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Taliban Sociology 101

July 17, 2009

I’m reading through David Kilcullen’s “Accidental Guerilla”, a work which constantly keeps returning on the investment.  I will keep posting bits that I find to be extremely relevant or informative.

Take a look at this paragraph from a chapter “The Crazies will kill them”, describing the intimate and complex structure of Pashtun society (the society from which Taliban gets its strongest support from). Its a fascinating description of the nature and the structure of the enemy/potential allies, that we currently face in Afghanistan.

“Like other societies in the Pashtun culture area, Kunar’s social structure is based on what anthropologists call a “segmentary kinship system” with tribes divided into subtribes, clans, sections (usually inhabiting one or sometimes several villages), and subsections (usually inhabiting one or sometimes several villages), and subsections (extended families) based on lineage segments that are defined by descent from a common apical male ancestor.  Balanced opposition between lineage segments of approximately equal size (as the anthropologist Phillip Carl Salzman has described for Arab and Baluch tribes), in which each group member must side with the closer against the more distant relative, and with locals against outsiders, defines and enacts the social order. This balanced opposition is often expressed through agnatic rivalry – competition between male relatives within and among family groups.

As Salzman emphasizes, cultural norms of collective responsibility and generalized reciprocity promote clan and group cohesion; each tribal member is collectively responsible for the actions of every other, and each kinship group supports other groups in the expectation that the tribe in turn will support it when it needs assistance. In the Pashtun case, cultural insitutions such as revenge, feud, hospitality, honor toward enemies, and highly restrictive protectiveness of women are prevalent, though tribal institutions have been eroded through Soviet occupation, civil war, population displacement, economic collapse, the rise of the Taliban, and the current conflict.

Akbar Ahmed, the famous anthropologist, diplomat and former political agent of Waziristan, described the key institutions of Pashtun ideal-type behaviour (known as Pashtunwali, “acting like a true Pashtun”) as courage (tora), revenge (badal), hospitality (melmastia), generosity to a defeated enemy (nanawati), and heeding the voice of the jirga, the tribal assembly. He also considers tarboorwali (cousin or agnatic rivalry) and tor (literally “black”, the protection of women’s honor, a concept roughly equivalent to that of ‘ird in Arab society) as key additional institutions.

Ahmed divides Pashtuns (all of whom are in some sense tribal, in that they self-identify within the world’s largest segmentary lineage system) into 2 categories: nang Pashtuns (those driven by nang or honor), who typically live in low-production zones, mountains and areas distant from the reach of the state and tend to be war-like and predatory, and qalang Pashtuns (those who pay qalang or kandar, taxes or rent), who typically live in richer fertile irrigated lowland areas under greater control of the state. Like mountain people everywhere in the world, nang Pashtuns look down on the lowlanders and have traditionally regarded them as fair game for raiding and pillaging. In Ahmed’s framework, remoter tribes are nang Pashtuns; lowland people in the main Kunar valleys might be considered qalangi. Except for the kuchi (nomadic Pashtuns, of whom there are virtually none in Kunar) all Pashtun tribes – even the most honor-driven, remote khel, outside government control – tend to make their livelihood as sedentary agriculturalists (crop-growing house dwellers tied to their villages and fields) rather than nomadic pastoralists (mobile tent-dwellers who live by their flocks). This means that the traditional recourse of lowland or desert nomadic tribes when threatened by the encroachment of enemies or state authorities on their independence – to escape into inhospitable terrain where adversaries cannot follow – is not open to hill tribes, tied as they are to households, fixed landholdings and immobile crops.

Thus, when threatened they tend to stay and fight, banding together to resist intrusion and reestablish their independence from external control (a hallmark characteristic  of tribes as distinct from peasants) through violent resistance rather than withdrawal: desert tribes run, mountain tribes fight. This cultural ecology perspective, though somewhat simplistic and perhaps subject to charges of environmental determinism, may at least partly account for the extremely warlike nature of Pashtun tribes, as well as for their tendency to fragment (or fission) into feuding subgroups when the unifying ‘fusion effect’ of an external threat is withdrawn.

Pashtun areas

Pashtun areas

Another interesting passage is Kilcullen’s somewhat amusing description of the Afghan ‘warlike’ nature.

The martial character of Pashtun tribes is something of a cliched stereotype, though it is rarely remarked on in contemporary conflict literature(where most analysts rightly tend to focus on the war-weariness of Afghans after decades of conflict). Still, over the years the warlike nature of Afghans has become very evident to me, over the course of repeated activities and operations in A-stan between tours in Iraq and visits to other war zones.

At the risk of reinforcing cultural stereotypes I would be remiss if I failed to record my observation that while the Iraqi insurgents I encountered liked to win, and they certainly enjoyed killing people who could not hit back, they did not particularly like to fight. They didn’t exactly dislike fighting, and would do so willingly in protection of relatives or hope of plunder or profit, but it was a rare Iraqi insurgent who loved the fight itself. The Afghan insurgents and former insurgents I have encountered do love the fight: they like to win, and are certainly not averse to killing, but what they really love is the fight, the jang (battle), for its own sake. For example, the local farmers in Uruzgan who took part in the Taliban ambush I described at the beginning of this chapter did so not because they supported the Taliban politically or hated the Coalition but for reasons of honor, adventure and love of the fight.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. joe permalink
    October 22, 2009 9:12 am



  1. War by the numbers « false dichotomy

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