Our War Against the Pashtuns

Pashtun Boy.jpg

Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

US marines talking to a Pashtun child whose father is a Taliban suspect, Afghanistan, August 17, 2009

The situation in Afghanistan is beginning to remind me of an old Russian joke about the difference between an optimist and a pessimist. The optimist says, “Things are so bad, they couldn’t possibly be worse.” And the pessimist says, “No, they could be worse.” That thought came to me when I read yet again someone expressing the fear that after US and NATO troops leave Afghanistan, the country “may descend into civil war.” What exactly do they think is happening now between the Taliban and the Afghan security forces?

This has always been an Afghan civil war, as well as a war between the Taliban and Western forces in Afghanistan. It is a continuation of the civil war which had been going on since 1992 between different groups among the Mujahedin forces which overthrew the Communist regime in that year; just as for the 14 years before that, Afghanistan had been in a state of civil war between the Communists and their enemies. What happened in 1979 and again in 2001 was that outside superpowers intervened on one side of a civil war. This meant that the military balance was violently tipped in the direction of that side—for a while.

Some of my students at King’s College have chosen this year to write their MA essays on the subject of Edward Luttwak’s argument a dozen years ago against humanitarian intervention, “Give War a Chance”. This has made me think about the relevance of his ideas to Afghanistan over the past two generations. I am certainly not advocating a US strategy of allowing civil war in Afghanistan to play out as it will. Nor of course were either the Soviet invasion of 1979 or the US invasion of 2001 humanitarian interventions intended to do so: both had the effect of trying to maintain and extend Afghanistan’s limited modern progress in the face of Islamist and tribal conservative resistance.

But although much of Luttwak’s argument is rather nauseating, he does have a point when he suggests that by tipping the balance in this way, a large-scale outside intervention can distort underlying and enduring local realities of power. From a Realist perspective, that does not matter, as long as the outside power is willing to stick around indefinitely to make sure that the balance stays tipped. That after all is what imperial powers have been doing since the dawn of recorded history in their interventions on behalf of local allies.

In its own way, this is what NATO has done on behalf of the Bosnian Muslims and the Kosovo Albanians in the Balkans. By defeating the vastly more powerful Serbian enemies of Muslims and Albanians, NATO forces, backed by the European Union, have created an order in the Balkans that certainly does not reflect the underlying balance of power in the region itself. The difference is that because Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo are on the continent of Europe and are now surrounded by NATO and EU territory, these alliances feel a deep commitment to maintaining the order they have created—because both their consciences and their prestige would be shattered if the region returned to the horrors of the wars of the 1990s. And this commitment is shared by Western educated publics. It is all too miserably apparent that no such deep Western moral commitment exists in the case of Afghanistan. We are simply not going to stick around with sufficient power to make sure that the balance stays tipped; and by sticking around with reduced power, we may ensure the worst of all outcomes.

The fact is that a plurality of Afghans are rural Pashtuns. Leaving aside the reasons for the US intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 (which I continue to believe was in itself justified as a response to the September 11 attacks), it is obvious that the effect on Afghanistan’s civil war was to tip the military balance in favor of the non-Pashtun nationalities and the small number of more-or-less “secular” or at least urbanized Pashtun forces (represented in the anti-Taliban “Northern Alliance”), and against the forces of Pashtun rural conservatism. Unfortunately, the great majority of Pashtuns still live in the countryside, or are recent migrants to the cities who have not yet adopted the more open attitudes of urban society. The tragic reality, then, is that among the Pashtuns, no mass constituency for liberal reforms exists—at least of the kind that could have given democratic support for such reforms or motivated large numbers of young Pashtuns to volunteer to fight and die for them in the way that they have been willing to fight and die for the Taliban.

In any case, most of them are not really fighting for the Taliban as such, but for what they see as the defense of their country and their honor, and for revenge for relatives killed by Western forces. The apparently overwhelming US and Northern Alliance victory has however proved largely illusory in the long run not only because of the underlying strength of Pashtun numbers in the region, but because Pashtun conservatism has been re-energized by the US and NATO military presence itself.


Quite apart from the absolutely disastrous aspects of Western strategy and behavior over the years and the awful character of the Karzai regime we put in place in Kabul, the US and NATO “occupation” of Afghanistan has fed into an absolutely central premise of Pashtun culture, which is—in the words of a supporter of the secular and anti-Taliban Awami National Party in Pakistan—that “every Pashtun is brought up from his cradle to believe that to resist foreign occupation is part of what it is to do Pashto,” in other words to follow the honorable path of a Pashtun. Poetry of the Taliban, a book of translations which will be published in August by Columbia University Press (introduced by Faisal Devji and edited by Felix Kuehn and Alex Strick van Linschoten, a PhD student of mine), brings out how the Taliban have been able to draw on Pashtun culture to motivate people to fight against the US and its allies.

The Taliban spread their message to a mainly illiterate rural population through oral poetry, stories, and even songs (towards which they have relaxed their formerly rigorous disapproval, having seemingly realized how much their hostility to local tradition previously damaged their cause, and also how useful such cultural traditions are for propaganda purposes). The Taliban also spread their propaganda through Friday sermons by sympathetic mullahs, and through the Internet to literate people who may be receptive to their message. Strikingly, even more important than their references to the struggle against the Soviets are their endless mention of the wars against the British invaders in the nineteenth century. From this point of view, bringing British troops in the current conflict into Helmand province, the heart of the Pashtun lands of southern Afghanistan (and close to the site of a famous British defeat at Maiwand in 1880) was a particularly bad idea—and shockingly, no senior figure in the British security establishment seems to have been aware of its implications.

In Afghanistan itself, the Pashtuns make up some 40 percent of the population (though of course estimates by Pashtuns themselves range up to 70 percent), considerably outnumbering the next biggest ethnicity, the Tajiks. Almost equally important however is the fact that most Pashtuns in the world live not in Afghanistan but in neighboring Pakistan, which has more than 20 million. The fact that the Pashtuns straddle the British-drawn border between Afghanistan and Pakistan has had disastrous effects over the past 40 years (though in the 1980s, the West was convinced that this was a wonderful thing, as it gave the anti-Soviet Mujahedin the kind of local shelter and support that the Taliban receive today). Fear that Afghanistan will become the base for anti-Pakistani Pashtun irredentism has led successive Pakistani governments to believe that they have to gain influence within Afghanistan—and that this influence can only be through Afghanistan’s Pashtuns. This in turn has led to the belief that the only forces that can exert real power over the Pashtuns are Islamist ones, because of the intense rural conservatism I have mentioned above, and the strong Pashtun traditions of resistance to foreign conquest in the name of Islam.

This judgment has usually been attributed to General Zia-ul-Haq, who ruled Pakistan from 1977 to 1988, and had his own Islamist sympathies. It is worth pointing out though that it was shared by non-Islamist Pakistani analysts in the 1980s and 90s—indeed, the original decision to back the Afghan Taliban was made by the government of Benazir Bhutto—and was based on assumptions about the strength of Pashtun conservatism in Afghanistan. In addition, both in the 1980s and 90s Pakistani generals came to the conclusion that among the Pashtun groups, only the radical Islamists would actually fight hard. There were some grounds for this assumption, which was shared by analysts in the CIA.

It has been suggested that in the 1980s the US should have supported the moderate Mujahedin parties of Pir Ahmed Gailani and Pir Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, and forced Pakistan to do the same. If the Reagan administration did not do this, one reason was that the moderates were known to Western journalists and spooks in Peshawar as ‘the Gucci guerrillas.” I remember interviewing one of their leaders in 1989, who is now occupying a senior military position in the Karzai administration. The only warlike thing about him was the camouflage band on his gold fountain pen. It has been obvious for many years that the US decision to support the Mujahedin in the 1980s was a disastrous one. But if you accepted the strategic or moral justification of that decision (as I did at the time, to my enduring regret and embarrassment), then the decision to support Mujahedin who would fight hard was a logical one.


The attempt by US-led NATO forces in 2001 and 2002 to create a strong Pashtun alternative to the Taliban from among former Mujahedin forces failed because so many had either disgraced themselves by their oppressive policies and extortion when they ruled Afghanistan after the Communists fell in 1992, or had joined the Taliban and were brushed off or even killed by US forces when they made peace overtures. The best of the Pashtun Mujahedin commanders, Abdul Haq, who later fought against the Taliban (and who is commemorated in The Afghan Solution, a book by Lucy Morgan Edwards published last year by Pluto Press) was killed in a premature attempt to undermine the Taliban in October 2001.

Most ordinary Pashtuns in Pakistan are not supporters of Islamist parties (though support for these parties in the Pashtun territories is stronger than in other areas of Pakistan) and certainly do not want the Afghan Taliban to rule over them. They do however naturally tend to side with Pashtuns against rival ethnicities in Afghanistan, and above all, are disastrously responsive to the line that the Afghan Taliban are conducting a national resistance struggle, or in Islamic parlance, a “defensive jihad.” Hence the overwhelming majority of Pakistani Pashtuns with whom I have spoken express strong opposition to any Pakistani military action against the Afghan Taliban (and very often to the Pakistani Taliban too, insofar as they are seen as allies of the legitimate struggle in Afghanistan).

As far as I can see, the only way out of this ghastly mess is for the US first to promote a peace settlement between the different groups and ethnicities in Afghanistan, and then to cut the ground from the Taliban’s “war of resistance” propaganda by getting out completely. The first requires a radical decentralization of power, since I just cannot imagine the Taliban and their old enemies from the former Northern Alliance, (representing other ethnicities and a few Pashtun warlords) sharing real power in a Kabul government. The second requires a recognition of just how much the presence and actions of the US forces themselves have contributed to Taliban support. If there was any doubt about that before the burning of the Korans and the massacre by Sergeant Robert Bales in Kandahar, there can be no doubt now.

The killing of US and NATO soldiers by Afghan soldiers and police in response to these events also shows that the US needs to get out for the sake of its own servicemen. The plan to leave thousands of US military advisors deployed with the Afghan National Army after the withdrawal of ground forces in 2014 is intended to avoid the possibility of a collapse of the US-backed regime after the US army leaves, along the line of South Vietnam in 1975. The problem is that it risks repeating what happened in South Vietnam eleven years earlier.

Rather than read endless briefing papers, US and British generals could do worse than to watch Go Tell the Spartans, a little known but rather good film starring Burt Lancaster, about a US military adviser team in South Vietnam. In 1964, thousands of US advisers were present with the South Vietamese forces—and as those forces crumbled, more and more US advisers were being killed, sometimes by Vietcong agents among the US allies. Sooner or later, that is going to compel a choice: to pull the advisers out and see your client state collapse; or leave them there and watch them being slaughtered, which is politically impossible; or to send in a massive army of your own, which is what the US did— disastrously—in Vietnam. I don’t think that any responsible officer would wish to put his men in that position.

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