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Af-Pak and the Tribal Nexus

by Khaled Ahmed

File Photo. Noorullah Shirzada—AFP

Can development triggered by economic compulsions help Islamabad and Kabul move past archaic notions of tribalism and fear of the unfamiliar?

The Taliban appear to have noticed the changed world of 2021. In recent statements, the group has expressed a desire for a “makhlut” (inclusive) government in Kabul; and have definitely widened the narrow path they wanted Afghan women to walk in the past, the word “sharia” protecting them from “deviation.”

The Taliban have also stressed that no one inside Afghanistan will be allowed to carry out terrorist attacks in the country’s neighborhood. Is this a sign of the group being ready to step into the 21st century? Even the Afghan civilians might not be aware of it but 20 years of living under a “liberal” U.S.-imposed order has definitely impacted the mindset of the population, especially the 70 percent non-Pashtuns who have always differed from the 30 percent ultra-tribal Pashtuns. Yet Afghanistan’s tribal tradition—shared by much of Pakistan—and the return of the Taliban will resonate with Pakistan’s own recent past.

Dubious pledge of normal conduct

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has said the following for all the world to absorb: “We seek no revenge and everyone is forgiven; we will honor women’s rights; we want private media to remain independent but the media should not work against national interests; Afghanistan will not allow itself to harbor anyone targeting other nations. Afghanistan will be a narcotics-free country. And women would be allowed to work and study and will be very active in society but within the framework of Islam.” And most importantly, the following: “The Taliban will not allow Afghan soil to be used against other countries. Private and independent media could continue but they should abide by the cultural norms.”

There are “exceptional” clauses in the statement such as “Islam” and “culture,” which could actually signal retreat into what they were before the “American invasion”; and had in fact caused “recidivism” in states like Pakistan where democracy was supposed to be putting an end to a tribalism that saps the sovereignty of the modern state. But there is no doubt that the sentence “we will not allow Afghan soil to be used against other countries” has spread a measure of satisfaction in the neighborhood and at the global level.

Did tribal Afghanistan inspire Pakistan?

Can Afghanistan under the Taliban change and become “normal”? Before it reached the present milestone in its life, it was actually “inspiring” Pakistan to return to “honor-based” tribalism. While it is true that state-building comes from force imposing compromise and cooperation from the outside, and by living “in slavery”, but recidivism might come later through “searching for roots” and “ideology” emanating from unchanging religious edicts.

Pakistan may actually serve as a negative example of how the act of rejecting “slavery” of the British Raj has taken it into re-tribalization as “ideology.” Work-related ethic gives in to “divinely-sanctioned” morality and ritual. This is apparent in the conduct of former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani who, after spending years in the U.S. teaching, should have been able to “reform” Afghanistan. He even co-authored a book in 2009 documenting how corruption was rampant in Afghanistan under the Taliban; but as is all-too-clear, he continued down the same road when in power.

Retreat into ‘purity’

The attraction of honor-based tribalism is intense in most popular leaders in the region, like Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, which gives lie to the hope that a state can advance from “tribal” to “modern” after introduction to liberal conditions of life. Khan has actually attacked the “rational-sequential” discourse of English in Pakistan—because it breeds “slave mentality”—and is seeking to make it compulsory for English-medium schools to teach Arabic to their pre-teen students. (Some Muslim poets in South Asia have written poetry in Persian—a language closer to Indo-European Urdu—but none in Arabic, which gives the lie to Khan’s latest wisdom.)

Pakistan kept its tribal areas in the north “pure,” and thought it would not be affected by the warlike worldview that this produced, linking it more with tribal Afghanistan than with British Raj-affected Pakistan. Given the “abstention” allowed by the state to warlords and strongmen of Balochistan and Sindh, Pakistan flagged its own retrogression to tribalism. It was partly borrowed from the retrogression of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which in time served as Al Qaeda’s first line of defense in the region and publicly declared its loyalty to Osama bin Laden and his jihadist ideology.

Pakistan’s internal contradiction

In time, the TTP joined forces with another former Al Qaeda-affiliated, anti-state Pakistani jihadist group, once led by Ustad Aslam. The group and its accomplices masterminded the abduction and killing of Wall Street Journal journalist and U.S. citizen Daniel Pearl in February 2002. The group was also responsible for multiple suicide attacks, including an attempt to kill Pakistan Army chief and then-president Pervez Musharraf in December 2003. The Ustad Aslam Group planned and executed the 2008 Marriott Hotel bombing in Islamabad, which killed at least 54 people and injured 266, as well as the October 2009 attack on the General Headquarters of the Pakistan Army at Rawalpindi in which nine soldiers, nine militants and two civilians were killed.

In 2018, soon after Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud took over the TTP’s command, the group’s capacity and strength grew, according to analysts monitoring the situation. After its merger with other splinter groups, the TTP became the most lethal terrorist outfit in Pakistan. In a CNN interview, TTP chief Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud announced the “liberation” of the Pakistan tribal belt adjacent to the Pak-Afghan border: “Our fight is only in Pakistan and we are at war with the security forces of Pakistan. We are firmly hopeful of taking control of the tribal border region and creating an independent state.”

Where Afghanistan leads Pakistan

After 1947—the year India and Afghanistan challenged its existence, the latter by rejecting the Durand Line and claiming parts of Pakistan as Pakhtunistan—a lot of the old tribal way of life in Pakistan had begun to disappear, except in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Tribalism lived in the memory of everyone, and honor was always its distinguishing feature. But it was the Pashtun community who lived closest to their tribal memory, mainly because the tribal way of life actually existed in the federally administered tribal areas (FATA) and provincially administered tribal areas (PATA). Pak-Afghan relations are deeply embedded in Pashtun memory.

“The current tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan are actually nothing new,” said Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan at New York University’s Center for International Cooperation, in 2016. “They have been the normal state of relations between those two countries ever since the founding of Pakistan in 1947. Afghanistan was the only member of the U.N. General Assembly at that time to vote against the admission of Pakistan, on the grounds that it had not given the right of self-determination to its Pashtun inhabitants—and particularly those in the tribal territories. Afghanistan did not recognize the Durand Line between the two countries as an international border till 1976.” In 2021, the Taliban government in Kabul, after the ouster of the Ashraf Ghani coalition, has objected to Pakistan’s wire-fencing of the Durand Line saying that “it divides two brothers.”

Memory and modern compulsion

Just as a tribal Afghanistan is vulnerable to tribal backsliding, Pakistan remains weak in the face of its own retarded state-building. Unfortunately, religion plays a part in this, which Pakistan can do nothing about; but other purely tribal factors can be gradually removed. Afghanistan, a much smaller state, can modernize under the duress of economic compulsion and suppress its tribal identity. Killing the Shia Hazara may look religious but there is much else related to language and tribe that intrudes. Pakistan’s own vulnerability is much deeper and may be beyond the intellectual capacity of its leaders to handle. Nobody was shocked when a Baloch politician warned the chief minister of the province that he should not “come into his area.”

Will economic development triggered radically by the “intrusion” of the Chinese Belt and Road project kill the tribal instinct of “aggression toward the unfamiliar” in the region? Afghanistan is overwhelmingly undeveloped; Pakistan is undeveloped up to nearly 60 percent of its territory, while in the developed areas, tribal memory attracts men to feudal politics. The year 2022 could be a turning-point for the lives of the region.

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