The Inexplicable Longevity of Selig S. Harrison

by Joshua Foust on 5/10/2008 · 7 comments

Selig HarrisonSelig S. Harrison has a curious relationship with reality—that is to say, not much of one. Three years ago, he wrote in Foreign Affairs that the U.S. was to blame for North Korea’s violation of the Agreed Framework he helped to negotiate with Jimmy Carter in 1994. While the tone of the piece was obviously self-serving, it also contained numerous factual errors that were detailed by those involved in the implementation of the Agreed Framework. Harrison, in a reply, dismissed them by saying the Bush administration was just hyping the issue. While I reserve few good feelings for this administration, so far there is little evidence they’ve exaggerated or invented such claims—something that cannot be said for their policies in the Middle East.

This matters because Harrison, who claims expertise on South and East Asia, has written a rather surprising analysis of the concept of Pashtunistan.

Summary: The alarming growth of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the Pashtun tribal region of north-western Pakistan and southern Afghanistan is usually attributed to the popularity of their messianic brand of Islam and to covert help from Pakistani intelligence agencies. But another, more ominous, reason also explains their success: their symbiotic relationship with a simmering Pashtun separatist movement that could lead to the unification of the estimated 41 million Pashtuns on both sides of the border, the break-up of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the emergence of a new national entity, an ‘Islamic Pashtunistan’.

Hrm. That alone raised some red flags. Al-Qaeda is all about creating Pashtunistan (or Pukhtunkhwa)? This warrants further exploration.

Ironically, by ignoring ethnic factors and defining the struggle with the jihadists mainly in military terms, the US is inadvertently helping al-Qaeda and the Taliban to capture the leadership of Pashtun nationalism. The central political problem facing Pakistan, largely shielded from international attention by the ‘war on terror’, is how to deal with the deep ethnic tensions between the Punjabi majority, which controls the armed forces, and Baluchi, Sindhi and Pashtun minorities that have been denied a fair share of economic and political power.

Harrison seems to be suffering under the illusion of over-generalization: the “jihadists” consist of both Pakistani and Afghani Taliban—important to distinguish because one grew in the refugee-madrassas in the FATA, and one came from the hills above Kandahar, along with all the splinter groups—local militants who fight for reasons that may include economic or political power but may not, village elders dissatisfied with Musharraf’s highly militaristic post-9/11 policies, and legitimate Islamist and Taliban-esque political parties. To summarize this as “jihadist” is to simplify to the point of meaninglessness.

Harrison does the same thing when describing Pakistan. He claims there is “no precedent” in South Asia for a state composed of “five ethno-linguistic regions” like Pakistan in 1947 or 1973, yet the man has written tens of thousands of words about India. Which, let it be stated, has slightly more than five ethno-linguistic regions. No one is talking about it failing.

The ideologues of Pakistani nationalism exalt the historical memory of Akbar and Aurangzeb as the symbols of a lost Islamic grandeur in South Asia. By contrast, for the Baluchis, Sindhis and Pashtuns, the Moghuls are remembered primarily as the symbols of past oppression.

I could be missing something critical in the local discourse, but when is the last time one of either the militants in the tribal belts, or Balochi separatists, or Sindhis like Benazir Bhutto mentioned the Moghul Empire? It is not out of line to say this is at the bottom of immediate concerns to the minorities Harrison is describing, especially if their primary grievance against those big, nasty Punjabs is economic and political power.

And since when are Pashtuns a monolithic group? It’s fair to talk of Balochis and Sindhis in group terms, as they tend to organize into hierarchical structures and align their beliefs. But Pashtuns? If there’s one thing my comparatively short time studying has taught me, it is that one generalizes Pashtuns at one’s own expense—aside from the broadest characterizations, which even then will only be right maybe a portion of the time, it is a dangerous and foolish game. So when Harrison writes that, “the Pashtuns… bitterly resent” the power of Tajiks in Afghanistan, he is glossing over what is for all practical purposes an infinite variety of Pashtun experience, belief, and ideologies.

Blaming it all on Tajiks is short-sighted, and reeks of filtering all of Afghanistan’s problems, and everyone’s problem with the central government, through the hagiography of Ahmed Shah Massoud. Rather than discussing the problems with incorporating warlords of all ethnicities—Hazara, Kuchi, Pashtun, Uzbek, Tajik, and Turkmen—or the endemic problem of official corruption and the opium trade, or the poor security along the border regions, Harrison blames it all on those damned Tajiks. Classy.

I’m honestly curious what he bases that on, since nothing here is footnoted, he refers to no interviews or source texts, and it is written as an intuitively obvious assertion. It is not. Harrison needs to argue his case, not state it. When he claims, for example, that Pashtuns blame all their woes on the British, he is forgetting a few centuries of intervening history that also factor into their grievances—including, let us not forget, the willful destruction of most of the country during the Soviet invasion.

While it is true that the issue of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is disputed, it is not as black-and-white as Harrison claims, nor is it as simple as the Pashtuns being denied something that is rightfully theirs. Digging into the relevant histories of the region (see here and here) can see the historical roots of the dispute over Pashtun lands is much more than the British simply claiming Pashtun land between the Indus and the Khyber. Similarly, discussing only Pakistan’s recent attempts to mute the Pashtunistan movement ignores over a century of history of violence cycles and grievance resolution in the region.

Despite Harrison’s decades of writing about Afghanistan, I honestly have to question just how much he knows of the culture if he writes things like this:

There are from two to three dozen Pushtun tribes, depending on how one classifies them, generally divided into four major groupings: the Durranis and Ghilzais, concentrated in Afghanistan; the so-called independent tribes, straddling the Durand Line; and several tribes, such as the Khattaks and Bannuchis, centred on the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan.

I’ve never heard the number of tribes listed as that low, unless he is only counting above an arbitrary cut-off point. The problem is that Pashtuns tend to self-identify according to a variety of identity layers—what most modern western analysts call Supertribe, tribe, clan, division, and so on. The layer at which one is self-identifying is very fluid, and often situationally dependent; therefore, any data on what kind of identity a given person is using—especially during ethnographic surveys—must be viewed with skepticism. Harrison allows for no such diversity in his simplistic characterization of Pashtun society, which is vastly more fractured than he gives it credit for. (Conspicuously missing from Harrison’s account is the revelation that almost all Afghan-on-Afghan violence in the country, and especially in RC-East where the Pashtunistan concept has most sway, is between warring factions of Pashtun tribes.)

But Harrison’s misreading of Afghanistan’s history and culture goes deeper:

By contrast, the loss of the trans-Durand territories in 1823 and the consequent division of the Pashtuns left a truncated Afghanistan with a more tenuous ethnic balance. As the ‘great game’ between Britain and Russia developed during the 19th century, the British egged on successive Afghan rulers, who gradually pushed the border of Afghanistan northwards to the Oxus River. The British goal was to make Afghanistan a buffer state, and the Pashtun rulers in Kabul had imperialist ambitions of their own. Extensive areas populated by Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks and other non-Pashtun ethnic groups were annexed by Kabul after long and costly struggles that left a legacy of built-in ethnic conflict.

This is, simply, twisted. The “subsequent divisions” of the Pashtuns (which, again, were absolutely not as united as Harrison makes them out to have been) had everything to do with their relationship with the Sikhs and the widespread feuding amongst the Sardars, and barely anything (if at all) to do with the British. Here, he portrays the noble Pashtuns are empty pawns doing the bidding of the British, apparently forgetting the context of two extremely bloody wars between the Afghans and the Brits.

Indeed, absolving the Pashtuns of any hand in their own fate is infantilizing them—surely a worse crime than their current status of semi-autonomy in two states.

The rest of Harrison’s history would require a tremendous amount of effort to untangle; suffice it to say that he glosses over many significant events and choices the Pashtuns made collectively, whitewashes their own role in their fate, and blames everything on those meddlesome British. What is more interesting than his tenuous grasp of history (based on which texts I couldn’t say, as it doesn’t match with any of the major works I’ve read) is his treatment of the area post-9/11.

Here, Pakistan is a limp puppet, doing the bidding of Washington. While this is true to a certain extent—Islamabad would not be in conflict with the tribal areas at this exact moment if not for American prodding—it, again, greatly over-simplifies the history of the region, which indicates that the tribes there were headed for conflict anyway (in other words, another cycle of violence, accommodation, and cease-fire would begin). Blaming it all on Washington’s Pakistan puppets absolves Pervez Musharraf of his culpability in his ludicrously violent overreactions in the early days of the wars in FATA, and places an out-sized level of blame on Washington. But what is this?

The radicalisation of the Pashtun areas straddling the Pakistan-Afghanistan border has intensified both Islamist zealotry and Pashtun nationalism. In the conventional wisdom, one or the other, either Islamist or Pashtun identity, will eventually triumph, but an equally plausible possibility is that the result could be what Hussain Haqqani has called an ‘Islamic Pashtunistan’.

Maybe my searching skills are off, but all I could find of this reference were other articles written by Harrison himself, quoting Hussain and calling the Pashtuns “a time bomb,” and other silly, over-hyped nonsense. Perhaps if he footnoted his quotes, or indicated where he got any of this information, we could check it and see for ourselves.

As it is, Harrison casts a very unconvincing shadow on the discourse over the Pashtunistan issue. It merits serious discussion—separatist movements always do. But placing them in their proper context, both historically and socially, is just as important as making a case you’ve been trying to make for years. As it is, Harrison seems to rely on mischaracterization, hyperbole, and “the soft bigotry of low expectations” (to borrow a phrase and avoid slinging charges of Orientalism)—hardly the stuff of a world-renowned regional expert. I hesitate to accuse Harrison of wearing ideological blinders, as I can’t really figure out what his ideology is, simultaneously blaming the West for subjugating the Pashtuns while granting them unlimited power to unite, declare independence, and bring down that very same West.

But that’s par for the course for most writing these days on Pashtuns, and even on Afghanistan. It just doesn’t add up. My question here, though, is the same as it was for Ann Marlowe: who the hell keeps paying him to write? I have to assume it is simply the ignorant, those more aware of his reputation than his recent scholarship, without the means to fact-check what he writes so long as it confirms their biases. That is a major loss to the field, that rigor. But, as with the curious longevity of Thomas Johnson (whom, ironically enough, Marlowe has called “brilliant”), it doesn’t seem to be that unoriginal, either.

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– 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 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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Chengez Khan Khattak May 10, 2008 at 5:39 pm

Firstly I have no idea whoes this old fellow is in the picture or what he wrote on Pashtuns/ Afghans (Ethnic). Just going to clarify that Pashtuns or Afghans can be divided into 60 or so tribes. Durrani is not a tribe it’s actually alternate word for Abdali.

Ahmed Khan Abdali or Ahmed Shah Durrani are one and the same person, founder of the modern day Afghanistan. Durrani as in ‘pearl’ literally. He was elected by a grand inter tribal jirga (Council). So people using Durrani as family name are actually Abdalis. Since Ahmed baba age is seen as golden era among Pashtuns/ Afghans bolstering of being from that blood line is but quite natural even for our non-tribal American friends it’s not hard to figure out.

Pashtuns/ Afghans are all very conservative culturally and religiously although I do understand the unnecessary propagating bits of the article though nevertheless to state fact is but desirable. Historically, the urgue to oust out or diminish foreign dominance is utmost vitally important part of Afghans/ Pashtuns characteristic.

No matter how many conspiracies, or divisive hate seeds some foreign people would like to sue one thing has always been constant and sure will be so in future as time be our witness, invaders under all pretext shall be defeated, humiliated by whatever means necessary.

As far as Pakistan is concern, the free hearted tribes are not only limited to North West Frontier & FATA but also Northern Baluchistan, Punjab, Sindh and some pockets are now natives in Northern Areas(Gilgit/ Baltistan) et plus Kashmir. So to give the impression as they want or have desire to separate is not only unnatural mais also beyond logic.

Khoshal Khan Khattak ‘ Da Afghan po nung mei vatrala Tora, Nungyal da xmanei Khoshal Khan Khattak yam’


Richardson May 10, 2008 at 7:38 pm

Harrison is well-known among Korea watchers as a North Korea apologist. One of his arguments from the article cited dealt with why North Korea might’ve been involved in uranium enrichment; to prepare the slightly enriched uranium (SEU) needed for the light water reactors (LWR) promised under the 1994 Agreed Framework. How thoughtful of the North Koreans – ‘surprise, you provided the LWR, we have the SEU!’ His overall case is that the U.S. never proved North Korea had a uranium program, but if they did it was for legitimate purposes. Believing that should cause one to have a terminal case of cognitive dissonance. Anything the man writes is suspect.

David May 11, 2008 at 9:50 am

Concerning contemporary writing on Pashtuns, were any of today’s experts humble enough to investigate what serious researchers, not just authors who can get their stuff into readily accessible journals and quasi-popular books, have to offer, they could do far worse than studying Fredrik Barth and his work on Pashtuns decades ago. His introduction and chapter, “Pathan Identity and its Maintenance,” in the volume he edited called “Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Culture Difference,” published in 1970 by Little, Brown, offers a perspective that transcends the silly and hopeless effort of enumerating the number of ‘tribes’ among the Pashtuns. That’s a worthless undertaking because it has us trying to impose a fixed and enduring boundary on a people who don’t think in those terms (even though they may insist that they do so). Sure it’s easy enough to get a Pashtun to offer up a list of ‘tribes,’ but a week from now, if you query him again, his list may be wildly different and similarly, his neighbor’s list will be different again.

Try, however, to suggest something like Barth’s approach to those in the field who are looking for neat social categories in which to put natives in the expectation that if only the right categories can be delineated, we’ll be able predict how individuals, so categorized will behave.

Moreover, they’re in love with the notion of finding leaders for tribes who can speak for and deliver their tribe, just like a colonel can speak for his brigade.

And as they seek automatons who do what they do because of their tribal identity, they similarly expect that Pashtun behavior can be explained by other prodigiously useful attributes as Pakhtunwali and the Pakhtun inability to resist feuding over ‘zan, zar and zamin.’ With so few factors needed to explain Pashtun behavior, one has to question what the point is in wasting money on the touchy-feely Human Terrain Teams.

Joshua Foust May 12, 2008 at 8:14 am


I’ve actually found Brent Glatzner’s work on tribes in Afghanistan to be top-notch. He was the one who prompted me to look at the fluidity of Pashtun identity, and how the metric by which they identify themselves can change. Personal experience has also shown me that the number of tribes in Pashtun society is for all intents and purposes infinite, as minor disputes can result in a family or group of families breaking off to form their own sub-tribe. So rolling through a village, there could be one tribe, as they all have the same parent tribe, or there could be a dozen sub-tribes as the men bickered over women, land, and inheritance. So again: Harrison drastically oversimplifies.

Richardson, from what I’ve researched of the nuclear issues in North Korea, I agree. That is why I said he has a tenuous relationship with reality.

Chengez, Selig Harrison is an influential reporter-turned-scholar in Washington, DC. He commands a rather large influence, and is routinely published in influential journals as well as newspapers and magazines. One of the points of this post is that I don’t understand why that is; his work, at least his recent work, is not very good.

David May 12, 2008 at 12:56 pm

Glatzer has done serious fieldwork and remains involved in the region.

Efforts have been made to suggest to our military that the concept of tribe can be misleading and that they should instead focus on the factors and circumstances that lead to how people identify themselves and their significance. That’s just too hard for them. They seek the static boxes in which to put people.

As problematic as the tribe concept is, so to is the concept of ethnic groups and identities. Conrad Schetter has done some good work in this regard especially its broader relevance for Afghanistan.

The broader question is whether there’s anything that can be done to bring to those who are operating in the field a perspective that opens them to recognize the complexities that characterize social and political relations in this setting.

My experience does not leave me optimistic that this can be accomplished. There’s just too many ‘experts’ out there who are eager to offer up to them junk food concepts.

Joshua Foust May 12, 2008 at 1:31 pm

I would agree. I am a fan of GoA’s idea of The Afghan individual as a Unit of Analysis.

Askar-Guraiz May 12, 2008 at 2:46 pm

These archaic former journalists turned ‘experts’ need to shut up. “No foreigners allowed beyond this point…”still greets them on the gates to what is now called FATA.
How do you claim expertise on an area that your are barred from entering? (Minus one or two government managed journalistic trips somewhere in their good-old adventurous or may be hippi youth…)

When you mix free-time, unrestricted imagination, and the bad of habit wanting to see your name in a by-line you end up with crazy crafts such as the recent stuff on ‘pushtunwali’ and ‘pushtunistan.’

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