Justice Versus Punishment

by Joshua Foust on 7/22/2010 · 2 comments

ISAF seems pretty excited to see Pashtunwali in action.

An Afghan citizen suspected of providing support to an insurgent commander in Pakistan was subject to traditional “pashtunwali” justice after he was turned over to tribal elders by Afghan Security Forces operating with international coalition forces near the village of Bermel in Paktika province, July 18.

Pashtunwali is an ancient tribal code commonly practiced by Pashtun people in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in which self policing and justice play a central role in solving local disputes…

Coalition force personnel working with local troops and residents said the event is an example of increasing Pashtun intolerance of insurgent activity in the area, and demonstrates the ability of tribal elders to administer justice and provide security in rural villages using traditional methods.

So, how was this Pashtunwali justice administered?

According to Afghan Security officials, Bermel elders representing Banzai Kharoti village security patrols arrived at the place where the man was being held and listened to his statements. After examination of evidence Banzai Kharoti elders announced the punishment; the man’s house was to be destroyed and he was to be fined 250,000 Afghanis. After the judgment was rendered, the accused confessed to collaborating with insurgents. Because the man confessed to the crime, tribal elders spared portions of the house, leaving the kitchen and some living space so his family could remain in the residence, according to the security force officials on the scene.

Afghan security officials said decisions on punishment were carefully weighed by the village elders, after receiving statements from witnesses and village leaders, and the decisions were consistent with the Pashtun code of ethics.

Emphasis mine. So a group of guys got together, fingered another guy as being an insurgent, and that guy only “confessed” after being threatened with total ruin, and in exchange for “confessing,” he was allowed to keep a bed and a fireplace.

Is this an ancient tribal code? Yes it is. Is it justice? As practiced here, no it is not. Is it appropriate for Afghanistan, however desperate we are? I don’t see how.

This incident leaves so many unanswered questions: was this the first time this man was accused of helping the insurgents? Who were his accusers, and who presented witnesses? Did they have reason to wish him harm for some reason? Was there any evidence beyond solemn pinky-swears that this man was a bad man? Why didn’t the elders resort to other means of resolving problems through Pashtunwali, and who received the 250,000AF penalty?

And most of all: why the hell is ISAF bragging about justice in a story about a man confessing under duress? That seems to be the kind of “justice” we’re fighting, not supporting. Because it’s not justice at all—that is arbitrary punishment.

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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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reader July 26, 2010 at 1:46 pm


This goes directly to how our present operations are in direct contradiction to what, ostensibly, the US is supposed to be founded on. The US is supposed to be about individualism and individual autonomy, but here we talk tribes, shuras, pashtunwali, etc. The US is supposed to be about individual responsibility and the free market, here is nothing but a sick travesty of capitalism and socialism.

This is important because any ideology or project with profound contradictions is bound for either failure or for very unforeseen consequences. In a situation as serious as this, unforeseens are not to be desired.

Incidents like these show just how much interventions and tactical compromises dirty the political waters. Is the US a better nation for what it has done in Afghanistan? At present, one must doubt.

reader July 26, 2010 at 1:47 pm

forgot to mention, due process!! the lack thereof is a key point in Foust’s post.

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