Thursday, July 17, 2008


In my previous post I briefly mentioned Pashtunwali. Here I will explain it in a little more detail. Many in the West cannot seem to comprehend the concept, or recognize its importance in this part of the world. The Scots, Irish and much of the American South and West can probably grasp it for it is similar to the Celtic Way, the Code of the Highlands, the Code of the Southern Gentleman, the Code of the West, or the Code of the Hills.

Pashtunwali will not go away. It was part of the culture here long before Islam. We must recognize its importance in the lives of these people even if we think such concepts are "outmoded." Personally, I find them quite relavent and think that it is an important part of what modern societies have lost in their race to modernity.

Pashtunwali, or the Way of the Pashtun, is a set of traditional rules Pashtun tribes have lived by for thousands of years. Pashtunwali is significant in that nearly 40% of the Afghan population is Pashtun, and their code of conduct continues to have influence on legal and social decisions throughout Afghanistan today.

The four basic tenets of the Pashtun code of honor are:
  1. hospitality
  2. justice
  3. protection of women, family, and property
  4. personal independence

The value of personal independence in particular is very much an Afghan trait.

When there is a dispute, the local jirga, or group of elected elders, will use the customary Pashtunwali codes of conduct as its guide in passing judgment, and its decisions are widely respected.

Local rulers, who oversee Pashtunwali in their area, consider it more important than laws codified by any national government.

The development of a centralized Afghan state may have been impeded throughout the centuries by the traditional authority wielded by local jirgas who did not want any higher authority interfering in their local way of life.

Pashtunwali will continue to be a significant factor as the Afghan state works to define a judicial system.

The rules listed below have guided Pashtun tribesmen for centuries.

Badal refers to the right to retaliate if insulted (revenge).
Badragha is the safe escort of a fugitive or a visitor to his destination.
Balandra is the act of providing help to someone who is unable to complete his own work, such as a harvest. Repayment is usually a lavish dinner.
Baramta is the holding of hostages until claimed property is returned; service industry workers (tailors, barbers, etc.) are excluded from being taken hostage.
Bota is the seizing of property to ensure repayment of debt.
Ghundi is an alliance created against a common enemy.
Hamsaya refers to a man who has given his valuables to someone (usually an elder of another village) who can protect him from insult or injury.
Itbar is the trust in one's word or promise as a legally binding contract.
Lashkar is a large group of armed men who enforce the ruling of a jirga, much like a police and military force would.
Lokhay Warkawal is the acceptance of an alliance in order to gain protection from enemies.
Meerata is the murder of one male member of a family by another in order to ensure inheritance. This is a criminal act and the Jirga responds by punishing the culprit (usually by death).
Melmastia is generous hospitality, and Pashtuns consider it one of their finest virtues.
Mla Tarr is the provision of armed protection to help a family member or a close friend.
Nanewatei is the act of forgiveness or the grant of asylum, even to enemies. It is not accepted where the honor of a woman is involved.
Saz is "blood money" or other compensation (such as a daughter in marriage) given to appease a family after a murder.
Tarr is an agreement that gives protection to the involved parties.
Teega means literally "putting down the stone" and stands for ending the fighting between two feuding parties.

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.”