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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Western myths about Pakhtuns and Taliban insurgency

Western myths about Pakhtuns and Taliban insurgency

Jan Assakzai

The narratives Washington and other western allies are following is like the Taliban embody Pakhtun nationalism that is hell bent to expel foreign troops from Afghanistan. In other words the Taliban constitute the reaction of Pakhtuns to imperialist US as part of their alienation. As a result of this conclusion, the US and other western strategic thinkers have started connecting the Taliban with Pakhtun culture. Thus the West has nearly given up on efforts to defeat the Taliban. Of course the ideological underpinnings of this policy came from the narratives of these “experts”. In practice this policy means Washington divested its fight against the al-Qaeda and from that of the Taliban and gradually started treating the Taliban as “indigenous movement”. Though it is challenging to get into the heads of these experts on Afghanistan, it is worthwhile to try what they really think about the Taliban phenomenon. It would also help us understand the popular myths the West has adopted about Pakhtuns in general and the Taliban in particular. The policy decisions on Afghanistan in the Western capitals are often made after the input from its strategic and geo-political thinks tanks. Any policy pursued must base itself on some sort of narratives advanced by these “experts” and analysts which are in thousands in Washington, London and other Western capitals. These “experts” analyse issues from a variety of angles and then advise policy makers based on their conclusions. This is how a policy is formulated for execution. Some of these experts are so “experts” that they have never been to the region. Often, many spend couple of months visiting some advisers, officials and contacts in these countries to recommend policy advice in their papers to politicians, military leaders and other policy executioners. I was really amazed at a recently held workshop “Rethinking the Swat Pathan” in London. Some of the experts had not been to Swat for at least three decades and were analysing the situation obtaining today. Interestingly out of over two dozen experts there was no Pakhtun perspective on issues surrounding the Taliban and Pakhtuns. I was struggling to get a minute time to speak and challenge the stereotypes of these “experts” on Pakhtun culture and “extremism”. The only impression I gathered was of “colonial arrogance’” syndrome: “we are the experts, we know every thing, who the hell you think you are” etc. For simplicity, the narrative of these experts about the Taliban insurgency and Pakhtun cultures go like this: There is an ethnic sub culture which is part of general Pakhtun culture that is driving the Taliban insurgency. The code of Pakhtunwali is itself extremist and thus the idea that extremist ideology of the Taliban has been imported from abroad is wrong. It is because of the conservative socio- economic background that sustains the Taliban insurgency. The west call them extremists but the Taliban is native, indigenous struggle within their culture, where there has been a struggle between the modernists and conservatives. The insurgency also represents between the haves and have-nots which some Taliban represent. Tribal structure is based on linage that passes from father to son bounded by family, tribe, clan and then confederation. The tribal culture is the root cause of the Taliban insurgency. There is competition for leadership in Durani and Gilzai co- federations. Afghanistan’s communist internal strife was marred by Gilzai and Durrani rivalry. Aassakzai and Noorzai tribes - near Pakistan’s Chaman border - have intense competition in southern Afghanistan and Gilzai tribes are competing in south eastern of Afghanistan. Molah Omar is from Gilzai Tribe and Hamid Karzai is Populzai Durrani. Another narrative is that the Taliban insurgency is not a low level insurgency but nearly half of 50,000 Populzai tribesmen support the Taliban. Helmand and the adjoining areas are siding with the Taliban. The Taliban’s culture is tribal and the West’s is foreign hence the people do not support the coalition. On the basis of the above narratives, these “experts” advise the US policy makers in the following way: You can leverage the tribal system, that can resist the Taliban. But it has been weakened, people have lost connection with tribal system i.e., they are refugees, there are gangs, criminal network and some of tribes are allying with them. The conflict is of class and culture and identity and ethnicity not about ideology, so you cannot beat the Taliban. Another narrative has been adopted about reconstruction what is reconstruction: there is not much to reconstruct; it is all about construction. There is no army; there is no decentralised power structure. Sadly these narratives led to paralysis in the western capitals and culminated in wrong conclusions: Pakhtuns are against modernisation and want to support the Taliban this is why it is not worth fighting the “popular” opposition in Afghanistan or improving the status quo. But all these narratives are myths ignoring the glaring realities on the ground, glossing the failures of the West and under explaining the role of neighbouring countries surrounding Afghanistan. Though it is not within the scope of this article to counter these myths, there is a Pakhtun narrative that has gone unheard by the West at large: The Western narratives on the Taliban insurgency and Pakhtun culture, masquerades the reality of western failures in Afghanistan of which three reasons played, make or break role.: First, the US and the West came into Afghanistan with the claim to create a nation-state in a region but its tools and methods were different. The fact is that the US sent American troops into Afghanistan to make sure another 9/11 never happens again. Only the Obama administration narrowed the scope of the US objective in Afghanistan and switched from nation building and later from the Taliban fight, to defeating al-Qaeda. Secondly, the US administration, and the West in general run parallel administrations to the Karzai-led government that was supposed to be backed by the West hence undermining the very government they were supposed to be consolidating. Thirdly, the West got two things right and miscalculated the monumental impact of the third factor. Yes, the West backed a Pakhtun national leader Hamid Karzai who was recognised and respected by majority of Afghans . Yes, while recognising the ground realities of Afghanistan, tribal and ex-military leaders were co-opted into the new government to make sure there is no incentive in supporting insurgency. But the most important factor was, the US did not cut off sanctuary to the Taliban who exploited the strategically kept insecure border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In contrast, the Soviet Union failed on the above three criteria. The last requirement is, the most important determinant in the outcome of any insurgency in Afghanistan. In fact it is crucial in history of counter insurgency. The space for retreat and sanctuary has been crucial for the drug-running FARC in Columbia or the TTP in FATA. Mao Tse Tung say that all insurgencies start small and must not choose their battles with the government until they have adequately built a counter-state and are in a position to challenge federal forces openly. This is the natural progression of a “people’s war” as designed by the master of irregular warfare, Why the US got it wrong was it did not make it happen: entry and exit points of the Taliban into the Northern Balochistan and FATA could not be controlled by the NATAO, or the Pakistan army - this factor simply made a difference between success and failure for the NATO and the US in defeating the Taliban. The Taliban used the sanctuary to recruit, regroup, and resupply. It is amazing how quickly the US forgot lessons from other theaters: This is exactly the same trap the United States fell into in Vietnam. Cambodia and Laos were never fully removed from the equation as enemy sanctuaries and as a result the insurgency could always recruit, regroup, and resupply. In Afghanistan, most Afghans were not and are not members of the Taliban nor their sympathisers. But all these arguments are irrelevant if sanctuary is available. It dramatically changes the equation. Thus the US and NATO allowed a war of attrition on their troops for political reasons advised by these “experts” as that did happen in the context of Vietnam’s sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia. Thus my advice to these “experts” is please get rid of at least half of your books on anthropology, military strategy and politics about Afghanistan and start afresh.

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