Path to a Pashtun Rebellion in Afghanistan

Pashtun children make their way from an armored personnel carrier toward Marines on patrol in the Helmand province of Afghanistan last August. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson/file)

In the debate over U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, author Seth G. Jones believes the path to success lies in facilitating a Pashtun revolt against the Taliban. Jones, a Rand political scientist and adjunct professor at Georgetown University and the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, is author of "In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan", published by W.W. Norton in July.

Guest Blogger: Seth G. Jones

The Afghanistan debate raging in the United States has become hijacked by an obsession with American troop numbers. But this discussion misunderstands the subtle nuances of fighting a war in areas inhabited by fiercely independent Pashtun tribes, whose culture and traditions are under severe threat from the Taliban.

The current strategy rightly focuses on protecting the Afghan population. The U.S. counterinsurgency manual suggests that a force of roughly 20 counterinsurgents for every 1,000 inhabitants is necessary to secure an area. But it is a misunderstanding of counterinsurgency doctrine to assume that these numbers must be international forces or even Afghan national security forces. What's more, it reflects a troubling failure to understand Afghanistan.

The insurgency in Afghanistan is mostly confined to Pashtun areas of the country, which are dominated by tribes, sub-tribes, and clans that have historically rejected an intrusive Afghan government and permanent international presence. Khushhal Khan Khatak, a seventeenth century Pashtun poet and warrior, aptly noted that "the very name Pashtun spells honor and glory. Lacking that honor, what is the Afghan story?"

Pashtuns are predominantly conservative Sunni Muslims and are the largest ethnic group in the country. They are scattered across southern, eastern, western, and even pockets of northern Afghanistan. For most Pashtuns, tribal lineage and their code of conduct, or Pashtunwali, takes precedence over Islamic law for legal matters. Tribal leaders have historically adjudicated disputes at the local level, and mullahs have tended to play a background and subordinate role.

But the Taliban is trying to undermine Pashtun tribal norms and establish a top-down ideology based on a radical interpretation of Deobandism, elevating the role of mullahs. In most Afghan provinces, the Taliban has appointed "shadow" governors to provide law and order in areas they control or influence. Most are religious leaders, such as Mullah Aminullah in Kandahar Province and Mullah Naim Barech in Helmand Province.

In addition, the Taliban has welcomed the role of foreign jihadists and religious zealots to establish an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. In northern Afghanistan, they have linked up with Tajik and Uzbek religious militant groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. In such provinces as Helmand, they have supported small numbers of al-Qaeda and other Arab jihadists to manufacture bombs and engage in propaganda. And the Taliban has coordinated with al-Qaeda on some spectacular suicide attacks, including in Kabul City in September 2009.

The Taliban's emphasis on a top-down ideology in a region where power has emanated from the bottom up poses a notable opportunity for the United States. A few more American brigades may be helpful in clearing Taliban-infiltrated territory in southern and eastern Afghanistan. But it won't win the war by itself.

An effective strategy needs to facilitate a Pashtun revolt against the Taliban. There are a range of opportunities to exploit tribal grievances against the Taliban by supporting Noorzai, Alizai, Alikozai, and other tribes in southern and western Afghanistan, as well as Kharoti, Shinwari, and others in eastern Afghanistan.

The objective should be to do what Afghanistan's most effective historical governments have done: help Pashtun tribes, sub-tribes, and clans provide security and justice in their areas and manage the process. When tribes rebel against the government or fight each other, government security forces can move in to crush the uprising and mediate the disputes. Pashtuns have generally eschewed an intrusive central government in their areas, but most have supported a
government that serves as a mediator.

If the United States can facilitate this development, it could potentially turn the war in Afghanistan. But it requires U.S. policymakers to better appreciate the nuances of Afghan society and support a rebellion against Taliban leaders trying to destroy Pashtun traditions and culture.

By Steven E. Levingston |  October 2, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Foreign Policy , Politics , Steven Levingston
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Yess, this is the only possible way out of the present quagmire, which resulted from doing exactly the opposite, i.e. affronting the Pahstuns in every possible way, by seemingly confusing them with the Taliban (and, one step further, by confusing the Taliban with Al Qaeda).

However, it will require a far better political project, such as to be acceptable to the tribes, than anything that's been offered them so far; and it can only be done by Afghans and for Afghans.

Finding such Afghans and helping them as far as possible should be the overarching American objective.

Posted by: cristca9 | October 2, 2009 6:31 AM

Professor Seth has very rightly diagnosed the actual dynamics of the insurgency in the Pashtun areas in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Taliban represent a horde of different, and often at variance, interest groups...from religious fanatics to disgruntled youth, to drug barons and traffickers, and so on and so forth. But with support from their Al-Qaeda brotherhood and other state and non-state sponsors, the Taliban have successfully propagated the violence as an Islamic and Pashtun nationalist cause against non-Muslim occupation incorrect representation on both counts. The international community, the ISAF/NATO forces and the Afghan government have been unable or unwilling to empower traditional culture and customs against the Taliban who are determined to annihilate traditional centers of power by destroying the local culture, customs, and power balance in the Pashtun society. Taliban have systematically attacked cultural symbols (statues of Bamyan etc.), and have killed hundreds of traditional tribal elders and spiritual figures both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As long as the empowerment of the local customs and traditions remain obscure in the counter-insurgency strategy, it is more likely that the Taliban will further increase their influence in the population for their violent agenda.

Posted by: mr352 | October 2, 2009 3:19 PM

Only the Pashtuns on both sides of the Durrand line can defeat the Talibans and their backers. Take it from a Pashtun. How Obama's team understands this and translate this into cogent a policy will determine the fate of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The problem is that the Deobandis and the Salafites are winning the propaganda war and poisioning the minds of young Pakistanis and Afghans by questioning the very "Aim of the American war". Nato and ISAF have become irrelevant in this debate. Pashtuns see themselves as honorable people and need to be treated as such and not merely as connon fodder. Al Qaida is anethma to the Pashtun culture.

Posted by: pervezak | October 2, 2009 3:39 PM

Dr. Jones,

Thank you for presenting to us such an accurate assessment of the situation in the region. The Pashtun culture is a threat to both political and extremist Islam whether Sunni or Shia'. It must be revitalized to counter the growing threat of religious extremism both in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Without the empowerment of Pashtuns, there may never be peace in Southwest Asia let alone Afghanistan. The problem is that our military and non-military leaders are being advised by anti-Pashtun elements both in Kabul and Afghanistan. Time is ripe for the reversal of a policy that has been a major failure in during the last eight years.

Pashtuns have been the worst victims of violence throughout this conflict. However, they are being depicted as Taliban and Al-Qa'ida sympathizers by the media through fueled by misinformation and propaganda being spread by our competitors and adversaries in the region.

Once again, thank you!

Posted by: marufkhail | October 2, 2009 4:18 PM

Correction to the above comment: ...advised by anti-Pashtun elements both in Kabul and Islamabad"


Posted by: marufkhail | October 2, 2009 4:20 PM

Didn't we already try this strategy with the Hmong in Laos, the Miskito in Nicaragua and several other simililar scenarios in other nations.

I don't think it's worked out so well in the past.

So you're dealing with Muslim extremists, instead of extremist Communists or Socialists dictating top down ideology onto an ancient culture and people, here the Pashtun.

The strategy you're proposing generally has had limited success in the past.

Posted by: youmustbejoking1 | October 2, 2009 9:56 PM

in other words. give them guns and encourage them to kill each other.

how about just leaving?

Posted by: fahdp | October 2, 2009 11:51 PM

It is perhaps a mistake to see the Pashtuns and the "Taliban" as two completely separate things."Taliban" leadership is Pashtun and like the social organization of the Pashtuns, highly fragmented representing all sorts of orientations. The primary recruitment pool for the "Taliban" are the Pashtun tribal groups.And whether we like it or not,after 8 years of occupation supporting if not initiating an unpopular central government (primarily based on elements of the Northern Alliance) we remain in most Pashtun minds a non-Muslim foreign military occupational force, a replacement for the Soviets. And such a force cannot win the minds and hearts of the Pashtuns, something the military cannot yet figure out with most development funding passing through the military's PRTs. And as during the period of anarchy after the Soviet departure, the Pashtuns including most of the local mujahadin groups supported the "Taliban" because they brought stability to the regions under what was not far off of the Pashtun traditional law. But this strict tribal law (which was needed after the long period of anarchy)did not fit well with the urbanized city people in Kabul for example. It may be a difficult task (for the Afghans) to seperate the Pashtuns from the "Taliban" especially as long as their country is occupied by us foreign non-Muslim military occupational forces.
I dont think many rural Pashtuns who represent most, would see the Buddha statues of Bamyan as one of their "cultural symbols".

Posted by: scott3108 | October 3, 2009 12:47 PM

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