Primer on Afghan Society


Like a lot of Americans, I followed and wondered about the “war” in Afghanistan.  I mean we’ve been there almost eight years and last month, July 2009, was the most deadly for U. S.  troops. 

And like a lot of Americans, I wondered, “Why?”  I thought, this is a simple problem, right?  Get rid of the Taliban and Afghanistan will be on the road to nation-hood.  Simple.  But as time passed and nothing really improved, I thought, “There must be something else going on here.”

I know where Afghanistan is on the map.  I had read James Mincher’s “Caravans,” but was wholly ignorant of how Afghan society functioned.

Now, after a year of reading some of the books written in the last ten years on Afghanistan and the south-central-Asia region, I have some understanding of the differences between Afghan society and what is commonly known as “Western Civilization.”

Tribal.  Think Tribal.  As a child of the enlightenment, fully embracing ‘nationhood,’ I find it difficult to think small enough to think tribal.  If Ohio was a nation instead of a state, it would still be too big and in the wrong context, to be tribal.

Afghanistan has four major ethno-linguistic groups.  Pashtuns are in the south, Tajiks and Uzbeks are in the north, with the Hazara in between in the Hindu Kush mountains.

Except for a brief period in the 1990s, Pashtuns have been in charge in Afghanistan.  The Pashtuns, at 42%, constitute the largest ethnic group in the country.   Wiki has an excellant piece on the Pashtuns.

There is a hierarchal breakdown from the ethnic group to the tribe.   According to Ahmed Rashid in Taliban, as he talks about the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, he states that

Omar was born sometime around 1959 in Nodeh village in Kandahar to a family of poor, landless peasants who were members of the Hotek tribe, the Ghilzai branch of  Pashtuns.

Pashtunwali is an ancient traditional code of conduct and honor. Pashtuns are divided into 60 tribal groups and more than 400 sub-groups.

Personal loyalty is first to the family, then to the tribe.  There is no concept of nationhood.  The tribal leader, the strongman, the warlord is in charge.  He may have from several hundred to ten thousand men under his command.  He may be a proxie for any one (or more) groups, such as the CIA, ISI, India, Iran or Russia. He may charge exorbitant tolls every twenty miles on the roads through the territory he controls.

Two excellant references on the Afghan way of life are:

Sarah Chayes’ The Punishment of Virtue

Ahmed Rashid’s Descent into Chaos

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