Ghilzais and Durranis, Sittin’ in a Tree

by Joshua Foust on 1/31/2010 · 10 comments

The New York Times should know better. Spencer pokes fun that I’m out to prove small errors as examples of mendacity, but I don’t assume mendacity on their part—just deep, deep, really surprising ignorance. Let’s start with this graphic:

The New York Times gets it amazingly wrong.

It’s difficult to know where to begin, so we’ll start at the top. The first point the NYT makes—that Pashtuns make up only 38% or so of the population—is correct, but this graphic misses that the other 62% of the population is non tribal. So when they discuss “traditional Afghan tribes,” they are really discussing Pashtun tribes. The distinction matters, since in that same point they correctly point out that ethnic distinctions carry weight—if only about a third of the population is tribal, and the ethnicity of those tribal people is at the “top” of the rung, then you’re not really discussing Afghanistan, you’re discussing those tribal people. So from the start, the Times is misleading its readership in labeling this a discussion of “Afghanistan’s traditional tribal structure.”

Then there’s the problem of calling Pashtuns tribal. No one—not one anthropologist who’s studied Afghanistan (yes, there are many, and their work goes back decades) has described the “Traditional Afghan tribal system” of having five rungs. It’s more detail than we need here, but discussing a Pashtun’s salient identity requires moving beyond “levels” of identity—discussed in detail here, as well as in a detailed paper by the researchers at the Human Terrain System.

In fact, those researchers say it explicitly:

Pashtuns’ motivations for choosing how to identify and organize politically—including whether or not to support the Afghan government or the insurgency—are flexible and pragmatic. “Tribe” is only one potential choice among many, and not necessarily the one that guides people’s decision-making.

The report goes on at length—dozens of pages—about how viewing things only as “tribe” even amongst supposedly “tribal” Pashtuns is a misleading way to view their social structures. Christian Bleuer also discussed this at incredible length as well—the very idea of a “ladder of tribes” just doesn’t make any sense, and is at odds with the universal academic consensus of how Pashtuns organized themselves socially, and especially how they react to and incorporate “tribe” into their social institutions.

Point two, about “tribal confederations” is… well. If only we knew about Ghilzais and Durranis a year ago, the war could have been won! I mean it’s right in that these confederations exist, but I double-dare them—in fact, I’ll put money on it—to identify a single person in Afghanistan, including Hamid Karzai, Gul Agha Sherzai, or Sirajuddin Haqqani, who take a look at the available field of enemies and allies and makes any decision, any decision whatsoever based on who is a Durrani and who is a Ghilzai. No one cares, not in any meaningful sense of the term, what a tribal confederation is in Afghanistan. They’ll list it, but ones Durrani-ness has as much to do with one’s identify as the color of one’s sandals. It simply does not matter—the idea that the Ghilzai/Durrani distinction is salient in any way is ludicrous.

Which brings us to point three. The New York Times presents these sub-confederational (or whatever) identities without discussing why they matter. This is a problem with the entire graphic: despite saying in the first paragraph of the accompanying story that tribes are the weakest they have ever been, they still choose to identify all kinds of tribal identities without a single discussion about why those matter. How does knowing Gul Agha Sherzai’s tribe tell me anything about how he will behave, whom he will favor in an area he’s not from (his tribe is non-existent in Nangarhar, where he is governor), or what his preferences are? Jalaluddin Haqqan is a prominent Zadran leader, yes… but so is Pacha Khan Zadran, another mujahidin who now sits in Parliament. Which one of them is more tribal? Who speaks more for the tribe? Is either leader actually representative of the Zadran, and does knowing one’s status as a Zadran tell you anything about their likely politics and affiliations?

The New York Times does not do us the courtesy of such straight foward insight. The answer to the above is: we don’t know. We couldn’t, because tribe does not determine behavior.

In fact, a good eighty percent that graphic—all the shiny, colorful, large-type bits—has almost no bearing on community decision-making or identity. It is only at the “subtribal” level—where identities become hyper-localized and generally based on lineage (which is not the same as hierarchy!)—that the graph makes sense, but by then they’ve wasted so much space on irrelevant trivia that they can’t actually explain the concepts (and no, a bunch of people at a wedding says nothing about “tribal unity,” since most tribes are not unified). Look down at the lower right corner of that graphic: the Times even admits it is disavowing academic consensus and just repeating what some friends told them—repeating hearsay and deliberately ignoring actual research (journalism FTW!).

How incredibly frustrating. So far we haven’t touched on the bizarre article itself, which reads like it could practically be a press release from ISAF—starting with the title (doesn’t George Lucas already own the phrase A New Hope?), and going through the usual motions of how tribes are this or that, all without a shred of supporting evidence. The language is rife with such errors—tribes are not “especially important” to Pashtuns, for example, they are only important to some Pashtuns—that I’m left wondering who the hell even edited this. It is written without a basic understanding of who tribes are historically, what they are recently, or even how Americans have failed to understand them over the last decade or so of operations in the country. It is ignorant, almost from the start to the finish.

Correcting the distortion of history they present here is so ridiculous—it would take literally thousands of words to discuss each paragraph on its own in a single place, from the incorrect conception of “tribe” to the impression that the Great Game was an outright war between Britain and Russia within Afghanistan itself (who would dare to describe the Cold War in such ridiculous terms?)—I’m just going to link to a series of articles and blog posts where Christian and I have discussed each of these issues before. Otherwise, this discussion would become not only tedious but hopelessly depressing. The New York Times normally does better.

Oh good grief you get the point. Just… ignore the New York Times today, okay? You’ll be better off if you do.

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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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Travis January 31, 2010 at 3:52 pm

It seems to be based on an 18th century understanding of Afghanistan.

acıgöl January 31, 2010 at 3:53 pm

niye siliyon mesajımı yaf

Sangar January 31, 2010 at 4:38 pm


One important factor that is either neglected or unknown to the so-called “expersts” on Afghanistan is that Ghiljay and Durrani (Abdali) are not the only two large tribal confederation. Zadran, Wazir, Mehsud and other similar tribes belong to the Karlan tribal confederation.

Furthermore, the opposition consists of Noorzai, Alizai and Ishaqzai tribes. Ironically they are sub-branches of the Durrani (Abdali) tribe.

These so-called “experts” have no idea what they are talking about. There are Ghiljay tribesmen in Karzai’s cabinet.

There is no tribal war going on. For some, it is a strictly ideological, for others it is all about self-enrichment.

Journalists and the so-called experts and analysts need to earn their money at the end of the day.

Joshua Foust January 31, 2010 at 6:07 pm

I know, and if we’re going to be precise about these mega-confederations then we should probably mention the Ghurghusht. But as I said above (and as I think you agree), those confederation-level identities have no bearing whatsoever on anyone’s disposition, so why bother even mentioning them? It’s irrelevant to the broader discussion.

Chip Herman January 31, 2010 at 5:05 pm

I would follow the money.

Karzai pledged to increase ANA, ANP and gendarme by 100,000 within the next 18 months, and called on what will be a force of 1,000’s of trainers, mercenaries and catering staff to build ‘it’, where ‘it’ must have an identifiable marketing ‘brand’ for US:ISAF.
Wackenhut’s catering contract alone is close to $100,000,000.

So CIA chosses it up to NYT’s. It doesn’t matter, it’s e-theatre,
and ‘New Hope’ is opening big on Durraniway, $130 billion big!

Take what they didn’t talk about. The ‘Big Take’ on foreign aid.

Karzai elicited agreements *without objection* from US:UK to increase Kabul’s take of foreign development aid to 50% from 20%. Karzai’s audits, which NYTs ignores, are only ~25% of the foreign aid Kabul gets now is executed into projects, the rest is lost in administrative overhead, bribes and rampant corruption.

CIA isn’t big on reporting actuals.

Do the math, follow the money. Increasing the ‘take’ to 50% on several $B’s a year in aid will drive execution performance down to 10%, and if you really grind through the ministries, works out to only about 50c per Afghan per year. 50c! The rest is slushing around in the general fund, which has severely contracted and clearly upside down, even though China MCC granted Karzai a $3.4B signing bonus for the Aynak copper reserve lease.

Where did that $3.4B go?! Why is Kabul now so bankrupt they have to slice off a half-share foreign aid ‘take’, especially with all the $10B’s sloshing on in ahead of the 100,000 man standup?

A lot of it disappeared in the Dubai repayment default, $B’s and $B’s that you really have to drill down even to hear whispers about. A lot of people and a lot of wealthy Afghans got taken.

We’re not told. We’re never told! We’re only presented with photo albums, ‘certified and legitimate’ standup comedy, and a blank look on the US auditor team’s face, when they were told in December that their Kabul deployment has been put on hold.

Durrani v. Ghilzai Smackdown!
$130,000,000,000 purse!
Iran, Iran, Iran, Iran!

BruceR January 31, 2010 at 6:38 pm

The only thing the average reader will see of course is the pictures, which show all the Durrani to be good guys and all the Ghilzai to be bad guys. Glad we straightened that out for everyone.

AJK January 31, 2010 at 9:31 pm

dang, beat me to it. I’ve never seen Sherzai without a beard or Mullah Naqib in shades. And thats quite an unflattering image of Jalaluddin Haqqani, too. Way to dichotomize the conflict, fellas.

David M February 1, 2010 at 11:34 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 02/01/2010 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Sailani February 1, 2010 at 12:05 pm

The Mangal are furious about being omitted. The NYT has set me back months with their “Western media conspiracy to marginalize the Mangal tribe” *sigh*

Nathan February 1, 2010 at 1:46 pm

Oh those Mangal… Never passing up an opportunity to be aggrieved.

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