Winning: Where Everyone Loses


November 25, 2012: Largely unnoticed, there has been yet another major uprising among the Pushtun tribes of Central Asia. This sort of thing has been going on for thousands of years, and Europeans first got involved 2,400 years ago when Alexander the Great came and smacked the Pushtun tribes around for a bit. Persians, Hindus, Mongols, the Russians, and neighboring tribes and until 1947 the British have all run into the combative and unruly Pushtuns. The latest outbreak was triggered by a Russian invasion in 1979. That upheaval is still playing out, but most people just think it’s all about Islamic terrorism. It isn’t.

Over the last two centuries the introduction of Western technology (more productive agricultural methods, medicine, and better sanitation) caused a population explosion among the tribes of Central Asia. For over a thousand years Afghanistan had supported no more than about 2.5 million people. But in the 19th century that changed, and by 1900 the population had doubled to five million. Fifty years later it had more than tripled, to 16 million. It has since doubled again. Even with more productive agricultural methods, there was eventually a land and water shortage and more disputes between the tribes. Ancient arrangements between the tribes were falling apart.

Communists and other Western political ideas had come to Afghanistan as well, and the Russian invasion in 1979 was triggered by a tribal rebellion against urban Afghans trying to impose a central government and more alien ideas on a still very medieval mindset in the countryside. While the Russians left (more because of impatience than military defeat) in 1989, that war between the traditional tribes and the urban reformers continued. In the early 1990s Pakistan and Saudi Arabia invented the Taliban (when Pakistani intelligence agents recruited fanatic young students from religious schools set up by Saudi Islamic conservatives in the 70s and 80s) and sent them into Afghanistan to end the civil war. That did not work out as expected. The Taliban gained control over most of Afghanistan by the late 1990s and allowed al Qaeda to set up shop. Big mistake, because after September 11, 2001, that brought in the Americans and another tribal war with the Pushtun tribes became part of the Global War On Terror.

For the last six years the focus of Islamic terrorist activity, at least in terms of deaths, has shifted from Iraq and the Persian Gulf to the Pushtun tribal territories of Afghanistan and Pakistan. In those six years there have been some 90,000 terrorism related deaths in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Over 80 percent involved Pushtun tribesmen and 53 percent have taken place in Afghanistan. While two-thirds of the Pushtuns are in Pakistan, they are a larger (40 percent of all Afghans) minority in Afghanistan. Throughout all this, most (56 percent) of those killed were Pushtun tribesmen working for the Taliban or other Islamic radical groups. Another 29 percent were civilians, again, most of them Pushtun. The remaining 15 percent of the dead were police and soldiers, most of them not Pushtun. In some cases the Pushtuns were fighting each other, but mainly they were attacking non-Pushtun who they saw as encroaching on Pushtun territory or power. Only three percent of the dead were foreign troops, all of them in Afghanistan.

The problem with all this was that no one was winning. That’s pretty common with wars involving the Pushtun tribes and is the main reason the Pushtun territories have long been a bewilderness of banditry and chaos. During the last decade the Afghan and Pakistani branches of the Taliban became increasingly divided over means and objectives. What was going on here was Pushtun politics. The Afghan Taliban believe their war is one of "Pushtun Liberation", in which the foreign troops are expelled and the country once more comes under Pushtun rule (preferably with a religious dictatorship but any form of government will do as long as the Pushtuns are in charge). The Taliban have got some traction with this. While the Pushtun tribes are only 40 percent of the Afghan population, many Pushtuns insist that they are actually the majority (51-60 percent of the population) and thus should run the nation. In the past century or so it has been customary for Pushtun tribal leaders to dominate the central government (the king was almost always a Pushtun). But the Pushtuns were often greedy, leaving the majority of tribes with hardly any power in the central government. Since the Taliban defeat in 2001, this has been reversed, with the non-Pushtun tribes now having a majority of government posts (although the president and many key officials are still Pushtun). Many Pushtuns resent the additional clout the majority tribes have and want a return to the days of Pushtun domination. The majority does not agree. In the past the Pushtun tribes got their way because of the implicit threat of support from the Pushtuns in Pakistan. That is no longer an effective threat.

The Pakistani Taliban also want a religious dictatorship but many of these Pushtun warriors have bought into the al Qaeda idea of a global Islamic dictatorship. As difficult as that goal might seem to be, the Pakistani Taliban have a more pressing problem. Although two-thirds of the Pushtuns in the region live in Pakistan, those Pushtuns are, for the first time in their history, being invaded by the Pakistani army and are asking for help from the Afghan Pushtuns. Since the two branches of the Taliban can't agree on much, there is not a lot of enthusiasm for getting involved with each other. The problem is one of different goals. The Pakistani Taliban are a relatively new phenomenon. It was with al Qaeda help and urging that the Pakistani Taliban factions joined together in the Tehrik-i-Taliban organization five years ago. Since al Qaeda was already at war with the Pakistani government. Soon the Tehrik-i-Taliban were as well, with the al Qaeda goal of world domination.

In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Taliban are supported by a few million of the 40 million Pushtuns in the region. Meanwhile, there are bigger problems with the Pushtuns, especially their support of the heroin trade and ignoring the Afghan/Pakistan border, but the overriding one is the inability of many Pushtuns to settle down and get along with their neighbors. The majority of the Pushtuns in both nations want no part of all this violence. But the eternal tribal divisions, and unwillingness to go to war, prevent a united effort to suppress the Taliban.

A unique feature of Pakistan is that it's 165 million people are all minorities, although the Punjabis (44 percent of the population) are the dominant one (not just in numbers but in education and income as well). Closely allied with the Punjabis are the Sinds (14 percent), and together these two groups pretty much run the country. What these lowland people have not been able to run are the Pushtun and Baluch tribes up in the hills. This has been a problem for thousands of years. The hill tribesmen are fearless warriors but the lowlanders are more numerous, disciplined, and, in the end, more than a match militarily for the tribes. The hill people can threaten and raid but they can't conquer.

Since Pakistan was created in 1947, the policy towards the tribes was largely one of live-and-let-live. That has fallen apart with the growth of Islamic radicalism (originally seen, in the 1970s, as a cure for the corruption and poverty of the nation). This religious fervor calls for more violence throughout the country, with the goal of establishing a religious dictatorship. The Islamic radicalism never caught on, in a big way, among the Punjabis and Sinds. There are plenty of Islamic radicals in the lowlands but they are split into many factions, and some of the factions (especially Sunni and Shia) are at war with each other. The tribal radicals can make a lot of noise, carry out terrorist attacks, and threaten all those who disagree with them (including many Pushtuns and Baluchis). But they can't take over the country. It's been tried before, and this time around the lowlanders have something their ancestors didn't, aircraft and helicopters that can go after the tribesmen in the mountain redoubts. That's already happening, and more and more of the tribal leaders are figuring out the implications. If the lowlanders get really mad, especially if the Taliban and al Qaeda try to set up their own little terrorist kingdom up in the hills, there will be a lot of blood.


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