Pashtuns key to Afghan future
Quarreling tribes home to Taliban
By Anne Barnard and Yvonne Abraham, Globe Staff
Boston Globe; 11/25/2001
MIANKALI, Pakistan - In this village surrounded by sugar cane and turnip fields, the eight women of the Malik family spend their days together inside their compound, four well-appointed houses connected by metal doors.
They watch MTV and soap operas, help one another with chores, and believe fervently in Pashtunwali, a tribal code of honor that allows a man to kill any relative who sullies the family name.
Sixteen years ago, just such an execution launched a blood feud that has killed 22 people in this village near Peshawar. One of the Malik men, Tahseen Ullah, saw his 16-year-old niece walking down the street with a boy who was not her relative. He shot them both dead. The boy's family killed a Malik relation, and so on. Tahseen was killed in 1996, leaving six daughters.
But last week, lounging in their aqua-walled sitting room, the Malik women said it was all worthwhile. ''We appreciate what he did, because he did it for honor,'' said Zohra Narus, 42, Tahseen's cousin. ''It is a lesson for others.''
The Maliks and their traditions belong to the Pashtuns, a group of Muslim tribes with a reputation as fierce, impetuous warriors, whose name was rarely mentioned in the United States before Sept. 11. Suddenly, they were thrust into the spotlight, as the ethnic group that makes up the bulk of the Taliban militia and populates Pakistan's long, porous border with Afghanistan.
Now, the satisfaction of the approximately 29 million Pashtuns living on both sides of the border is crucial to the outcome of the US-led military campaign against the Taliban. The future of Afghanistan - and to some degree, of Pakistan - depends on whether Pashtuns come away happy when Afghan leaders meet in Bonn on Tuesday to hash out how to share power in an interim government.
But to be content with a new Afghan regime, the Pashtuns would have to unite among themselves for long enough to win their fair share of power from other Afghan groups such as the Tajiks and Uzbeks, who dominate the Northern Alliance - a tall order for a society that places revenge and rivalry at the center of its identity.
''This is really a paradox,'' said Faratullah Babar, a Pashtun who served as speechwriter and spokesman for Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan's former prime minister. ''On the one hand, they are so united, so conscious of their culture, [particularly] when the common adversary is non-Muslim.''
On the other hand, Babar said, history shows that as soon as Pashtuns get what they want, they start fighting one another.
Just last week, Pashtuns who oppose the Taliban rushed into Nangarhar province, in southeastern Afghanistan, from their home base in Peshawar to take control, but quickly fell to bickering over who would rule. There is still no clear spokesman for anti-Taliban Pashtuns.
From British agents to Cold War rivals, outsiders have tried to exploit that tendency. ''The Afghans of the frontier are never at peace except when they are at war,'' wrote T.L. Pennell, one of many 19th-century colonialists who studied the Pashtuns.
Babar pointed to the Persian-related Pashtun language, which has a word for the special rivalry between people who are very close. A certain kind of cousin, a man's father's brother's son, is called a tarboor, and competing with him is called tarboorwali.
If someone thinks his business partner is getting too aggressive, he may say, ''Why are you bringing tarboorwali into our relationship?''
Pashtuns tell a joke in which angels stand guard over hell, ready to push back any souls who try to clamber out, except in the Pashtun section. There, if anyone gets close to the top, the other Pashtuns will pull him down.
Pakistani officials are trying to be optimistic. ''This might be hopeful or wishful thinking,'' said Major General Rashid Qureshi, the military government's top spokesman. ''But I have the feeling that Afghans themselves are sick and tired of the infighting. That is what gives us hope.''
Others are more skeptical. ''I don't think there will be the kind of dream government they want, not unless everyone has their finger in the pie,'' said Tariq Rehman, a linguist who studies ethnic relations in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
That, Rehman said, means not just filling a quota of Pashtuns in government but spreading concrete power, patronage jobs, and money-making among Pashtun commanders.
''If there is to be a stable government in Afghanistan, then [Pashtuns] have to feel they have a stake in the system,'' said Dr. Shireen M. Mazari, director of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. ''If they don't ... one will see Afghanistan degenerating into the old war-lordism system.''
In Pakistan, Pashtuns are stereotyped as hotheaded, criminal, and extremely religious. In reality, they run the gamut from Faratullah Khan - urban, Westernized, prominent in secular Pakistani politics - to the Maliks, and people who make the Maliks look liberal.
Even those furthest from their tribal origins have a ''nostalgic'' affiliation, Rehman said. His family, descended from Pashtuns, hasn't spoken their language for generations. Yet as a teenager, he embraced the identity because, he said, ''the wildness was a romantic notion.''
Babar said that even relatively Westernized Pashtuns hold on to the code of honor. If a friend failed to show up for his son's wedding, he said, he would retaliate in kind, and if a girl elopes, she may not be killed but will be ''socially boycotted.''
Pashtuns trace their history to Qais, a companion of the Prophet Mohammed, and have sometimes claimed to be the lost tribe of Israel. Anthropologists believe they have Indo-European origins. Their lands range from deserts in southern Afghanistan to the grassy valleys and snowy peaks of northwestern Pakistan.
Their culture revolves around honor, hospitality, and revenge, and the latter usually involves disputes over ''zan, zar, and zamin'' - women, money and land.
For much of Afghanistan's history, they have been the dominant group. Ahmad Shah Durrani, founder of the first Afghan state, was a Pashtun. He united the tribes in 1747, and for a period controlled much of today's Pakistan.
Pashtuns make up about 44 percent of the Afghan population - the figure is a matter of hot political dispute.
In Pakistan, Pashtuns, sometimes called Pathans, are a greater preoccupation than their 12 percent share of the population suggests. Millions of heavily armed Pashtuns live in semiautonomous ''tribal areas'' along the Afghan border, where they largely govern themselves according to their traditional code.
Pashtuns are most numerous in North-West Frontier Province, which has the feel of a religiously conservative Wild West. In Peshawar, the provincial capital on the road to the Khyber Pass, women almost universally cover their faces as they dart between rickshaws decorated with posters of movie actors wielding bloody knives. Pashto-language films are popular across the country for their risque dance scenes. Smuggling and kidnapping are common ways of paying bills and collecting debts.
Female literacy rates in the province, at 21 percent, are even lower than Pakistan's overall rate of 33 percent, and maternal mortality is twice as high.
The government, like earlier rulers, wants to keep Pashtuns content, fearing an effort to unite their divided lands into an independent ''Pashtunistan.'' At the same time, Pashtuns are disproportionately represented in the military.
For both of those reasons, the Pakistani military nurtured the Taliban in order to foster a Pashtun government next door. The militia were educated in religious seminaries in the North-West Frontier Province. The region is home to some of the country's most extremist religious leaders - who claim to have recently sent more than 10,000 fighters, mainly Pashtuns, to fight alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan.
For many Pashtuns, the recent Taliban setbacks have only increased the militia's appeal. In a field just outside the Maliks' village, about 3,000 men gathered Friday to pay their respects to two brothers who had been killed in the fighting.
''Our mission will continue!'' one man yelled into a microphone. ''We will sacrifice everything in the name of Islam!''
''We are sorry for the fall of the Taliban,'' said Narus, the Malik cousin. ''Because we appreciate and support and love the Taliban rulers, now we feel sorry for them.''
The Maliks' support for the Taliban cannot be chalked up to poverty or desperation. Theirs is a grand home compared to many in the village, where donkeys and horses pull wide loads through narrow lanes as children play underfoot.
Nine of the men in the family work for the government in secure, high-paying jobs. There is enough money for a television, and for comfortable chairs, instead of cushions on the floor. Although they are forbidden to watch television dramas in mixed company, its scantily clad women are no threat, they say, nor is a Taliban defeat.
''Our structure is too strong,'' Zohra Narus said. ''It is the responsibility of the parents, teaching them the code of society. We are teaching our children to follow their fathers and their brothers. That way we are maintaining right from childhood, we are making up our minds.''
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