Friday, April 10, 2009




    The Pashtuns have always taken their religion a little too seriously but were never fanatical in their religiosity. A Pashtun's tribal identity never really conflicted with his Islamic identity. If anything, the two basic pillars of the Pashtun social structure were the Masjid and the Hujra, the former being the domain of the Mullah and the latter of the Malik (tribal chiefs and elders). Unlike Punjab where the Mullah was tolerated because he performed essential religious rituals, in Pashtun country, the Mullah enjoyed a more exalted status, only a rung or two below the Maliks and Khans.

Today, however, a radical social transformation is sweeping through both Punjab and the Pashtun lands. While in Punjab, the mullah mafia is now a force to reckon with; in the Pashtun belt the tribal order (which was weakened by decades of settled living and external influence) is wilting before the onslaught of radical Islamism. In Pushtun society, the traditional Mullah and the tribal elite are increasingly becoming irrelevant, and are being replaced a new elite comprising warlords (most of who hail from very humble backgrounds) and radicalised, half-educated, obscurantist mullahs.

    This emerging Pashtun social system is based not on tribal affiliation but on Islamist affiliation. All the old values, rules and codes that guided the old tribal system are either being thrown out of the window or have simply become redundant. The old rules are being mutated and twisted to serve the interests and justify the actions of the emerging elite. For instance, the obligation to grant sanctuary to anyone who seeks refuge legitimizes providing safe havens to the Arab, Chechen, Uzbek, Uighur and every other Islamist warrior in the world. Similarly, the obligation to avenge a wrong – Badal – has become a justification for recruiting jihadis. And of course, the 'legendary' Pashtun resistance to foreign domination (much of it manufactured and motivated) has become a propaganda tool to paint the Taliban as freedom fighters waging a war for national liberation against 'foreign occupation'.

In the past too, Pashtuns have fought against their adversaries to defend their obligation to provide refuge to anyone who seeks it. Revenge has also long been an article of faith for Pashtun tribesmen, and there are innumerable instances where clans and tribes have nursed enmities and strived to settle scores for generations. And yet, it is equally the case that the famed code of Pashtunwali has been observed more in its violation than in its practise. This is because one of the unacknowledged attributes of Pashtun society has been its pragmatism. The Pashtun proclivity for striking a deal with one enemy to settle scores or gain advantage over another enemy has been an abiding characteristic of these people. What more settled societies call treachery, the Pashtuns call survival. In their scheme of things, switching sides and selling out an ally is par for the course since all alliances are tactical and therefore temporary. Everything is fungible, provided the price is right.

But in the last couple of decades all this seems to have changed. One indication of this change is the fact that despite a huge bounty on the head of Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders, they have still not been sold out by their hosts. Another indication is that long standing tribal rivalries and hierarchies have been subordinated to the imperatives of the Islamist insurgency. Unlike their predecessors who always kept a line of communication open with their enemies so that they could strike a favourable deal at an opportune time, the new Pashtun elite comprising of Islamist militants are totally rigid and uncompromising. So much so that efforts to drive a wedge in the ranks of the militants, have met with very limited success.

The moment one warlord is seen to be softening his stance towards the enemy (Americans or Pakistan security forces) he loses the support of the most committed and lethal Islamist cadre. Deals by a militant warlord with the Pakistan army have also failed, partly because they have not saved the warlord from being targeted by the American drones, and partly because of the failure of the Pakistan army to provide him with the material, monetary and military support he needs to fight his rivals, much less protect him from his enemies. This is what happened in the case of the Islamist warlords like Mullah Nazir and Gul Bahadur, who after breaking ranks with Baitullah Mehsud have recently once again joined hands with him. The assassination of Haji Namdar, a militant commander who struck a deal to provide safe passage to logistics convoys of NATO is another example of the failure of the anti-terror front to divide the ranks of the Islamists.

The closing of ranks by the Islamists is quite normal for combatants with a common cause, ideology or enemy. What is unexpected, however, is the manner in which the centuries old tribal structure has simply collapsed before the Islamists. What has happened to the famed Pashtun obligation for revenge? Why is it that when Islamists kill tribesmen, there is no retaliation against them, but when the security forces or the Americans draw blood, there is a stream of recruits to avenge their dead? How is it that instead of the tribal militias taking revenge for depredations by the taliban, it is the Islamists who are exacting badal by decimating anyone and everyone who resists or obstructs them?

Clearly, local affinities – 'me against my brother'; 'me and my brother against my cousins'; 'my cousins and my family against my neighbours'; 'my neighbour, my cousins and me against my village'; 'my village against the other village'; 'my tribe against the other tribe'; and so on and so forth – have been wiped out by an Islamic affinity that transcends clan, tribe, ethnic, linguistic and national divides. No wonder, Islamist militants who have no common clan or tribal affiliation, are able to dictate terms to entire clans and tribes and yet face no major resistance. The Pashtuns used to boast, somewhat speciously, that assured retaliation ensured a balance of terror that helped to maintain law and order in the society. But with the Pashtuns so meekly kow-towing to the diktat of the Taliban, this balance of terror is nowhere visible.

The famed xenophobia of the Pashtuns too seems to have become a thing of the past. The rising influence of non-Pashtuns like Arabs and Uzbeks in the affairs of Pashtuns is only one sign of the growing dominance of Islamism over tribalism. The clinching evidence in support of this proposition comes from the acceptance by the Afghans of Pakistani overlordship through their proxies, the Taliban. Today, even as the Pakistanis try to convince the rest of the world of the Pashtun aversion to foreign interference, the Pakistani establishment feels that it can interfere with impunity in Afghan/Pashtun affairs by keeping alive their Taliban option.

Indeed, this raises the question that if the Pashtuns are so antagonistic to external forces, then what makes the Punjabi-dominated Pakistani establishment believe that they will be able to call the shots in the 'Af-Pak' region if and when the Americans quit? The answer perhaps lies in the use of Islamism by the Pakistani establishment. While the impact of this pernicious ideology and strategy on Pakistan itself is now being felt, it has already devastated the very foundations of the Pashtun society. The reverberations of this transformation will be felt for many decades throughout the region and even rest of the world.


    <1250 Words>                    10th April, 2009



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