Farhan Zahid (Pakistan) is a PhD student (Counter Terrorism)
at Vrije University Brussels (Belgium).
The phenomena of Taliban came to fore in early 1990s. Today the use is so common that dictionaries of all the languages of the world contain the meanings of Taliban.
Since its inception the movement has always been Pashtun-led and Pashtun dominated. The majority of Taliban are Pashtuns. Pashtun people or the speakers of Pashtu language mostly reside in South Asia i.e. Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. The four major Pahtun tribes are : Sarbanri, Batani, Gharghasht and Karlanri
The overwhelming majority of Afghan Taliban belongs to the sub-tribe of Sarbanri called Ghalzai. The other major tribes among Afghan Taliban constitute a small portion - the core group continues to be Ghalzais. Mullah Mohammad Omar, the supreme commander of Taliban, belongs to Hotak Ghilzai tribe so as almost half of top twenty Taliban leaders. Lately the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is tilting towards Durrani tribe, the Ghilzais continue to play important roles.
Regardless of tribal affiliation, all of them adhere to the Pashtun culture. Historically Pashtun society remains deeply divided in peace times and Pashtun tribes only join hands together in case of a foreign invasion which has occurred quite often in Pashtun history.
It makes a fascinating study as how hundreds of different sub-tribes of Pashtuns obey one single unwritten tribal code called Pasthunwali and live and die paying allegiance to that.
Pashtunwali code has its roots in their ancient cultue and not in religion as it is often misunderstood in West. It predates their conversion to Islam during seventh century. It does not matter from which social strata of society a Pashtun belongs to, he has to adapt to the code if he wants to be respected in tribal ethos. They follow the code religiously and those who try to shun it away become disconnected and pariah.
Some of the salient features of the code are :
Some other fundamental practices are :
Being overwhelmingly Pashtuns or mostly supported by the Pashtuns, the Taliban took full advantage of the situation.
Starting from early days of Taliban when they had taken over control of Pashtun dominated provinces of Afghanistan and enforced their own version of Islam (which was a mixture of religious practices and Pashtunwali code), no one opposed them as it was still considered to be the norm and practice in those provinces.
The problem started when the Taliban captured Kabul and other non-Pashtun areas which had no affiliation with Taliban's version of tribal/Pashtun Islam. The non-Pashtun people of Afghanistan (constituting 60%) saw them as invaders and occupiers of their land. Non-Pashtuns posed stiff resistance and Taliban suffered heavy losses at the hands of forces loyal to Ahmad Shah Masoud, Abdul Rashid Dostum and Hazaras of Afghanistan. The non-Pashtun forces were as fierce as Taliban. The Tajiks (29%), Uzbeks (9%) and Hazaras (9%) gave quite a tough time to Taliban's inexperienced forces. The Pakistani and Saudi regimes also favored Taliban and supported them financially and logistically. The only objection the Saudis had with Taliban was the presence of Saudi dissident Bin Laden. The US government remained a silent spectator during the Taliban's march to capture Kabul. The then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright later objected and played a pivotal role in changing US policy for Taliban after Taliban's treatment of women reached unbearable by western standards. First Lady Hillary Clinton launched her political career by condemning Taliban treatment of women during her Senate election campaign from New York State.
It is important to note that the Pashtun dominated areas never posed a threat to Taliban regime mostly because of the same culture and way of living. The tribal laws were indeed perceived as Islamic which the Taliban were practicing.
The Taliban were students of madressahs of Deobandi sect of Islam, but quite different than the Deobandism practiced in other parts of South Asia. What Taliban practiced was a hotchpotch of Pashtunwali-Deobandism with Saudi-inspred practices. The Saudi influence came up with the Saudi money in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. They attempted to create more or less a state modeled on the principles of Saudi Arabia. The Taliban ideology could be understood from their imposition of ‘Sharia' based laws and banning of certain practices which they deemed against Islamic traditions. The Taliban ideology could be clearly examined by analyzing their acts and implementation of tribal-based practices.
This elusive mix resulted in the edifice which Taliban tried to erect and which shocked the world. The Taliban clerics defined their state as true manifestation of an ideal Islamic one. In that sense they tried to implement a tribal customs-mixed Islam on Afghan populace that the world had never seen before. The Taliban's Saudi influences were harsher than that of Saudis as they lacked oil wealth to appease the masses and Afghan society though tribal but not homogeneous Taliban went further in following the Saudi model and considered all of their practices as ‘true' interpretations of Quran. As Deobandism is more of an urban phenomenon in India and Pakistan the Deobandism of Taliban was much different and their practices were more inspired of Saudi system and the laws. Despite of the world's abhorrence of their imposed laws the Taliban laws were considerably well received in Pashtun dominated areas as most of these edicts were already part of Pashtun culture. Some of their practices were:
The non-Pashtuns that came under Taliban after the fall of Kabul, Hazara Jat, Herat and Mazar-e-Shariff rejected the Taliban's imposition of Pashtunwali code blended with Deobandi and Saudi-influenced Islam, and provided stiff resistance to the Taliban.
According to Ahmed Rashid, "The battle for Kabul brought the divisions between north and south and Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns into the open. Ahmad Shah Masoud's inability to compromise with Pashtun commanders opposed to Hekmatyar, even as Masoud seized Kabul in 1992, badly dented his political reputation. He was never to regain the trust of Pashtuns, until after the Taliban had conquered the north in 1998."
Rashid also described Taliban's hierarchy and leadership based on the military structure of the movement and military commanders were leaders of the country and at the same time leading commanders of armed forces. The Taliban force was not more than 25,000 to 30,000 at its peak, including their religious police. "The regular Taliban army has never numbered more than 25,000 to 30,000 men although these numbers could be rapidly increased before new offensives. At the same time Pakistani masrassah students, who by 1999 made up some 30 percent of the Taliban's military manpower, also served for short periods before returning home and sending back fresh recruits. Nevertheless this haphazard style of enlistment, which contrasted sharply with Masoud's 12,000 to 15,000 regular troops, does not allow for a regular or disciplined army to be created."
The victory of Taliban was considered as the victory of Pashtun forces and their system of beliefs, both religious and cultural. The Pashtuns had always been at the helm of affairs in Afghanistan since the creation of Afghanistan by Ahmad Shah Durrani in 1747, Pashtuns had always ruled over Afghanistan and other ethnic groups were at ease with such scenario but such great sense of alienation amongst non-Pashtuns was never felt. Taliban appointed Pashtuns governors for non-Pashtun provinces and a strong military force was stationed in every province for curbing any resistance. Taliban rejected the Sufi-Islam which was in practice in most of northern Afghanistan and Shia Islam, in central Afghanistan. The previously working bureaucracy before the advent of Taliban was mostly non-Pashtun, that later got fired from their jobs. The fabric of a multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and heterogeneous society of Afghanistan was torn apart under Taliban rule. The massacres of Tajiks and Uzbeks in northern Afghanistan and Hazaras in central Afghanistan by the hands of Taliban forces led the alienation of non-Pashtun people to the nadir.
Why Taliban had taken this identity which was alien in Afghanistan's history up till that point. Few major factors contributed to it including:
As far as Taliban punishments were concerned, once again those were more tribal than religious in nature."All tribal Pashtuns also followed Pashtunwali, a social code which gave the tribal Jirga or council the right to make judgements on cases from a traditional pantheon of laws and punishments, especially when it came to disputes over ownership of land and women and murder. The line between Pashtunwali and Sharia law has always been blurred for the Pashtuns. Taliban punishments were in fact drawn largely from Pashtunwali rather than the Sharia. But Pashtunwali was practiced in varying degrees, to a lesser or greater extent across the Pashtun belt and it certainly didn't govern the practices of other ethnic groups. The fact that Taliban were determined to impose Pashtunwali-Sharia law on these ethnic groups by force only deepened the ethnic divide in the country. Non-Pashtuns saw this is an attempt to impose Kandahari Pashtun laws on the entire country."
Because of their little knowledge about the outside world and their reliance on the only source they had, they were left with the only option which was Pashtunwali code and they interpreted it as true Islam. Their rigidity and inflexibility was proof of their ignorance about the outside world and most importantly about the spirit of Islam. The whole civilized world became interested in knowing after their harsh treatment of women and minorities. Before they conquest of Kabul they were mostly considered as agents of change and stability by the world; nobody objected their rule and method of governance in the Pashtun dominated areas where the masses were fully acquainted with the Pashtun codes.
Historically the Pashtuns are nationalists. They are conservative in their approach to preserve and safeguard their code. Ethnocentrism is of high degree in Pahtun society. They firmly believe in their superiority over all other ethnic groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan by not adapting to and keeping abreast with the changing times. This is one of the reasons that Pashtun hinterlands remain far behind in development and progress. It is not that Pashtuns are far less educated in Afghanistan than other ethnic groups such as ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras but also the same could be said for Pashtuns living in Pakistan. The cultural bond remains stronger and code still practiced in letter in spirit.
Understanding the Taliban way of life, their culture, norms, mores, and social taboos is a sociological issue. The process of social change because of an all-cut-closed Pashtun society is seeping in at a very slow pace. The other issue is of socialization. The Taliban are socialized in all-Pashtun society with no other interference of any other culture by means of social change. The catalysts of change are limited and their exposure to the outside world is even more limited. Dealing with Taliban and negotiating with their leaders is far more difficult. Al-Qaeda tricked Taliban because the Arabs because of their long presence in Afghanistan knew their values encompassing Pashtunwali code well. It took two years for Osama Bin Laden to accept the responsibility of 9/11 attacks. He did not accept the responsibility immediately after the attacks as they would have taken as a breach of Nanwati and would allow Taliban to hand him over to the US.
The US and allies must comprehend the nitty-gritty's of the Pashtun code and deal with them accordingly. They should talk to them by using their own code, in a way the code could benefit in talking and negotiating with the Taliban. The thousands of year old Pashtunwali code allows each and every Pashtun to live according to the code, but it doesn't allow them to impose the Pashtun code on non-Pashtun by force. It is by every means a code of life specifically for Pashtuns.
The very reason that all the peace negotiations with the Taliban has hitherto failed implies the lack of understanding of the code. The code's spirit could be used to capitalize in cajoling the Taliban reconcilable elements and therefore become pivotal in any level of peace endeavors. The rigidity of Taliban behavior is mainly because of the code, an honorable Pashtun tribal leader could not keep his chin high if he violates the prevailing norms of the Pashtunwali code. We must acknowledge that the Taliban rigid behavior of not handing over Bin Laden was based upon this premise. Mullah Omar had no option but to abide by the code otherwise he might have faced a revolt amongst his own rank and file. The issue of Bin Laden had nothing to do Islamic tradition but following an unwritten thousands year old code. The power of values and traditions was stronger than that of religion. And mixing religion with cultural values would be a grave mistake. The US and allies could take the advantage of the code the same way Al-Qaeda has manipulated it for grinding its own axes.