Tribal hostilities eclipse

Before Taliban - The Pathan Unarmed
January 31, 2003

The Pathans (who call themselves Pashtuns or Pukhtuns, depending on their dialect), who inhabit northwest Pakistan and southern Afghanistan, first acquired their ambivalent place in the English imagination in 1808, when Mountstuart Elphinstone was sent to Kabul to forge with them an alliance against Napoleon's supposed plans to invade India. Afterwards, they became pawns in English and Russian efforts to command Central Asia. But the Pathans were never content to be controlled. Their resistance succeeded most famously in 1841, when the British force occupying Kabul was expelled and then annihilated, ending a golden era of the Raj.

Later, British and then Pakistani soldier administrators struggled, mostly unsuccessfully, to pacify the Pathan tribes of Pakistan's unruly northwest frontier province. Most recently, Afghanistan has been the birthplace of the largely Pathan Taliban. Due to this background, the Pathans have been stereotyped as fierce tribal warriors and incorrigible religious zealots.

These two books, which both use biographies as their central focus, blur this simple portrait. Each will be read by area specialists but ought to interest a more general readership.

David Edwards' Before Taliban begins with the career of Nur Muhammad Tariki, the head of the 1978 communist revolution that overthrew the unpopular King Daud. Tariki was then assassinated by his second-in-command in 1979.

As Edwards shows, by repudiating traditional values of family, honour and religion, and imposing his collectivist agenda on the lives of his subjects, Tariki alienated them entirely. A lethal blend of ineptitude, self-righteousness and cultural ignorance led, inevitably, to his downfall and to the rejection of the communist revolution he led.

Yet his tribal opponents were no more successful, as the career of Samiullah "Wakil" Safi demonstrates. The educated son of a tribal chief, he had served as a government bureaucrat but was alienated from the communist regime and returned to his home valley of Pech to lead a rebellion. The revolt was temporarily successful, but it was unable to overcome internal dissent and betrayals, as each tribal segment sought its own advantage and refused to accept the authority of any other. Governance by tribal council, which required debate and the consensus of all the co-equal parties, proved unwieldy. Nor could any tribal rebellion expand beyond its own region since all other groups were potential opponents and were not to be trusted.

Traditionally, one way that hostile tribes have been united is through the leadership of a Muslim holy man. This was the fond hope of the third figure in Edwards' narrative. Qazi Muhammad Amin, the son of a religious scholar, became a leader in the radical Hizb-i-Islami party. Edwards describes Amin's education at Kabul University, where young men from all over Afghanistan met and formed Muslim youth groups in opposition to secularists.

A set of leader-centred religious parties eventually evolved, struggling among themselves for support from outside donors, such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the US. The few men who might have brought unity, such as the ecumenical Sufi Maulana Faizani, were murdered in the feeding frenzy. The result was a popular discrediting of the religious parties and their tribal allies as corrupt degenerates, capable only of squabbling over spoils.

This de-legitimisation left the way open for the Taliban, made up of naive and fanatical young Pathan exiles who eschewed previous tribal loyalties, followed anonymous religious leaders and offered a promise of peace after decades of violence. It was not long before they, too, wore out their welcome by inflicting their strict and idiosyncratic version of Islam on a recalcitrant public.

The moral of Edwards' tale is that things go badly when a version of order is forced on Pathans (and others) who prefer a high degree of personal freedom. Edwards argues persuasively that "political indeterminacy" is perhaps the best possible guarantee of relative peace in such a decentralised and internally contentious social universe.

Mukulika Banerjee has a contrasting but equally compelling story to tell: the rise and fall of the Khudai Khidmatgar ("servants of god") movement that swept the region around Peshawar during the battle for independence from Britain. Known in the West as the "red shirts" for the colour of their uniforms, the Khudai Khidmatgars came from the same Pathan culture as their cousins in Afghanistan. Yet the Khudai Khidmatgar practised strict non-violence in their struggle for independence. Banerjee asks how this could have occurred, given the Pathans' masculine values of honour, revenge and self-assertion.

She attributes it to the charismatic leadership of Abdul Ghaffar "Badshah" Khan, a prosperous landlord from a well-known Pathan lineage. Born in 1890 and educated by Christian missionaries, Ghaffar Khan became involved in the struggle for independence early in his career. The experience of British repression, widespread poverty and the collapse of the old social order made the Pathans ready for change. But where earlier revolts had been chaotic, violent and millenarian, Ghaffar Khan argued that only discipline, non-violence and practical action could expel the British colonialists.

Reinterpreting traditional Pathan values, he convinced his followers that true manliness implied service to others and self-control: instead of fighting the British, his disciples stoically accepted torture; instead of struggling against one another, they competed to serve the community.

Banerjee does a fine job of outlining the context, history and inner workings of the movement. Most important, she demonstrates how Ghaffar Khan combined what the failed leaders in Edwards' work could not. He was simultaneously a tribal chief, a religious figure and a nationalist leader.

Withstanding much more violent oppression than the Gandhians in India, and much better organised, the Red Shirts demonstrated the potential of the Pathans to redefine their culture and to achieve something other than indeterminacy and antagonism.

Unhappily, their history has been almost wholly erased by Pakistani nationalists. At present, only a few aged and neglected veterans recall this extraordinary struggle. It is to Banerjee's great credit that she has salvaged the moving testimonies of these pacifist warriors. Her work, along with that of Edwards, tells a complex and often contradictory story that belies any easy generalisations about the Pathans.

Charles Lindholm is professor of anthropology, Boston University, Massachussetts, US.

Before Taliban: Genealogies of the Afghan Jihad

Author - David B. Edwards
ISBN - 520 22859 6 and 22861 8
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £35.00 and £12.95
Pages - 354

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