There are roughly 14 million Pashtuns in Afghanistan, out of a total population of 28 million. Pashtuns are the second-largest ethnic group in Pakistan where there are nearly 30 million speakers of Pashto in a total population of 180 million.
While linked by language, geographic proximity, and observance of the Pashtunwali code of conduct, Pashtuns are divided into at least sixty contentious clans and even more tribes.
Hamid Karzai, President of Afghanistan, is Pashtun. So is Mullah Omar, chief of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Hakimullah Mehsud and his Mehsud tribe are Pashtun as are the Waziri, long-time rivals of the Mehsud. Both the Mehsud and Waziri have their homelands in Pakistan’s FATA. Asfandyar Wali Khan, head of Pakistan’s Awami National Party, is also Pashtun.
Before his death Baitullah Mehsud had successfully crafted alliances with the Waziri and other cousins to support the largely Pashtun Taliban in Afghanistan. It is not yet clear if the alliances will survive him. Rumors suggest an intense internal struggle before Hakimullah finally secured his succession to leadership of the Taliban-in-Pakistan (TTP). There is evidence of al-Qaeda — and its funding – working to preserve Pashtun alliances along the Afpak border.
There is also evidence of the Pakistan military reverting to form and finding cause to avoid ground operations in FATA. I was surprised when early this summer it seemed the comparative success of operations in Swat had enboldened military plans for FATA. I am not surprised to see the long delay extended indefinitely.
Bobby Ghosh reports, “A senior Pakistani military official tells TIME a ground operation in the mountainous wilds of South Waziristanwould be too difficult and would risk triggering a ‘tribal uprising’ in a region over which Islamabad has little control.That assessment is shared by some Pakistan experts in Washington, who say the country’s military, despite some success against militants in the Swat Valley, simply doesn’t have the ability to confront the TTP head-on. ”
Instead of exploiting divisions in the aftermath of Baitullah’s death, it appears Pakistan will give AQ and Hakimullah time to consolidate. This is likely to be achieved by increased TTP operations against both Pakistan and coalition forces in Afghanistan. Hakimullah has also renewed his predecessor’s promise of a direct attack against the United States.
Score one for Pashtun parochialism.
Meanwhile in Afghanistan, despite a low turn-out in most Pashtun populated — and Taliban intimidated – areas, it appears that President Karzai could be re-elected. But the more votes he wins, the more suspicion grows of ballot-stuffing in the Pashtun heartland of Southern Afghanistan.
Being stuck with an unpopular and, perhaps, illegitimate chief-of-state does not advance US plans for Afghanistan.
According to Jeremy Page writing in the Times (London), President Karzai, “flew into a rage when the US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan raised concerns over alleged election fraud at a meeting in Kabul.”
But the widely reported “explosive encounter” may be a fiction choreographed to position the President with his fellow Pashtuns.
According to Helene Cooper in the New York Times, “Administration officials accused Mr. Karzai’s agents of leaking to the news media select portions of the exchange… in order to make it look as if Obama administration were trying to force the rightful winner of the Afghan presidential elections — Mr. Karzai — into holding a runoff to satisfy American demands. Mr. Karzai, a senior administration official said, ‘has a longstanding pattern of creating a straw man of America’s positions, and rallying people around that. But contrary to those reports, no one shouted, no one walked out’ of the meeting, he said.”
Score another for Pashtun parochialism.
Patronizing the prejudice of one’s political base is a time-honored skill. But it is a double-edged sword where parochialism – unmitigated tribalism — is more powerful than the claim of any unifying measure of culture, nation, or faith. While Karzai increasingly drapes the mantle of parochialism over his shoulders, Mullah Omar does not lead with his Pashtun identity, but flies the flag of Islamic unity, social stability, and political integrity.
Late Saturday the Daily Telegraph reported, “General Stanley McChrystal, the American commander in the country, wants to double the size of the Afghan security forces, decrease war fighting operations against insurgents and root out corruption among local government officials in a renewed effort to win over the “heart and minds” of the population.”
“The top level recommendations are contained within a wide-ranging review of the Afghan war strategy which has now been completed and is due to be dispatched to General David Petraeus, the head of US Central Command (Centcom), before arriving in Washington in the next two weeks.”
Also according to the Telegraph, “Gen McChrystal, a former specialforces chief, has also recruited Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb, a former British SAS commander, who will head a team in Afghanistan with the sole purpose of trying to negotiate with the Taliban. Lt Gen Lamb worked closely with Gen McChrystal in Iraq and was one of the architects of a strategy which convinced Sunni insurgents to abandon their alliance with al-Qaeda.”
While Karzai, Hakimullah, and AQ appeal to Pashtun parochialism, Mullah Omar and Stanley McChrystal are each trying to stoke a passion — at least a hope — for something beyond narrow Pashtun pride.
ISAF Counterinsurgency Guidance: One of McChrystal’s first acts was development and release of this document. A quick quote: ‘Protecting the people is the mission. The conflict will be won by persuading the population, not by destroying the enemy. ISAF will succeed when the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan earns the support of the people.”
Seven days that shook Afghanistan (New York Times)
A tribal strategy for Afghanistan (Council on Foreign Relations)
The Idiots Guide to Pakistan (Foreign Policy)
KabulPress: An interesting blog where Pashtuns (and other Afghans) write for themselves and the wider world, sometimes in English.
Pashtun ethnic grievances at heart of Afghan war: Associated Press story published widely on August 15.
Monday Morning Update
Lots of media piling on the story that the Telegraph (above) reported on Saturday. BBC reports from Brussels provide some authentically new information.
Afghan strategy needs change (Washington Post via Reuters)
New strategy needed to defeat Taliban (Associated Press)