Pashtuns Are People, Too

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by Joshua Foust on 9/15/2009 · 6 comments

I used to quietly accept the use of foreigner words to describe relatively easy to understand and familiar concepts like revenge. Badal, as they call it in Pashto, isn’t hard: you wronged me and I want to wrong you in return. The United States has built several powerful rallying cries around badal—whether Remember the Alamo, Tippecanoe and Tyler Too, Remember Pearl Harbor, or 9/11 Never Forget… well, let’s just say Americans are intimate with the idea of revenge.

There are many things about revenge that are healthy. In a society without a judicial system, like the International System, revenge is often the only way of redress for righting national wrongs. In more chaotic societies with few formal institutions, revenge is both justice and crime deterrent—I won’t murder this man because his brother will murder me or my wife in return. It makes sense, and when you can’t be guaranteed justice, it is a healthy, protective instinct (I’m ignoring for the time being that revenge is a teeny tiny part of the Pashtun concept of justice).

So why do we exaggerate it into this weird, alien, inscrutable savagery when we see it in Afghans? I mean, we are in 2009, and still we consider it insightful when a soldier points out that accidentally murdering someone results in a very pissed off family interested in revenge. How have we become this pathetic?

To a large degree, I blame the military education system. I used to deal with eager Majors going through the Command and General Staff College and UFMCS, all convinced they’d discovered the secret to Afghanistan: tribes! Revenge! Lots of italics! And they passed with flying colors, went on to command battalions, head Red Teams, and shape the campaign in Afghanistan as well as our perception of who we’re fighting (and who we’re not).

I can think of literally one paper that would pass even a basic sniff test. Which is a bad thing—this kind of lazy thinking, turning people into exotic objects to be marveled at, is systemic, and it’s not limited to Americans. Almost everyone thinks these things, and people who do the basic homework they should—as if reading Olaf Caroe actually helps you run a key leader engagement—are the unfortunate exception. This essay at the Combined Arms Center blog, then, makes for a great foil for further discussion:

We learn from Afghan/Pashtun culture that one of the basic tenants of “Pashtun Wali” (way of the Pashtun) is “Badal” (revenge). Logic dictates that if we kill one Afghan, we make 10 enemies. Where are the slighted Afghans that have been grieved by the Taliban who are thirsting for revenge or does this only work against us? …

Where are the undercover Afghan Inglorious Bastards, who roll down the road in an old truck either armed to the teeth or armed with radios that talk to a trailing UAV or Attack Helicopter or follow-on truck full of undercover hard men?

Well, it’s very simple. We either chased off, disarmed, or ignored the groups that could have done just that. Except now, when they tend to join the Taliban if they don’t get what they want… which kind of defeats the purpose.

BruceR completes the picture:

To get the current Afghan army to do those things, you’re talking basically starting over at this point… or taking a good chunk of the country and letting them run it with a bare minimum of Western troop support, operating almost covertly within their ranks. It would have to be a low-risk area of the country, because if you did that right now in the South the insurgents would eat them for lunch, but in another part of the country it might be possible.

Here’s what we’ve trained the ANA to do, instead. They can in some circumstances involving the locals be useful interfaces for our forces. They can hold and defend fixed locations and the immediate environs. They can force-multiply small Western dets, which would be a lot more useful if there weren’t more westerners in the south than ANA right now. They can do effective IED sweeps daily, and other such activities where the cumulative risk to Western troops would simply be too high. Umm, that’s about it.

Bingo. While it’s nice to see someone in uniform asking why we don’t have vigilante groups rampaging across Afghanistan right when we’re trying build up governmental and judicial institutions, it’s a perfect way to highlight that the military’s thinkers don’t seem to have any grasp on what we’ve already done, to say nothing of what else we might try. We worked very hard to disarm and disband the militias that would, theoretically, do Inglorious Basterd-type work—because last time they had reign of somewhere like Kandahar, well, we got the Taliban. Similarly, there is the assumption that we want sanctioned criminal groups and death squads going around killing people, with no guarantee that they’re killing the right people (like when our own guys sort of accidentally killed off Kandahar’s Chief of Police).

And, as BruceR very ably shows, we’ve tried very hard to prevent the police and Army from having that capability. I’m curious why the “COIN Branch Chief US Army/ USMC Counter Insurgency Center,” a Lieutenant Colonel, is advocating gangs as the solution to our problem, or even why such an accomplished man wouldn’t know the history of what we’ve already tried to do in the country. But that’s probably a discussion for another post.

We’ve said this before. Sigh.

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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 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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Ex 18A September 16, 2009 at 9:56 am

What surprises me, Joshua, is that you seem surprised by this, and further, that you still advocate that the United States involve itself intimately in “rebuilding” Afghanistan.

The United States military has never shown the slightest interest in making the changes in the “military education system” that would magically broaden the understanding of military officers of the countries we invade and occupy. That’s for sissies. We tried it in Special Forces but during the 80s the Army, as a deliberate policy of reining in the mavericks and those of us with a UW bent, instituted a policy I refer to as “the Ranger Coup.” That is, the Army started pouring in Ranger officers to the Q Course as senior Captains; they’d be Captains (P) going onto their A teams and barely had a year on their teams before making Major. Then they went on to become S-3s and B-Team commanders and BN XOs. Far too many of these guys had the intellectual and cultural blinkers that we so rightly associate with Rangers. “Hooah, hooah!” Yep, that’ll win the hearts and minds of Pushtuns.

In the 80s, the Commanding General of 1st SOCOM, Leroy “Suddendeath” Suddath, assumed the right to appoint all Special Forces B team commanders. And I mean all. I’ll tell you what–we got some humdinger B-Team commanders too. You can’t put a price on the damage they did. And of course, these guys continued on to become battalion and group commanders, and then put on stars to fill the USSOCOM bureaucracy.

This practice continued into the 90s, and no doubt continues to this day in SF Command. Those of us who resisted the Ranger Coup discovered we had no place in SF. That’s why I’m an ex-18A.

This was the beginning of the direct action mafia in special operations that has now been institutionalized and bureaucratized, never to be reformed.

If something like this can happen in Special Forces, where language ability and cultural knowledge are supposed to be how to go about things in the various realms of “unconventional warfare,” just how is the rest of the US Army going to achieve that truly special quality? Do you really think you’ll get CGSC and the War College, much less the Pentagon, to buy into nuanced and subtle understandings of the world?

My god, if we empathize with those we’re “working with,” then we might just begin to question the reason why we’re there in the first place. (Ex 18A corollary to the Bacevich argument).

No, ignorance of the world is better for the institution of the US Army and US foreign policy of imperial overreach.

It’s a lost cause, my friend.

Joshua Foust September 16, 2009 at 10:00 am

Surprised, not really — as I said, I’ve seen this crap up close, and it’s not especially surprising. But I am deeply frustrated and disappointed in it, it’s yet another data point that indicates we’re just not interested in winning.

As for the rest of your comment. Well. I don’t know a thing about SOCOM in the 80s and 90s, so to me that sounds incredibly damning.

Ex 18A September 16, 2009 at 10:53 am

What happened inside SOF in the 80s and early 90s, with all the billions of dollars that Reagan poured into it, not to mention the doctrinal submersion of SF into AirLand Battle, which encouraged a decade of non-thinking about UW in the Army, has a lot to do with how things are now. It’s why we have Stan McChrystal in charge in Af’stan, rather than someone capable of the kind of understanding that is truly necessary to accomplish what we say we want to accomplish. That McChrystal is in charge tells me nothing has changed either in SOF or the Army or the larger military since I left active duty after the First Gulf War, nor will it change. We might as well leave as soon as it can be operationally done.

We as a nation have no clue what winning means if we can’t have a Missouri-style surrender, with flags waving, McArthur looking stern and victorious with his corncob pipe, and the Japanese in ties, tails and tophats bowing their defeat. Either that, or hauling Apaches to Florida in boxcars. That’s the American idea of winning. It’s also the American reality of losing.

Waziland September 16, 2009 at 12:05 pm

I believe that Afghans are not that negative people as they are portrayed in Media. It is true that part of their social ediffice is that they should be renvengefull, but you have to look at their way from the Afghan aspect. Afghans are being attacked from all sides, and that is the reason why they have developed this social ediffice as a form of survival for racial, linguistic, religious, ethniq, cultural existence… The problem that we face in Afghanistan (Pashtunistan) is connected to many other sides like Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Russia, and Western forces. What happened we Westerners did not have good understanding of these people, and at the same time we relied on their historical enemies like Pakistan (Punjabis), Iran, Rassia for help. The end result is that Pashtuns resist all these pressures, and we really still think that these ghosts are Talibans!!!

AJK September 16, 2009 at 5:28 pm

Along the same lines as ex-A18, my education in “Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism” was basically “policing and headhunting” and unlike ex-A18, this was a 21st century education. The people teaching us legitimately did not know that they don’t speak Arabic in Afghanistan. This wasn’t for military folks (necessarily…we had a few ROTC), this was for the “policy makers” and folks had theses on subjects like “eradication of mosques in failing states” and “Is anyone NOT linked to al-Qaeda?”

It’s awfully depressing stuff, I have to say.

Derrick Crowe September 16, 2009 at 9:27 pm

You know, you really cannot understate the pathetic nature of what you describe here. We’re looking to Quentin Tarantino help us talk about our vision for Afghanistan’s future? Really?!

Probably the most disturbing thing about the way we talk about non-combatants in Afghanistan is our reduction of people to means vs. ends. Compare how often you hear policymakers and generals discuss the intrinsic badness of, you know, randomly killing a noncombatant versus the solemn intonations of badal that you write about above. Counterinsurgency reduces the civilian populations to mere means to the end of our strategy. They’re not. Killing a random person may make her friends and family angry and recruit more enemy fighters, but the worst effect is the slaughter of people whose right to life exists independent from our goals for the region.

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