Sunday, July 13, 2008

Understanding the "Dark Side" of Afghanistan

Lest anyone think that I am blind to the “Dark Side” in Afghanistan, I offer this post. I would like to be clear that my personal observations to date are restricted to Kabul city and Kabul Province. Much as I would like otherwise, so far my duties and insurgent activity in the countryside have kept me on a short leash.

Yes, there is violence here, but it isn’t correct to put all of it on insurgent activity. They benefit from the chaos that violence in general fosters, but they do not cause all the violence. One must understand the Pashtun, who are largest tribal group in Afghanistan. They have, for centuries even preceding Islam, lived by a code of honor called the Pashtunwali (Way of the Pashtun). Central to that code is the concept of badal or revenge.

By that code, even between Pashtun there is violence. Some of the violence that we simplistically label as “terrorism” is, in fact, badal under the Pashtunwali. The Pashtun and Americans have more in common than they may realize. And they hold grudges…for a long time…sometimes centuries.

In addition to this violence there is simple banditry, battles over drug territory and trade, and just the ordinary everyday crime common in any society. The real trick for all the professionals trying to sort all this out is to…well…sort it out. Properly identifying which act of violence goes in which bucket is quite a trick, especially since they sometimes overlap.

The bottom line is that we are not going to change that aspect of their culture. It will remain violent. The best we can do is try to channel that energy into more constructive pursuits, but they will not let it go. Or as one Pashtun said, “I have been a Pashtun for over 2,000 years. I have been Muslim for 1,200 years and I have been Afghan for 250 years. So I am Pashtun.”

What is an Afghan? A simplistic definition would be to classify anyone born within or descended from someone born within the boundaries of what we call Afghanistan an Afghan. But Afghanistan as a nation did not exist until Ahmad Shah Durrani created the Durrani Empire in 1747. The Durrani are a “supertribe” within the Pashtun tribe. President Karzai is a Durrani. Most of the Taliban are Ghilzai. See a problem?

Back to the question: What is an Afghan? Well, to add a little wrinkle to our simple definition, we must understand that within the boundaries of modern Afghanistan there are Pashtun (42%), Tajik (27%), Hazara (9%), Uzbek (9%), Aimak (4%), Turkmen (3%), Baloch (2%) and 4% of “Others” including the Nuristani of the Panjir region who dislike just about everyone else including each other.

Even this breakdown is too simplistic. Within the Pashtun tribe, members of whom extend from the Iranian border on the west to the western provinces of Pakistan, there are nine “supertribes” including: Durrani, Ghilzai, Shinwari, Daulatzai, Dotani Qbayil, Gorya Khel, Kakar, Khostwal, and Mangal. In addition to the “supertribes” there are 13 smaller tribes. Within the “supertribes” are further divisions of clans and minor tribes. Of course all these “supertribes” have competing interests.

The Durrani have traditionally ruled Afghanistan since 1747. That is until they were supplanted by the Ghilzai in a bloody coup in 1978. Remember, Karzai is a Durrani and most of the Taliban are Ghilzai. Remember badal. A quick look at where most of the reconstruction efforts have been spent as far as Pashtun regions is concerned, and a pattern starts to emerge. So, are we surprised that things don’t cleanly come together?

We have not even begun to discuss the other ethnicities in this fracas, or the religious differences that come into play, even before we talk about direct involvement by outside powers (the US, NATO, Pakistan, India or Iran).

So, in Afghanistan it isn’t as simple as “hunting down the terrorists” at all. There are complex issues at play outside of Islamic militancy or hatred of invaders. Understanding this basic fact is important. Afghanistan may never be “fixed” by Western standards. Getting it to function more or less as a nation most of the time may be the best we can do here. And that is OK.

In the words of T.E. Lawrence aka Lawrence of Arabia (I may not have the quote exactly, but it is one of my favorites): “It is better to let the locals do it in their imperfect way, than for you to do it for them in a perfect way. After all, it is their country and your time is short.”


Charles Gramlich said...

Great points all. I like the quote from the tribal fellow about how long he's been the different things. We tend to forget that here. And good point about how all the violence isn't terrorism in the normal sense. I mean, the US is a violent country and we wouldn't want someone one coming in here "fixing" us.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Thank you for the intriguing explanation of their culture.

I always call Americans the unruly teenagers on the block--you know, the ones who know better than their elders? By most standards, we are children when it comes to culture.

Badal is an intriguing concept.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Sounds like it was a rough day there yesterday. Do be careful.

J. L. Krueger said...


We Americans have a tendency to want to simplify and synthesize everything into neat packages. The reality is that few human interactions can be so easily packaged.


Badal in this environment makes for very courteous people. One is so careful to avoid causing offense, which might result in a feud, that people here are incredibly polite.

Of course with so many firearms available, the imperative to be polite is even greater.

J. L. Krueger said...


The press has, as usual, blown the whole thing way out of proportion. A bad day for those who died and their families, but having the Taliban attack one of our outposts openly was exactly what we wanted.

The bad guys had a 3 to 1 numerical advantage and wound up on the bad end of an 11 to 1 casualty exchange.

In purely military terms, it was a good day for our side. In strategic terms in that particular province it was an outstanding day because the locals got to see the Taliban have their butts handed to them. So the attack actually hurt their "street cred" while raising ours. We are already reaping significant intelligence rewards by the locals in that province coming forward and providing information as a direct result.

I'll have more analysis on my other blog a bit later today.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

other blog???

excellent, thanks.

I heard very little actually, but I was thinking of the casualties.