the British of the Soviets… a foolish claim to anyone familiar with the history.

By far the best, and most solidly constructed part of the entire paper, is the section on the Tori Khel rebellion of 1936. Of course, the authors play with chronology and mistakenly imply things that happened in 1936 (they don’t specify the year the Faqir of Ipi enters the scene) happened before other things in 1897. They do this to make the case that the Taliban is neither unique nor new to the region—a good claim to make, supposing it is referring to the modern, cellularized Taliban, and not the group that arose out of Mullah Mohammed Omar’s illiterate hillmen around Kandahar.

But this one bright paragraph is quickly overshadowed by a running series of logical inconsistencies. On page 54, Johnson and Mason claim that the ulemas, the new variant of an old tribal structure used by the Taliban, is fueling the insurgency. In the next paragraph, the say “tribalism and tribal social structure alone cannot account for this insurgent behavior.” Okay. In the next paragraph, after attacking those who say the tribal areas are “ungoverned” (thank God; this is right), they then say that this framework is used to push the central government into the tribal areas by various outsiders “who are the first to downplay the importance of tribalism and the Pashtun tribal code.” Later in the same paragraph, they say the tribal structure and social codes make a policy of establishing central government control a counterproductive exercise.

That last bit is actually correct, but it took such a convoluted journey to get there it’s a wonder anyone can pick it out of the morass.

The section on Pashtunwali is riddled with misconceptions and further inconsistencies. On page 59, one paragraph describes the tribal code as “uncompromising” and “so profoundly at odds with Western mores that its application constantly brings one up with a jolt.” A Pashtun, Johnson and Mason explain, “must adhere to this code to maintain honor.”

In the next paragraph, Pashtunwali is “intrinsically flexible and dynamic,” and has such profoundly-at-odds-with-the-West social codes as self-respect, independence, justice, hospitality, forgiveness, and tolerance. They then proclaim the hill Pashtuns “the real Pashtuns” because they carry knives, and claim that all insurgencies in the area always start in the hills because of “nang culture,” which of course ignores insurgencies against the British, Soviets, and Pakistanis.

On page 60, Pashtunwali goes back to being a “critical set of obligations” imposed on society, one that all Pashtuns embrace. This entire section falls prey to what the wonderful blog Afghanistanica termed, “wonderful Rudyard Kiplingesque hyperbole” that is so common to Western writing about a social code that is about as rigid and adhered to as chivalry.

Critically missing in Johnson and Mason’s description of Pashtunwali is the obligation of one who is offered hospitality to lead raids on the land that once housed him. This, as explained in Trench’s history of the Frontier Scouts, goes much further in explaining the refuge granted al-Qaeda and the Mullah Mohammed Omar branch of the Taliban… and their insistence on leading raids about into Afghanistan.

None of this touches on sourcing issues, from relying on the CIA World Fact Book, one of the worst open sources around, to “A Military History of Afghanistan” used to describe Pathan restlessness as told to Mountstuart Elphinstone in 1809, to relying on incomplete contemporary “pop” histories of the region rather than far more developed and older texts. And this is when they can be bothered to source any of the dubious claims that pop up regularly throughout the text, which is rare and quite frustrating when one wants to know where they got the silly idea, say, that the FATA was crawling with Chechens.


Alas, by this point, the pitfalls of a Thomas Johnson essay on Afghanistan should be clear. Digging through it and unraveling all of the poorly sourced claims of intrigue and danger is an exhausting task, and this took me hours of reading and cross-checking claims against sources I had on hand. I’m certain I missed many, though my copy of scribbled on to high heaven. It is almost there, and gets most things sort of half right, but as always the devil is in the details. And it is in the details that this essay falls to little tiny pieces, shattering upon its own pretentiousness.

I have a much bigger question, however. International Security is a respected, peer-reviewed journal run by Harvard and MIT. Who the hell reviewed this? You don’t need to know anything about the literature to be able to spot the logical inconsistencies. But I suppose when the author in question proudly poses in a shalwar kameez, his tales of exotic and violent lands are simply not to be questioned. They need to be.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Askar-Guraiz May 8, 2008 at 11:41 am

To the very end of your analysis, you unlock what is essential to the archaic imaginations of Johnson and Mason that has led them to write such a self-contradicting piece. That Shalwar-Kameez pose. To have put that on is perhaps a claim to credibility on a matter—Pushtunwali—that exists not beyond the imagination of some curious academics and literate Pushtoons who needed to put structure to the chaos that represented Pushtoon public life. Back in the old days. No more.

It is absolutely disheartening to see this article pass through the scrutiny of the journal’s peer-reviewers. The sad part is that these guys have access to people who really are going believe them: soldiers and officers who will be deployed!

Isupzai May 8, 2008 at 2:54 pm

My dear Mr Guraiz:
True Pashtunwali is on the wane in the cities of Pukhtunkhwa.
But if you would be so kind as to step off your high road into the FATA of PATA or even into the Kakar’s and Achakzai’s of Baluchistan, you will find that Pashtunwali is alive and well. Having said that not all aspect of Pashtunwali are compatible with 2008, such as womens right issues, however the latter confirms the point.
You see the Brits divided the Pashtuns into many pieces.
The settled areas of Mardan and Charsadda
The 7 FATA
The tribes kept within Baluchistan administration
And now the Paki made PATA.
What we need is to redraw the obsolete British boundaries and unify the Pashtun people. But that will never happen because it is a scary idea to many.
“TAL daye vee Pakhtunwali”
With respect,

Iason Athanasiadis May 8, 2008 at 4:12 pm

Excellent weblog – thanks for the excellent analysis that makes Registan indispensable in interpreting the tea-leaves.
I’d be delighted if you might consider posting a link about my upcoming exhibition at DC’s Wilson Center on the third generation of the Revolution in Iran. I’m a journalist currently at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation who spent the past three years in Iran and photographed the youth undergrounds there.
If you send me an email I’ll be delighted to email you an illustrated poster invite.
all best,

Abdullah Ichiqzai May 9, 2008 at 10:41 am

Joshua you write, “Thomas Johnson of the Naval Post Graduate School,”.

Don’t you expect that an Afghan expert is required to have lived in Afghans for atleast a year, have fluency in one of the native languages, and have completed graduate courses related to Afghanistan or have written his master’s thesis on Afghanistan.

Mr. Johnson has never lived in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Occassional trips to Afghanistan or Pakistan to interview people don’t suffix.

Mr. Johnson has never spoken a word of Dari or Pashto, which is important to understand Afghanistan.

Mr. Johnson never lists where he got his master’s degree from. When you check the Naval Post Graduate School website you notice that crucial piece of information missing. He also does not correct people who assume he must have a prestigious PH.D. during meetings, conferences, seminars or when considering him for publications in peer reviewed journals. By faking this Ph.D. perception he passes himself off as a doctorate trained expert on Afghanistan.

By very cautious of the sophmoric expert who does not have training, education, language abilities, faking his credentials.

Richard Strand May 12, 2008 at 3:29 am

You state, “many peoples within Nuristan do maintain some animist and polytheist-like traditions.” Not any more; the mullahs have done their job well.

Thanks for a good blog.

Josh SN August 1, 2008 at 4:08 pm


Thank you for your review here.

I’d quibble on a couple points, but not to undermine your basic claims. They do say the Nuristanis have the most holdover traditions in their brand of Islam, but the next sentence says many other Pashtuns have similar traditions:

“The Nuristanis still sometimes use animist gravesite effigies, which are prohibited in Islam, suggesting that they have grafted Islamic beliefs onto existing traditional customs. This is also true of the Pashtuns, where Hanaa Sunni beliefs are layered over a much older social code.”

They also say, as you do, that the Taliban is not a tribally based organization, quite the opposite. They say that the Taliban are replacing the previous tribal leadership, which they describe as Pashtun Nationalist, with Islamism.

That said, thanks again for pointing out the problems with Mason and Johnson to the inexpert reader.

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