November 8, 2009:
A few thousand years ago, nearly everyone lived in a tribal (a collection of families and clans related by blood) culture. But since then, the tribal social relationships have faded, superseded by kingdoms and nations. But there are still several large tribes left in Eurasia, and they are at the center of much of the unrest on the planet these days.
First, there are the Pushtuns. This is a collection of dozens of tribes sharing language and customs. There are over 40 million of them, and their range is from eastern Iran to western Pakistan. They are a minority in every country they live in, although they are the dominant minority (40 percent of the population) in Afghanistan. Then there are the 24 million Kurds, who live as minorities in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. There are also fifteen million Baluchis, living as minorities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.
What these three tribes have in common is that they have never been able to form their own nation. The Italic tribes did this in Italy, the Germans in Germany, the Greek tribes in Greece, the Turkish tribes in Turkey (and other Turkic tribes like the Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Azeris and Kirgiz in Central Asia.) The Mongols have their own nation. The Tajiks, who are, like the Pushtuns, Baluchis and Kurds, an Indo-European people, have their own country (although most Tajiks live in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan.)
When a large tribal people does not, in this day and age, have its own nation, there tends to be a strong desire to form one. The Tajiks got lucky, having been conquered by the Russians in the 19th century, and then able to set themselves up as an independent nation when the Soviet (Russian) empire fell apart in 1991. That independence may not last but, for the moment, the Tajiks have a place they can call their own.
The Baluchis are also unique in that they have not caught the nationalist fever. They want more autonomy in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And they are fighting for that. But calls for forming a Baluchistan have, so far, been muted.
It's different with the Kurds and Pushtuns. Both are cursed with the desire for unity, and the inability to get along with each other. Both tribes have been sitting where they are for over a thousand years, uniting temporarily only to fight outsiders. The other mega-tribes of Eurasia eventually found a string of strong and resourceful leaders who united the tribes, and formed nations (or at least kingdoms, which are easier to merge into empires.)
The Kurds are blocked from statehood by the more powerful nations they inhabit. The Turks, Iraqis and Iranians are particularly resistant to giving up real estate and population to a Kurdistan. Fortunately, the Kurds never embraced Islam in a big way, and their separatist groups tend to be socialist, or simply nationalist. Thus the Kurds are allies of the West in the war on terror, not an enemy.
The Pushtuns are another matter. While the Pushtuns basically control Afghanistan, that's not saying much. Afghanistan is little more than a tribal coalition, with tribal politics more important the national level stuff. Most Pushtuns live in Pakistan, where they are a small (less than ten percent) minority. The Pushtuns are less educated (or even literate) than the non-Pushtun majority. And now the lowlanders of Punjab and Sind are using their numbers, and more powerful weapons to crush a religion based (Taliban) tribal uprising.
The Pakistani Pushtun tribes are also going through their own civil war and revolution. New technologies and new ideas are upsetting the ancient traditions. For example, 150 tribal couples (from Sindh and Baluchistan, not the pro-Taliban Pushtun tribes), who had defied tradition and arranged marriages, have petitioned the government for protection from tribal killers. The 150 couples found each other because of the Internet and cell phones. Defying arranged marriages has long meant facing the risk of getting killed by your family or tribe. But this new situation shows you the extent of the problem with traditional ideas being threatened, and tribal leaders striking back with death squads. Arranged marriages and "honor killings" (of women who disobey) are a touchy subject throughout Pakistan (and South Asia).
But the Pushtun tribal leadership is being threatened from several directions. Young men, made wealthy and well armed by the drug trade, refuse to obey their tribal elders. Other tribesmen, hearing a call from God (to join the Taliban or al Qaeda) have also ignored their tribal leaders. The government has backed the tribal leaders, creating a bloody generational conflict. Tribal politics is a dirty business, and always has been. The violence in the tribal areas of Pakistan, just from battles with the army and police, has been escalating over the last decade. Now it is war, and the Pushtuns are facing yet another defeat.
While the Kurds are embracing education and modern life, the Pushtuns, at least the most violent ones, are embracing an Islamic past. Thus do the lost tribes of Eurasia stay lost.