Counter-Terrorism: Pious Gangsters And Family Values


May 14, 2009: Increasingly, the Taliban are seen as a bunch of Pushtun gangsters using religion as cover for criminal activities. Not just the drug trade, but all manner of illegal activities. These range from extortion and kidnapping to smuggling and illegal mining and lumbering. A lot of this activity is endemic to the region, but labeling yourself as Taliban gives new players an opportunity to break into established arrangements.

But to a greater extent, the growing unrest in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the last three decades is mainly the result of unruly, and fractious Pushtun tribes living on both sides of the border. There are about 40 million Pushtuns involved, belonging to about a hundred different tribes and major clans. Ethnically, the Pushtuns are related to the Iranians, and many speak a closely related language (Dari), usually as a second language. Like the Kurds (another group related to the Iranians), the Pushtun tribes never united long enough to establish a nation. Currently, 70 percent of Pushtuns live in Pakistan, where they comprise 15 percent of the population, while most of the remainder live in Afghanistan, where they make up 40 percent of the population. Thus the Pushtuns are a dominant force in Afghanistan, but a major nuisance in Pakistan. The Pushtuns ended up split between two different counties mainly because the Pushtuns aren't big on unity, or countries. In short, the Pushtuns don't pay much attention to the national boundary that, in theory, separates them. For a Pushtun, the boundary that counts is the one that separates the land his family, clan or tribe claims, from those of his neighbor. Pushtuns don't like foreigners, and to a Pushtun, a foreigner can be someone from another Pushtun tribe.

The independent spirit of the Pushtuns has always made it difficult for non-Pushtuns to govern them. The Pushtuns have been conquered in the past, but only when there was something there to make it worthwhile. The areas where the Pushtuns live are not the source of any great wealth, and the Pushtuns are among the poorest peoples in Asia. Since the Silk Road (trade route with China) dried up (because Europeans built ships making it more economical to go by sea) four hundred years ago, there's not been much there there. Britain could not justify the expense of pacifying the Pushtun tribes for the two centuries they dominated the region. Others have, when they had to (the Mongols were particularly brutal, but the Persians were rather more clever about it) took control.

 The Pakistanis have known, since the country was created in 1948, that they would  eventually have to take control of the Pushtun tribal territory, and gradually, since the 1950s, they have been doing that. Recently, the tribes have begun to notice. They are not happy with this creeping control. The Pushtuns have made their situation worse by allowing al Qaeda to hide out among them, forcing the Pakistani government so speed up their control program.

You cannot expect the unruliness of the Pushtun tribes to disappear quickly. The violence has been there for thousands of years, and the creeping pacification has been making slow progress over the last half century. It's a process of bringing government control to the major towns, and introducing new industries and businesses. More education causes more Pushtun to migrate out, and non Pushtuns to migrate in. The Pakistani army has recruited heavily among the Pushtun, and educated and changed those recruits, by exposing them to life away from the tribe. Eventually, as this process continues, the Pushtun will change. But it won't happen quickly, or peacefully.

This creeping advance of government is accepted by many Pushtuns. But some of the more tradition minded, of all ages, are resisting. Those who have long held tribal leadership posts (and better opportunities to make money), don't like these changes, because bureaucrats will supplant tribal leaders in many jobs. That will leave the tribal big shots with less power, and fewer opportunities to abuse that power to make money.

Back in the 1990s, the Taliban screwed up in Afghanistan, trying to concentrate too much power unto themselves. The new Taliban pledge to respect tribal rights, but many tribal leaders don't believe this. The tribal leadership, in most tribes, see the Taliban as another tribal faction trying to grab power. This has created divisions among the tribes, and an increasing number of battles between independent minded tribesmen, the Taliban, and al Qaeda. It's not a simple war back there in the hills, and it never has been.




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