Jonah Blank’s Inimitable Guide to Pashtuns

by Sunny in Kabul on 6/6/2013

If your daily commute involves a litter or some other people-powered conveyance, put Jonah Blank‘s “How to Negotiate Like a Pashtun” on your “must read” list. His “Field Guide to Dealing with the Taliban” helps unravel the complexities of those inscrutable denizens of Pashtunistan as only a RAND senior political scientist can, and finally puts into context the intricate inner workings of one of the more mysterious tribal groups in the Middle East.

This rollicking frolic of informed thought first asks whether America is ready to start playing the Afghan version of “Let’s Make a Deal,” a pop culture reference made with the same deftness one used to associate with the late Ted Stevens. Implied in that question is the supposition that the United States has only begun to think about beginning negotiations, and that the American effort in Afghanistan was always meant to achieve total victory, rather than a settlement agreed to by various stakeholders in Afghanistan’s future. It also allows the reader to extrapolate that Pashtuns are the only ethnic group with which the US need concern itself as it looks forward to a post-2014 Afghanistan.

The first pearl of wisdom from the “cultural anthropologist” is this:

“Every deal is precisely as strong as the relationship on which it is built.”

The takeaway that should be our key learning going forward is how different Pashtuns are from people in one vital respect: they value relationships over any deal. This is in stark contrast to people, who are always able to compartmentalize their personal and business lives. Pashtuns are unable to make this distinction, and insist on having a relationship beyond a simple business transaction. To help Americans better leverage this “relationship” concept, Blank offers the following “key points”:

A Pashtun deal is NOT a transaction. This point is best summed up in the closing sentence of the paragraph:

“To make stronger deals, Americans must learn to forge better relationships.”

This is the kind of wisdom that elevates RAND analysis beyond the scribblings of those who have spent far too much time “on the ground.” In a world where deals are made every day with soulless banks and car salesmen, it would serve us well to remember that there are those who grasp the value of relationships. That Americans, having been enormously successful with the approach in the past, can no longer rely on limited interactions like Key Leader Engagements to strengthen their negotiating position with the rugged Pashtun, but must spend time on “relationships.”

A deal is for now, not forever.” Blank flexes his intellectual humility here, using an outside source for this pithy saying: anthropologist Charles Lindholm, who conducted “fieldwork” among the native people in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. Since both countries’ names end in “‘stan,” what works in one will unfailingly work in the other, regardless of other considerations. The idea that any deal with the Pashtun is not a permanent arrangement is troubling for those readers accustomed to Western mores of agreements without deadlines or the ability to re-visit said agreements. It’s no wonder that the Pashtuns, with their relationship-based approach, will never fully appreciate the value of ironclad negotiations.

The currency that matters is honor. In yet another sign that the backward ways of the mighty Pashtun can never be reversed, Blank explains that these fiercely tribal people will choose familial relationships over any deal made with a foreigner. Putting family first over arrangements made with non-family members is such an alien concept to Americans that there is no way this chasm could be bridged. And the Americans can never hope to counter the generations-long relationships of groups like Pakistan’s ISI, which are (per Blank) viewed by Afghans as a tolerated, if not terribly liked, partner, and not as an outside influence destabilizing the security of Afghanistan.

Concluding his briefly comprehensive course on the mysterious ways of the Pashtun, Blank moves into an assessment of how the Americans could be more successful following the drawdown of troops post-2014.

A smaller footprint may win Americans more friends. It is in this paragraph that Blank excels, since he paints for the reader a picture of Pashtun tribal structures that can be easily understood: the Pashtun elder as mob boss. Given the relevance of the Mafia in Western society, this comparison of Pashtun life to the likes of Puzo’s Godfather will resonate with readers, who should realize that Pashtuns are essentially criminals. Exotic, inscrutable, admirable, but criminals nonetheless. It’s the sort of simplicity that will aid in furthering US causes moving forward, since dealing with the nuances of family-related allegiances would take more time than Americans actually have at this point.

More money, more problems. Blank pulls the curtain aside a bit more here, and shows us the Pashtun’s ”unquenchable appetite” for Western cash. This falls perfectly in line with the “Pashtun mafia” construct, and by itself explains the root causes of the corruption afflicting Afghanistan. Since they had no desire for cash before, in much the same manner that the white man brought firewater to Native Americans, foreigners have brought cash to the Pashtun. In order to counter this, the US must work on the “water” that “nurtures” the “growing plant” of the relationship being built with the Pashtun. “A constant stream of small gifts” is in order, which would fall in line with the shrinking budgets, which when they were more robust were intended to buy Pashtun goodwill.

Fewer guns, more glory. For those readers still doubting the value of RAND analysis to decision makers, their unparalleled access is revealed: Blank introduces us to the endemic deafness afflicting Pashtuns, describing F-18s that Pashtuns only sense “after the bombs have reached their targets.” Unfortunately, he offers no suggestion how this virulent health problem should be addressed, but does go on to detail the perception of foreign Special Operations Forces (SOF) by the Pashtun, and how it should be leveraged in order to gain their respect.

Since Pashtuns see any combat from the sky as cowardly, they would naturally gravitate toward a greater SOF presence on the ground post-2014. These are a people who dismiss the use of aircraft, instead gleefully embracing the need for night operations and the detention of assorted family members. There is no concept the Pashtun understand better than extra-judicial proceedings when it comes to family: if the US decides guilt, then no amount of izzat or Pashtunwali can possibly stand in the way.

Afghans will take the lead. Based on Blank’s assessment, where the US has failed miserably is in equipping Afghan military forces: the US wants them to wear boots, while they are perfectly content to operate in flip flops. This is true whether one is in Kabul or Kandahar: chappals reign supreme as chosen Afghan footwear. What should have happened all along is to let Pashtuns do things the Pashtun way, and Blank makes it clear that a Pashtun would never debase himself to the point of typing up a report or conducting surveillance.

Given the insurmountable depth and breadth of Blank’s analysis, his consultation with a cross-section of Pashtuns allows for a rare glimpse behind the Pashtun curtain, and is sure to inform a generation of future RAND analysts. It’s a world the West can never fully comprehend, and he closes with this chilling prediction:

“After years of talking past our Afghan friends and foes alike, perhaps we will be forced to learn how to talk to them.”

On so many levels, and for so many reasons, let’s hope not.


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– author of 15 posts on Registan.net.

Happily married, cynic, and I long to drink the Kool-Aid. Two tours in Iraq, once as an Infantry officer, once as a Civil Affairs officer supporting a PRT. Now it's civilian development work in Afghanistan since 2009. I want to believe, it's just that the lies are so laughable.

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