Pakhtunkhwa Times

Afghanistan/Pakistan Border – Pashtun Power

Posted in 1 by ppfcanada on January 23, 2009

With what can only be called a victory for the Taliban, US forces abandoned their makeshift base in the Kunar Province, which was ambushed days ago. In this context, Today I want to bring to your attention two outstanding articles which provide a greater understanding of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border Pashtun people, culture, and security situation. Seth Jones, Thomas H. Johnson, and M. Chris Mason have written provocative pieces that both portray a security situation spiraling out of control. Though both articles mainly agree on the nature of the conflict and its dire consequences, they depart partly in their appraisal of the insurgency’s reliance on the Pashtun ethnic tribes and even more so policy recommendations.

1. Seth G. Jones. “The Rise of Afghanistan’s Insurgency: State Failure and Jihad.” International Security 32 4 (Spring 2008): 7-40.

2. Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason. “No Sign until the Burst of Fire: Understanding the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier.” International Security 32 4 (Spring 2008): 41-77.

Seth Jones argues in The Rise of Afghanistan’s Insurgency: State Failure and Jihad that the Afghanistan insurgency was not a creature of ethnic grievances or greed. He argues that though the insurgency is largely led by border land Pashtuns, there are segments of the ethnic group that do not support the Taliban and the current Afghan government is led by a Pashtun, Karzai and has a rather balanced ethnic representation. Regarding greed, mainly the growing and selling of narcotics as a reason behind the insurgency, Jones claims that the evidence shows that the increase in the drug trade was a result of the insurgency, not a precondition to it.

Jones instead argues that the ongoing insurgency was caused by a collapse of governance and the strength of the Taliban and its supporters’s ideology. Concerning the Afghan government’s failure, Jones emphasizes its lack of ability to provide essential services and adequate security to all parts of the country, especially the rural areas near the Pakistan border. He goes into greater detail discussing how the lack of legitimate local police and army forces, along with too few NATO forces, led to communities having to either rely on the Taliban for protection or being subjugated by them. In regards to Ideology, Jones describes insurgent groups, such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Hizb-i Islami as being motivated by an extremist interpretation of Sunni Islam, where a Muslim’s primary obligation and loyalty are to his/her religion and that it is a ’sacred right’ and obligation to wage Jihad to protect the Muslims of any country. Jones also has harsh words, as will Johnson and Mason, for Pakistan’s government and policies in regards to the tribal areas and the Taliban, pretty much acknowledging their direct support for the insurgents.

So what does Jones suggest the US, Afghan, and Pakistan governments do to stop the insurgency? Jones believes the Afghan central government needs to extend its presence into the nation’s rural areas and provide them essential services, such as electricity. He then advocates an increase in the number and quality of police and army forces, including more NATO forces. Lastly, he asserts that the Pakistani government needs to start clamping down on insurgent leaders in its own territory and argues that the US needs to push them harder and harder until results can be concretely seen.

Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason’s No Sign until the Burst of Fire: Understanding the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier takes an in-depth look into the Pashtun people’s history and culture and paints a very dark picture of the region’s current, ‘chaotic’ state. Johnson and Mason (for now on JM) begin by differentiating between the Pashtun people and their geographic, tribal neighbors and come to the conclusion that it is only the Pashtun tribes who ‘have ever demonstrated an interest in the type of Jihad being waged by the Taliban.’ JM go on to give a short history of the Pashtun people, emphasizing times when a foreign force tried to subjugate them under another form of rule, the British, Soviets, Pakistan Government, and now NATO forces. They provide a thorough look into the complicated culture and way of order for the Pashtuns, called Pashtunwali, a system too complex for me to summarize on these pages. The important factor JM describe about Pashtunwali is its effect on current geo-strategic situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan today. JM call the Pashtuns ‘perfect insurgents,’ and quotes a Pashtun elder talking to a British official in 1809; “We are content with discord, we are content with alarms, we are content with blood…we will never be content with a master.”

It is with this viewpoint, that Johnson and Mason call the current US/NATO strategy a ‘bankrupt approach’ and ‘precisely the wrong answer to apply to a highly developed culture in which ‘central government’ is anathema and reaction to it is insurgency.” For the US and world security the situation becomes darker, as JM provocatively explain that the Pashtun culture and people, though strongly resistant to outside social and governmental change, have been proven to be susceptible to religious extremist movements and that this has and may have tragic consequences. JM blame the US, through the CIA, Pakistan, mainly the ISI, and Saudi bankrolling in the 1980’s onward for the marriage of extremist Islam and Pashtun culture. The US/Pakistan/Saudi policy was to stop the Soviet advance in Afghanistan in any way possible and JM assert that the policy, especially Pakistan’s so-called ’social experiment’ to replace ethnic identity with religious, therefore matching the rest of the nation, ’spun it out of control.’ As one can see from the dramatic increase in suicide attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the battles between Pashtun tribes and tribal leaders, the Red Mosque incident, and the influx of foreign fighters from the Middle East and Central Asia.

The consequences of this ‘monster’ are tremendously dangerous for the US and the world, argue JM, and one must agree to a large extent. After all, the attacks on 9/11, London subways, and Madrid train bombings ‘were planned and trained for’ in the region. JM argue that the Pakistan government can no longer contain, let alone suppress, this insurgency. JM predict for the short-term the continued destabilization of southern Afghanistan, spread of the Taliban insurgency, and the further faltering of Pakistan’s democracy, and for the long-term, if left unchecked, ‘potentially devastating’ consequences for the US.

Well Mr. Johnson and Mr. Mason, what shall we do about this ‘monster’? The two scholars advocate a near complete reversal of current US, and Seth Jones’s recommendations, policy of spreading out security and governmental forces into the Pashtun territory. Instead they argue that in the short-term, we need to strengthen and rebuild the Pashtun tribal structures from the inside, take them back from religious extremism, and reduce the pressure on them from the outside. They want to ‘empower’ the tribal leaders and restore the traditional balance of power to their tribal system, in other words, forget about central government control. In the long-term, JM suggest bringing rapid improvements into the everyday lives of the Pashtun people; health care, education. Regarding Pakistan government’s role, they advocate ’strong and consistent’ military action when required, not ‘half-hearted’ measures which the Pashtun people see through. (though this seems to contradict their proposal for US/NATO forces, but it is true that Pakistan’s government does need to show some grit and muscle to the tribal areas in order to keep the country cohesive). Like Jones, JM also believe the US needs to probe a lot harder into the ISI and Pakistan’s involvement with the insurgency and make sure things are getting done.

These two articles provide a lot of mental food to chew on. Whether one agrees with their assessment of the situation, policy recommendations, or scholarly frameworks, one must admit that they bring to the forefront important cultural/ethnic aspects to this conflict which are not widely discussed by the US government, let alone the media. This is a tremendously complicated and dangerous conflict, with many possible outcomes, and to make effective policy we need to know what we’re up against.

If you would like to learn more about the Pashtun’s history with foreign entities’ attempts to subjugate them under a form of central government, google Ty L. Groh’s (Thomas H. Johnson’s pupil) ‘Ungoverned Spaces: The Challenges of Governing Tribal Societies.’


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