Understanding Pashtuns Critical To Avoiding Afghanistan Quagmire

Cartoon by R.J. Matson
Cartoon by R.J. Matson

How is Obama’s Afghanistan plan supposed to work, when similar plans were EPIC FAIL for the Soviets, British, Alexander the Great and others?

Former CIA Mideast operative Robert Baer (played by George Clooney in Syriana) writes in TIME Magazine:

The Pashtun are a big, sprawling, insulated tribal people. There are some 40 million of them, but no one knows for sure because the central governments in Kabul and Islamabad have never felt safe enough to take a proper census. The Taliban are overwhelmingly Pashtun. The Pashtun have never had their own country, but they share a common language and identity.

And most importantly, they’re willing to shed their blood for each other. The Pashtun have a long history of uniting to face a common, external threat. They held up Alexander the Great for years — if for no other reason than pure belligerence. Something like that seems to be happening today. In February, the Taliban organizations in Pakistan and Afghanistan agreed to put aside their differences, and combine forces to fight NATO in Afghanistan. What incited the alliance was the Obama Administration’s plans to send an additional 17,000 troops.

Baer believes the only way that we can glean a modicum of success from this nearly eight-year, open-ended war, is if we focus on the foreign al-Qaida elements, root them out, come to an accommodation with the Taliban/Pashtun tribes, and exit the region as soon as possible.

The British learned the hard way, after three unsuccessful wars in “Pashtunistan” (one campaign was chronicled in great detail by a young Winston Churchill), that accommodation with the Pashtun tribes (also called Pathans or Pukhtoons by the Brits) is the only option. The British eventually cut a deal with the Pashtuns to leave them alone, and, in exchange, the tribes would protect British India from northern invaders. Even after the western provinces of British India became Pakistan in 1947, the Pakistanis continued the arrangement to leave the Pashtuns their autonomy.

I feel the president, as well as the voting public, are woefully uninformed about the enemies we’re facing. Alexander the Great couldn’t conquer Afghanistan. The British, much more adept imperialists than we are (they make the neo-con attempts at empire look positively milquetoast) could never pacify the region, even given extraordinary brutality. The Soviets, who had the might of modern military technology (tanks, an air force, helicopters, missiles, etc.) on their side, and often resorted to “scorched earth” tactics, nonetheless suffered a complete defeat in Afghanistan. The Russians are chuckling at us now as we follow in their footsteps and sink into the quagmire.

No nation-state has ever controlled the Pashtun tribes. The Pashtun are the largest tribal society still intact today, and will follow their traditional network of clan leaders, local headmen and tribal elders, not a parliament or president. For rural Pashtuns, decrees from leaders hundreds of miles away aren’t relevant compared to the decisions of the local jirga. And nothing will trump Pashtunwali, the ancient code of honor Pashtuns live by; the reason they’ve never given up bin Laden is that they can’t break the rule to protect guests seeking asylum (just as Lot protected visiting angels from a mob), no matter the rewards offered to do so. Another part of Pashtunwali: balad, or revenge. Pashtuns must exact revenge for any insult for 1000 years, on the offender or his nearest male relative, until a resolution is reached.

Too many Americans JUST DON’T GET what we’re up against. The chances that the U.S. will fare better than the British did are slim and none. We need education, education, education. Unless the West gets wise about other peoples and their histories, we’ll continue to fail.

Vizzinis wisdom: never get involved in a land war in Asia!
Vizzini's wisdom: "never get involved in a land war in Asia!"