Basics, People

by Joshua Foust on 4/3/2010 · 16 comments

“The first issue critical to evaluating US policy,” says William R. Polk, “is the way the Afghans govern themselves.” I agree fully. But what follows is puzzling.

About four in five Afghans live in the country’s 20,000-plus villages. During a 2,000-mile trip around the country by jeep, horseback and plane half a century ago, as well as in later trips, it became clear to me that Afghanistan is really thousands of villages, and each of them, although culturally related to its neighbors, is more or less politically independent and economically autarkic.

Pretty much none of that is actually true, from the 80%-in-the-villages number (the Central Statistics Organization certainly would disagree with it), to the bit about each village being economically autarkic (we know that not to be true—during the 1960s, even in places as remote and undeveloped as Nuristan, elders were haggling over how to expand their trade ties with the rest of the country). Not an auspicious start.

This lack of national cohesion thwarted the Russians during their occupation: they won many military victories, and through their civic action programs they actually won over many of the villages, but they could never find or create an organization with which to make peace. Baldly put, no one could surrender the rest. Thus, over the decade of their involvement, the Russians won almost every battle and occupied at one time or another virtually every inch of the country, but they lost about 15,000 soldiers–and the war. When they gave up and left, the Afghans resumed their traditional way of life.

This grossly mischaracterizes the Soviet War, ignoring the deliberate efforts of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to cultivate a fractious insurgency that couldn’t surrender, and is misleading about what happened post-withdrawal. Baldly put, Afghans most certainly did not “resume their traditional way of life,” unless he thinks that tradition included 12 years of appalling, apocalyptic civil war (it doesn’t).

That way of life is embedded in a social code (known in the Pashtun areas as Pashtunwali) that shapes the particular form of Islam they have practiced for centuries and, indeed, that existed long before the coming of Islam. While there are, of course, notable differences in the Pashtun, Hazara, Uzbek and Tajik areas, shared tradition determines how all Afghans govern themselves and react to foreigners.

Oh my God. Where does one begin with this? It’s like he’s never read a book or article on the subject. If we were to survey what Pashtunwali is, we’d find something about as codified (and enforced!) as chivalry—with just about as much relevancy to modern life. Depending on which anthropologist you consult, Pashtunwali has anywhere from 3 to 17 central tenets, all with varying levels of importance and meaning attached to them (selection bias is a critical factor in determining one’s perception of Pashtunwali).

So, he doesn’t really get what Pashtuns are or what they believe. What about that “shared tradition” that “determines how all Afghans govern themselves and react to foreigners?”

Among the shared cultural and political forms are town councils (known in the Pashtun areas as jirgas and in the Hazara area as ulus or shuras). The members are not elected but are accorded their status by consensus. These town councils are not, in our sense of the word, institutions; rather, they are “occasions.” They come together when pressing issues cannot be resolved by the local headman or respected religious figure. Town councils are the Afghan version of participatory democracy, and when they act they are seen to embody the “way” of their communities.

Again, this is, flatly, wrong. Jirgas are generally considered Afghan- (or more appropriately Pashtun-) specific gatherings, while shuras have an element of religious legitimacy attached to them. “Ulus” sounds like a derivative Mongolian term meaning “nation” or “people,” not “gathering.” Americans tend to use jirga and shura interchangeably, and admittedly in recent years the distinction between them has blurred, but they remain separate ideas. Secondly, they most certainly ARE “institutions,” at least going by a general social science definition of the term (“structures and mechanisms of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of a set of individuals within a given human collectivity”). Polk claims to describe institutions, then describes them, then says they’re not institutions. Besides which, if we’re talking about customary organizations, then he’s remiss not to make note of the maraka, or gathering two local elders to settle a dispute (complex disputes call for marakachians, who, like a grand jury, investigate the case and render judgment). There’s also other gatherings of tribal elders, called a tukhum, which carries with it a different significance than the jirga would.

What? None of this really matters. What matters is, Polk is wrong, and is misleading his readers by writing this. Anyway, within the literature there is very little evidence that jirgas and shuras behave the way Polk describes them—and I trust the collective decades of experience those studies represent to Polk’s single road trip fifty years ago.

Pashtunwali demands protection (melmastia) of visitors. Not to protect a guest is so grievous a sin and so blatant a sign of humiliation that a man would rather die than fail. This, of course, has prevented the Afghans from surrendering Osama bin Laden. Inability to reconcile our demands with their customs has been at the heart of our struggle for the past eight years.

Again, the myth-making about Pashtunwali. Melmastia is one of several dominant ideas in Pashtunwali—another identified by Thomas Barfield is ghayrat, or personal honor. Harboring murdering thugs is a stain on one’s honor, and many Afghans feel that way about the Taliban (and have turned in militants to the Coalition). Bernt Glatzer described Pashtunwali as a balance between tura, the sword, and aql, or reason. José Oberson called Pashtunwali, at its core, an expressing of nang, and that just underneath that Pashtuns were driven by badal, or revenge.

None of this really matters. The point is, Pashtunwali is not some defined thing, this idea that can be neatly categorized and applied systematically to describe behavior. If it was, then Americans under protection of village elders wouldn’t get attacked—and they do. If it could be described this concretely, then hundreds of thousands of Afghans would be rising up against the Taliban in revenge for the deaths of their relatives—and they aren’t. It just isn’t that simple, and a few minutes of research would show this to be the case. We’re still on Polk’s quest to understand what and who Afghanistan is—and he’s getting almost everything wrong.

Is it worthwhile to read his sensible advice that we should have more humility and do more research before proceeding in Afghanistan? Not really—you’ve read it a hundred times before (and oh yeah it’s just like Vietnam), with a thousand little things so shockingly wrong that you wonder just how much research and humility he applied to himself before writing. I lost track of every what-not-to-write rule in this piece, right up to tossing out the “sobering statistics” (or however he described them; I don’t care to check) about how all the children are impoverished and enfeebled by malnutrition and illness. Yes, we get that, everyone knows it’s a shitty place. Argh.

His grand idea is to hold another loya jirga to settle out the government’s issues with legitimacy… an idea completely divorced from any understanding of what jirgas really are and what Afghans expect them to accomplish. All while lecturing us that our leaders don’t know what they’re talking about! It’s confounding.

As a case in point, Polk opens his essay with an anecdote about his trip in 1962 to evaluate the Helmand Valley Authority. I’ll quote a big block of text:

What I found was deeply disturbing: no studies had been made of the land to be developed, which proved to have a sheet of impermeable rock just below the surface that caused the soil to turn saline when irrigated; the land was not sufficiently leveled, so irrigation was inefficient; nothing was done to teach the nomad settlers how to farm; plots were too small to foster the social engineering aim of creating a middle class; and since there were no credit facilities to buy seed, settlers were paying 100 percent interest to moneylenders. In short, after the buildup of great expectations, disappointment was palpable.

This is a good point to make: we rushed in with little beyond good intentions and ton of money—much like we did after 9/11. So what’s his big takeaway?

Was it a portent? It seems likely. At the least, it’s striking that precisely where we carried out our first civic action program is where the Taliban became most powerful.

He is blaming a mismanaged irrigation project in the 1950s for the rise of the Taliban in Helmand post-2001. Does that make an ounce of sense, or follow any sort of logic pattern? Gah.


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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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{ 16 comments }

Fabius Maximus April 3, 2010 at 4:12 pm

Thanks for posting this useful review! One small question — about
Polk’s “the 80%-in-the-villages number”.

I don’t see anything about this on the CSO’s difficult to use website. The Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS), undertaken in 2003 by UNICEF and the Government of Afghanistan says that the CSO shows 22-23% of the population to be in urban areas (p13). That’s roughly what Polk seems to be saying, IMO.

You linked to the CSO website home page. Did you have some specific page or document in mind?

URL for the MICS:
http://www.cso.gov.af/Best%20Estimates%20of%20social%20indicators%20for%20children%20in%20Afghanis.pdf

I think your conclusion is tendentious, attributing to Polk something he does not say. He’s noting a historical fact, and leaving it to the reader to assign meaning. Historical irony? Cause and effect? Everyone draws their own conclusion.

Joshua Foust April 4, 2010 at 9:28 am

Fabius, my point in the conclusion is that Polk is not noting “historical fact.” He is making things up, and very deliberately implying that American actions contributed to the radicalization of Helmand. There’s very little evidence to support any of those assertions, certainly not in a causal way. So I’m pretty comfortable with the conclusion as is.

Fabius Maximus April 4, 2010 at 5:41 pm

Here’s Polk’s eact quote:

“Was it a portent? It seems likely. At the least, it’s striking that precisely where we carried out our first civic action program is where the Taliban became most powerful. ”

A portent is not a “contribution” or cause of something.

Also, the very first fact you say is wrong (80% villagers) looks correct, so far as I can tell from a brief search. Can you substantiate your accusation that he’s “making things up” with regard to this number?

Joshua Foust April 5, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Fabius, just crunch the numbers very briefly, using (mostly) CSO numbers.

Total population of Afghanistan in 2008:about 24 million
Population of large cities:
Kabul: Approximately 2,000,000 in 2005 (according to the MRRD)
Jalalabad: 205,000
Herat: 394,000 in 2006
Mazar-i Sharif: 300,600
Kandahar: 450,000 in 2006

Combined, the five largest cities represent about 3,394,600 people, which is about 13% of the population of approximately 24,000,000. From here, we have a bit of wiggle room depending on how one defines “village,” but considering how even tiny provinces like Takhar have provincial capitals of approximately 80,000 people (slightly bigger than what we’d consider a village), it’s not a stretch to call Polk’s 80% rural number inflated and reliant on sketchy data (if he used any in the first place).

And no, I haven’t added up the numbers for every medium-sized city in the country. I don’t have the time, I just know that his numbers are off without further explanation. Considering his slipshod treatment of facts and research in the rest of his piece, I don’t think you can call my accusations off base.

Jenson Daniel April 8, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Dude. Could you create an Excel spreadsheet for me and then cut and paste a waterfall chart in PowerPoint? Thanks.

DE Teodoru April 3, 2010 at 4:52 pm

I wouldn’t want to generalize but seeing American ops in several COIN tosses, I think the utterly DIS-loyal American INCRIMINATION served well the Communists and later Jihadi factions. There is a certain lack of “long term view” on the part of Americans as to what happeneds if they are seen with you. Shin Bet, for example maintained some 32,000 Palestinian spies in Gaza but never incriminated them in its post-contact policies, going out of its way not to create suspicious linkages. Nothing supports that alleged skill as well as Israeli run Afghans and Talibans who got quite close to binLaden.

Interesting NYT article:
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/04/world/asia/04marja.html?hp=&pagewanted=print

Toryalay Shirzay April 3, 2010 at 9:52 pm

Some interesting points were made regarding Pashtuns and how Pashtunwali rules are not etched in stone.What most Westerners don’t seem to notice is that despite the Pashtun’s claim of nang and ghayrat,they are quite willing to sell themselves out to Arabs,looking upon them as their saviors,or holy people ,hoping the arabs will bring them closer to mohammad and allah.This is just like the Shiites who sell themselves out to Iranians,hoping to gain salvation through their Imams and Ali and other deeply corrupt and deceptive religious figures.Both of these groups have willingly taken vast sums of money and weapons from Arabs and Iranians and their proxies and waged a very destructive war in Afghanistan in which millions of innocent persons were murdered in the name of goddamn Arabs and their mohammad and allah.This is the main story of Afghanistan that need to be told in great detail so that people know the truth instead of writing about issues of little significance .

Turgai April 5, 2010 at 3:04 am

What about people like you or Ayaan Hirsi Ali who sell themselves out to dodgy Islam-hating lobbies?

DE Teodoru April 3, 2010 at 11:53 pm

Let’s not forget that during the big earthquake, it was Arabs who were the most efficient assistance compared to our aid to Pashtuns and this gave them quite an advantage later on per Jamestown Foundation’s TERRORISM FOCUS.

Toryalay Shirzay April 4, 2010 at 9:34 pm

De teodoru, your assertions here don’t hold up and borders on being nonsense.

DE Teodoru April 5, 2010 at 2:30 pm
DE Teodoru April 5, 2010 at 8:38 pm

Diem’s 1962 speech before Saigon legislators was the same:

“It’s just to make sure that we all understand as to where each one of us stands,” Karzai said. “Afghanistan is the home of Afghans and we own this place. And our partners are here to help in a cause that’s all of us. We run this country, the Afghans.”

Dafydd April 6, 2010 at 6:50 am

-Not to protect a guest is so grievous a sin and so blatant a sign
-of humiliation that a man would rather die than fail

Well, I do understand Pashtunwali as something akin to the amorphous concept of chivalry.

Like with all amorphous concepts, failing by its measure is not nearly so important as being SEEN to fail by its measure.

You can actually get away with doing quite bad things to a person’s honour, so long as no one gets to know about it.

DE Teodoru April 6, 2010 at 5:12 pm

Possibly so, Mr. Shirzay, but which ones specifically? If it is the one about the earthquake in Pakistan, then your argument is with Jamestown’s TERRORISM FOCUS.

JJ April 11, 2010 at 12:30 am

Mr. Foust,

I have been visiting your blog for about 3 months now and have used it for my studies. I am a young college student and I get a lot of information from you, in fact, I am writing my thesis on the current operation in Afghanistan.

I say this very humbly, and in total ignorance, but I can’t help but notice that you seem to contradict nearly every other pundit or expert on Afghanistan. I have read from every spectrum and I just don’t see how you come to your conclusions…I mean, I don’t see where you’re coming from.

I do not say this to be combative, by any means…. In fact, your blog seems to make the most sense of all the things that I read. If it weren’t for your critiques on certain articles (etc) I think I’d simply follow most of what I have read from other sources.

I guess I’m just wondering where you got your education/credentials/experiential knowledge on the subject of Afghanistan. I hope that this is not too much to ask… I would just like to know what gives you the platform to speak with such authority on the issues. What makes your word better than 75% of the other sources I read? I ask this with much humility, being a young guy that is simply trying to find the truth.

Thank you. And thanks for all the information you push out to all of us, it has truly helped with my knowledge on the issues.

Ian April 11, 2010 at 8:12 pm

I won’t comment on Mr. Foust’s qualifications in absolute terms, but as a former teacher, I suggest you do the following: look at a writer’s claims, and then look at how the writer sources his claims. Unfortunately, for the majority–and that is not an exaggeration–the majority of writers on Afghanistan use weak sources, or no sources at all for the claims they make. What Josh does in many of his posts is, simply, point this out. Why writers tend to make up facts or misrepresent them willfully is a fascinating subject, and for some reason this kind of thing happens most often when it comes to war zones or other areas where the policy gets political, if you’ll permit the phrase. Is it because they came late to the party and haven’t had time to realize that Afghanistan is an overwhelmingly rural country (a basic fact)? Or do they deny basic facts while trying to make an argument fit an ideological prejudice? Many of the so-called “experts” on Afghanistan, who have unimpeachable Ivy League doctorates, or years living on a military base, etc., etc., seem to have a hard time with basic facts when it comes to this country.

It’s reasonable to ask how a writer knows the things he knows, and the simplest way to do that is by going to the sources he quotes (or fails to) for a reality check.

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