“How does this joker still get published?”

by Joshua Foust on 5/11/2009 · 12 comments

A reader emailed me this Selig Harrison op-ed today, asking my thoughts. I threw some into an email, but couldn’t think of something substantive, rather than snarky, to say about it. Luckily, Arif Rafiq did that for me:

Who cares? That was 162 years ago. Back then, James Polk was president, blacks were still enslaved in the U.S., Mexico and the U.S. were at war over Texas (America’s FATA), Germany had not been founded, the Ottoman Empire ruled Palestine, and there was also a nominal Mughal Emperor in Delhi.

If one goes that far back into history, then it becomes a battle of who gets to restore their historic pan-ethnic empire. Why not restore the ‘Punjabi’ empire of Ranjit Singh, who controlled Peshawar till the British conquered in the mid-19th century?

The central issue is how much the past matters to the locals, not Selig Harrison of Chevy Chase, MD. While Pashtuns, especially those who belong to tribes split along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, have a sense of common identity, there is little indication of a push for a greater Pakhtunkhwa.

I think just as importantly, it is important to emphasize that The Taliban—both Pakistani and Afghan variants, interestingly enough—are not ethnic-Pashtun nationalist movements. They are Islamist movements that have found an easy way to organize through Pashtun social networks, but that’s where the connection ends. There is little that is inherently “Pashtun” about the Taliban, even if they’ve syncretized some elements of Pashtunwali into their quasi-legal framework. At its heart, the Taliban is a radical Islamist movement, though—not an ethnic nationalist one.

I have no idea why Harrison thinks otherwise, considering how much he brags about being an expert on the region.

Previous mockery of Selig Harrison’s poor excuse for scholarship—including some quotes he seems to have inserted in Hussain Haqqani‘s mouth—are here.

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

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

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


myra macdonald May 12, 2009 at 5:18 am


I have heard many people, both Indian and Pakistani, arguing that the Taliban are indeed an ethnic nationalist movement as well as an Islamist movement, with the weighting given to each changing depending on who you talk to. Indeed the argument about them being more driven by Pashtunwali than by Islam was put to me most forcefully by someone who was a Pashtun himself.

So I am intrigued by your insistence that the Taliban are not an ethnic nationalist movement. Can you point me to some studies on this?

As you know, it’s an essential question to get right if you are to work out whether the Taliban can be prised away from al Qaeda.


Joshua Foust May 12, 2009 at 7:08 am

Myra, I’m afraid I’d have to ask the same thingL where are you getting that? I ask because the Pashtuns I’ve interviewed have left the impression that the Taliban are not Pashtun-centric, but crazy radical Islamists (obviously not using those terms).

Let me put it another way: ethnic nationalism usually has a few key components:

Common heritage
Common faith
Common culture

There is almost always a territorial bent to this push as well. When you look at Taliban discourse, there is almost no reference to “Afghanistan for Pashtuns” or “We mush push Pashtunwali.” Rather, the dialectic is explicitly, and exclusively, Islamist: Afghanistan as an Emirate, Pakistan as an Emirate, imposing Shari’a, and so on.

Now, the trouble comes in how the Taliban have chosen to do that. In Afghanistan, because they happened to be Pashtun, they found Pashtun communities easier to co-opt. Because many of the “tip of the spear” types who conquered new territory were not terribly well educated or versed in non-Pashtun communities, they had a more difficult time recruiting from Tajik communities (but there were still nevertheless Tajiks among the Taliban’s senior leadership).

Indeed, the Taliban fought so fiercely against Ahmed Shah Massoud because he held territory they wanted, not necessarily because he was a Tajik. (The issue of the Hazaras is more complex, though I suspect the viciousness with which the Taliban treated them had as much to do with Shiism as their ethnicity).

In Pakistan, the Pashtun tribal areas happened to be where Islamists could most easily gather, organize, and fight. The recent inclusion of Punjabi groups into Taliban offensives tells me that the movement is not explicitly about ethnicity, so much as it is about Islam. Notice, too, that the Pakistani military refused to do anything about the Pakistani Taliban because they thought it was just a religious movement — it wasn’t until they moved on Peshawar that they seemed to really take notice and fight back (they assumed there was an ethnic component until the Taliban found willing non-Pashtun accomplices in Punjabi and Sindhi areas).

In both cases, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the “Pashtunness” of the Taliban is, in a very real sense, incidental. There is nothing inherent to being a Pashtun that makes one more inclined to becomming a Taliban fighter, just as there is nothing inherent to German identity that makes one become a Nazi.

Probably the strongest, and most difficult to read, study on how the Taliban organized themselves in “Organizations at War” by Abdulkader Sinno. It’s on Amazon.

Alex May 12, 2009 at 10:54 am


I am affraid I too, share the viewpoint that the problem of the Taliban and of the Afghan and Pakistani insurgencies has an important ethno-nationalist component (though I think our understanding of ‘nationalism’ and ‘religious fundamentalism’ as being mutually exclusive is a deeper question for political theory that I will attempt to briefly address at the end of this comment).

Based on the three criteria of ethno-nationalism you list above (admittedly not exhaustive) I would think that the predominantly Pashtun Taliban movement would qualify? While there are undoubtedly differences within the Pashtun community on both sides of the border it seems like those differences are much smaller than the differences between say Pashtuns and Punjabis, Sindhis, or Tajiks?

I have heard that many Muslims say (including Tajiks and Uzbeks in Afghanistan) that the Taliban interpretation of Islam and Sharia derives as much from the Pashtunwali as it does the Koran and that while they consider themselves devout Muslims desirous of an ‘Islamic government/state’ they do not want to have the Pashtun interpretation of Islam forced on them.

In addition, it seems that one of the major problems with our approach to post-Taliban Afghanistan has been our failure to recognize ( or deal with) the ethnic complexities of the country especially those that carried over from the civil war in the 1990’s that preceded our [US] arrival? Is a national unity government feasible without reconciliation between ethnic and sectarian groups?

Wasn’t the capture of Kabul after the Soviet exodus by non-Pahstuns the first time Kabul was not controlled by Pashtuns in decades or centuries? Why was Karzai our choice?

I don’t think Harrisson (or I) would say that the Islamic/religious angle isn’t present or isn’t important, it just may not be the most fundamental. This brings me to the deeper theoretical issue:

I think what most Afghans, most Taliban, most Pashtun fundamentally want is in some regard the idea of “self determination” which is of course what all ‘nations’ seek. The type of ‘state’ (if it can even be called a state) that they seek is an Islamic one.

I am not expressing this very clearly, but I think it is a fairly common argument to say that the rise of Islamic movements (both in Afghanistan, but also more broadly in the Muslim world) is the result of the failure of “nation-state” building after the fall of the Ottoman empire. I think many of these movements can be traced to the national liberation/independence movements, and, more specifically the failure of the first generation leadership (mostly secular western educated elites) to deliver on the promises of independence. The repressiveness of these regimes in many ways fostered the developmental of these religious radicals and in some cases they were then co-opted for the instrumental purposes of the ruling elite to pursue various foreign policy objectives.

Of course the catch is that many of these movements are more than just “nationalist/Islamicist” as they seek to establish a “Caliphate” (and of course Osama has referred directly to the collapse of the Ottoman empire as when the Islamic empire fell prey to Western domination and all the subsequent humiliation etc.) So you are right, they are not necessarily pursuing a ‘nation-state’ on traditional lines and seek instead an emirate or whatever. But saying that they are anti-statist is not the same as saying there isn’t an ethno-linguistic or ethno-nationalist component to their movement. The important point is that it is the drive for “self determination” (i.e. the ability to govern oneself and ones community in ones own way, according to the communities’ traditions) and to escape “foreign” domination (real or perceived) that is the ultimate motivator of these movements.

In the case of Pakistan, the deliberate effort to use Islamic militancy to suppress Pashtun nationalism (especially after the loss of East Pakistan) and develop a proxy to fight Hindu India was an additional impetus for the development of an Islamicised Pasthun community.

Last but not least, on the question of Pakhtunkhwa, see the ANP platform here:

I think you ought to give Harrison a bit more credit. He is not a crank. He is a smart guy and he has been watching the region since before you or I were born…

Joshua Foust May 12, 2009 at 12:13 pm

The Taliban does indeed draw some of its practices from Pashtunwali. But many it also draws from a combination of early Deobandist thought, along with more recent Wahhabist thinking from guys like Zawahiri (not to mention the ISI’s own peculiar brand of Islamism, which probably has a yet-unknown impact on Taliban ideology). The problem there is Uzbeks and Tajiks may not necessarily know of 150-year old Luddite strains of Islamic theology, and just label everything they consider non-Naqshbandiyya as “Pashtunwali” because they happen to see Pashtuns practicing it.

But here’s the thing: everything you’ve said hasn’t indicated that the Taliban is Pashtun-nationalist. Their Pashtun identity is incidental to their ideology, which rejects ethnic nationalism in favor of a pan-Islamic theology (it’s why they have been so comfortable interacting with Deobandist and Wahhabist Arabs).

As a last note, I think the ANP would be offended at the comparison of their desire for full political rights in the FATA with the Taliban’s campaign to conquer the country.

noah tucker May 12, 2009 at 12:52 pm


Are you defining the Uzbek’s religion as “Naqshbandiyya?”

Everyone is going to have a problem fitting a pretty incoherent group that is part of a larger and even more incoherent insurgency into a single box. As is usually the case in real life, I think the answer to this question, as we see in all evidence presented above, “depends on who you ask.” Not that I’m saying there isn’t an answer, I’m just saying the answer is going to be complicated and caveated-to-hell once you find it, which is maybe the real problem with all punditry about Afghanistan–it’s the attempt to make a simple, sellable one-line explanation (that is also different and somehow original).

noah tucker May 12, 2009 at 12:54 pm

“Uzbeks’,” yes, I reckognize there is more than one Uzbek.

Joshua Foust May 12, 2009 at 12:54 pm

No, I was being sloppy there. I meant to say that they’re probably calling whatever they don’t like coming from Pashtuns as being “Pashtunwali.”

Alex May 12, 2009 at 2:36 pm

It seems to me that we have strayed from the subject of Harrison’s piece. I don’t think that he is arguing that the Taliban are an ethno-national movement (I might make this case, as I have to some extent above), but rather that they gain tactical and strategic space because Pashtun ethno-nationalist aspirations are stymied–historically, largely by the Punjabi dominated Pakistani state.

His is primarily an argument about a counter insurgency strategy that recognizes and seeks to address the ethnic dimensions (admittedly not the only dimensions) of the conflict.

Fundamentally his piece raises one of the core strategic questions being discussed right now: Is reconciliation with the Taliban (or elements of the Taliban) possible? Are the goals of AQ and the Taliban distinguishable? How can the population at large which is exhibiting the classic ‘fence-sitting’ behavior of civilians stuck between an insurgency and a state be brought into the the “mainstream” so as to deny the insurgency sanctuary and recruits?

I see the core of his argument as follows (talk of the Raj is stylistic flourish):

1. “Understanding the ethnic dimension of the conflict is the key to a successful strategy for separating the Taliban from al-Qaeda and stabilizing multiethnic Pakistan politically.”

2. “By arousing a Pashtun sense of victimization at the hands of outside forces, the conduct of the “war on terror” in FATA, where al-Qaeda is based, has strengthened the jihadist groups the U.S. seeks to defeat.”

3. “Unlike al-Qaeda, with its global terrorist agenda, most of the Taliban factions focus on local objectives in Afghanistan and FATA; they do not pose a direct threat to the United States.”

I see this as simply another variation of the recent COIN strategy being discussed: political settlement of some sort with reconcilable elements is necessary to win over the population and deny the most dangerous extremists a sanctuary. They are unlikely to be defeated militarily and must be co-opted (somehow) politically. The only difference is that as compared to most statements of this sort made by U.S. officials Harrison at least offers a more realistic and specific assessment of the available political and constitutional structures in Pakistan through which to pursue such a strategy i.e. ANP and more effective federalism (assuming the Punjabi chauvinists who have feared ‘Pashtunistan’ for so long can be brought on board).

Lastly, I would argue that your Deobandism point only serves to reinforce the interpretation of the “ethno-nationalist” or anti-colonial origin of Islamic fundamentalist movements offered above (wasn’t it after all largely a reaction to British imperialism? Was Jinnah among its adherents? Wasn’t it largely about cultural modernization in the face of the western challenge?)

myra macdonald May 12, 2009 at 3:13 pm


I’d agree with Noah that the answer is probably “depends on who you ask” and add that it also depends on when you ask them, since you get different answers from the same people depending on the context – which just shows how nebulous the whole thing is.

So let me try to ask the question in a different way, based on outcomes rather than input.

1) If al Qaeda had not been present in Afghanistan when the Taliban were in power, do you think they would have hatched a plot to hijack planes half-way across the world? My assumption is that they would not have done so, suggesting their focus was very much on taking and holding power inside Afghanistan – in contrast to al Qaeda’s global Islamist agenda.

2) What do you think the Afghan Taliban want? A return to power or an Islamic caliphate? Unlike the Taliban, al Qaeda has never had power, nor really shown any interest in controlling any single “nation state”. Does that not differentiate them?

3) If (and this is purely theoretical for the purposes of this discussion) the Taliban were able to regain power in Kabul while keeping out al Qaeda, would they represent a global Islamist threat?

I’m not sure I’m phrasing those questions quite right, but hope they illustrate what I mean about looking at outcomes rather than input.

There’s also a whole other discussion to have about methods – are they using Islam to gain political power and territory; or is the quest for political power and territory a means of spreading an Islamist ideology? (I’m probably trying to fit this too neatly into a box here, but it’s the best phrasing I can find for now).

And finally (and this is possibly unrelated) do you consider the Afghan Taliban as stakeholders in Afghanistan? In other words, will their existence have to be acknowledged, either as a group seeking a share of power in Kabul, or simply as the main fighting force in Afghanistan?


Chris Mewett May 12, 2009 at 3:47 pm

Myra — 1) If al Qaeda had not been present in Afghanistan when the Taliban were in power, do you think they would have hatched a plot to hijack planes half-way across the world? My assumption is that they would not have done so, suggesting their focus was very much on taking and holding power inside Afghanistan – in contrast to al Qaeda’s global Islamist agenda.

Here I assume you mean “would the Taliban have hatched a plot to hijack…”, and I think everyone would agree that the answer is almost certainly no. I’m not sure how this bears on the question of whether or not it’s a Pashtun nationalist movement. I don’t think Josh or anyone else is suggesting that the Taliban’s agenda is global and pan-ethnic, only that it’s not a political movement defined by an ethno-nationalist objective like securing a Pashtun state.

2) What do you think the Afghan Taliban want? A return to power or an Islamic caliphate? Unlike the Taliban, al Qaeda has never had power, nor really shown any interest in controlling any single “nation state”. Does that not differentiate them?

Certainly the former and likely the latter, though that’s obviously less immediate. As for al-Qaeda’s interest in controlling a state, consider reading Abu Bakr Naji’s “The Management of Savagery.”

3) If (and this is purely theoretical for the purposes of this discussion) the Taliban were able to regain power in Kabul while keeping out al Qaeda, would they represent a global Islamist threat?

It’s difficult to imagine how this might be possible, but the likely answer in such a case (at least as far as I’m concerned) is “no.” But really, isn’t this the wrong question? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about the question of whether or not such a world could possibly exist, where the Taliban regains control of Afghanistan — seemingly suggesting that coalition forces have gone away — and is somehow able to resist al-Qaeda penetration of its territory, either with or without consent?

reader May 12, 2009 at 4:30 pm

A former US intelligence agent seems to think:

1. “Taliban are probably more Pashtun than they are Islamist.”

2. “few Pashtuns on either side of the border will long maintain a radical and international jihadi perspective once the incitement of the U.S. presence is gone. Nobody on either side of the border really wants it.”


Joshua Foust May 12, 2009 at 4:36 pm


Please remind me where Harrison mentions a counterinsurgency. Also, he explicitly makes an ethnic nationalist argument, going so far as to pretend that Pashtuns are the hapless victims of the Punjabis, instead of reality, which is the other way around (i.e. the primary reason the Brits obsessed over the FATA is because of Pashtun depredations upon the inhabitants of the plains along the Indus).

Your other points about the broadest ideas behind the conflict are fine—those are pretty difficult to flub, and I would expect any reasonably educated editor to catch those (political settlements, local issues, etc.). It’s the way he characterizes Pashtuns, the Taliban, and Pakistan that is so irksome, and why I chose to call him out here. If he were a layperson writing a letter to the editor, fine—I don’t expect normal people to have a detailed understanding of Pashtun identity politics. But he is presenting himself as an expert with decades of experience—and that just doesn’t show.

Myra, I think Chris did a good job in answering your questions, but let me add some of my own answers as well.

1) No, obviously, though there is an enormous danger in historical hypotheticals. For all we know, they might have, but there is no way of knowing. What we do know is that the Taliban formed a symbiotic relationship with al Qaeda, and that is why the U.S. government shifted from low-key support and outreach to opposition after the embassy bombings. It is the relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda that drive U.S. actions there—if there were no connection, there’d be little reason to talk about “victory.”

2) Differentiation is great—until very recently, it was U.S. policy to go after al Qaeda leaders in drone strikes but not Taliban. However, the groups have converged somewhat, at least in outlook. As bluster it may be, when Baitullah Mehsud talks about his desire to expand jihad into Great Britain and the U.S., defense officials have to at least consider how likely that is. But I don’t get the relevance here—the Taliban clearly DO want power, and they clearly work alongside al Qaeda to get it. That is enough.

3) As Chris noted, I actually cannot imagine a world in which this happens. Most of the training and funding the Taliban use come from al Qaeda sources. They are not self-sufficient, not even with all that money they make from helping the opium traffickers. They rely on outside sources for funds, and AQ is the piggy bank.

Now, I’m obviously simplifying, and perhaps oversimplifying. But these questions don’t address the fundamental issue: the Taliban can have limited political goals (i.e. the conquest of only Afghanistan) while still being pan-Islamist and non-nationalist. So what’s the argument against, aside from a coincidence of ethnicity among a majority of fighters?

Previous post:

Next post: