Understanding taliban through the prism of Pashtunwali code
Dr Farhan Zahid
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 :
- Melmastia: It means hospitality. Every Pashtun is bound by the code to provide the best form of hospitality to his guest irrespective of his guest’s race, ethnic background and religion. Breaking of this custom or not following it in letter and spirit could make the host losing his respect and social status amongst his fellow tribesmen.
- Nanawatai: To provide shelter to anyone running away from his enemies. A host could go to the extent of war for ensuring the security of his guest(s). The tradition is an ancient form of giving asylum.
- Badal: Simply means revenge in case of any injustice. It is again one of the core personal values of Pashtun culture.
- Tureh: It stands for bravery in times of need. Being coward or failing to protect the honour and respect of family and tribe may result in severe social downgrading.
- Sabat: loyalty to friends, family, relatives and above all tribe.
- Imandari: Honesty
- Isteqamat: Steadfastness and trust in God.
- Ghayrat: Honour and dignity.
- Namus: Honour and respect of women either belonging to the family of a Pashtun or tribe.
- Hawad: Love for the overall Pashtun nation.
- Dob-pasbani: Protecting the Pashtun culture and standing by the side of Pashtun tribes (irrespective of all past enmities) if it is attacked by foreign forces or invaders.
- Jirga: Council or assembly of elders of any tribe usually gathers to resolve inter-tribal and intra-tribal disputes.
- Loya Jirga: Grand assembly
- Rogha: A custom for settling of disputes. 
Some other fundamental practices are :
- Independence and freedom, the code considers every Pashtuan completely independent and free (adult male)
- Forgiveness is another very important norm of Pashtun culture
- Keeping promises or to honour the words that have been uttered
- Forming the Lashkar or raising the army from all Pashtun tribes in case of invasion from foreign forces.
- Poor and weak must be protected at all costs.
- Love for the Pashtun culture and history.
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:
- Declaring Shia Muslims as heretics and imposing Jizya or Islamic tax on them (as they considered them involved in innovations in Islam).
- They did the same to Hazara ethnic community of Afghanistan.
- Banned certain measure and practices in particular, such as: music in all of its forms, television, satellite dishes, chess, wine, firecrackers, statues, masks, computers, VCR, pool tables, alcohol, lobster, nail polish, pictures, Christmas cards, heels, pictures, and sewing catalogs.
- Banned dancing, paintings, drawings, portraits of any form, advertisement, dolls, photographs, kite flying and stuffed animals. Any act related to these banned items could result in punishment.
- Taliban saw women as source of evil and transgression and they banned mixing of sexes, meetings.
- Women were not allowed to work anywhere except at hospitals.
- All girls schools were shut down and some were even turned into Taliban barracks.
- Women were not allowed to move independently and they had to be accompanied by a male relative, and he must be a close one like father, brother or husband.
- Religious police was established called ‘Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue’ to monitor the implementation of all Taliban laws, and any act deemed as breaking of laws was dealt with severe punishment.
- There were also severe punishments for theft by amputation of hand, and murder, rape and robbery were punishable with death penalty.
- Trimming or shaving of beard for men was also considered a grave offense.
- Women had to wear veil outside their homes and violation of this law had severe consequences.
- Homosexuality was dealt with burying the guilty under roof and adultery was dealt with stoning to death.
- Drinking of alcohol was also a severe crime and the guilty was lashed publicly.
- All the holy shrines were forcibly closed as per Wahabi/Salafi traditions and considered unholy, resulting in a significant number of people of northern Afghanistan turning against the Taliban regime and their anti-Afghan laws.
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:
- These Talibs were mostly foreigners in their own country as they off spring of Afghan refugees, and were brought up in camps in Pakistan, raised in an environment of hostility and war.
- Had no idea about any other form of culture other than Pashtun and came from an environment predominantly Pashtun.
- Knew nothing about other sects of Islam and there had always been a strong element of ethnocentrism in their upbringing
- Studied at Deobandi sect madrassahs, where they were taught a very narrow and distorted version of Islam mixed with tribal norms and customs.
- Some of their commanders and leaders were veterans of Afghan War, and thus were able to drive their enemies from southern cities of Afghanistan, mostly without any fighting. They were welcomed in Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and warlords were driven away because the general masses had supported the movement.
- Only started to face difficulties when they came face to face with the experienced forces of Ahmad Shah Masoud and General Rashid Dostum, where they suffered heavy losses. But the losses were covered when more foot soldiers arrived from Pakistani madrassahs.
- The Pakistani and Saudi played crucial roles in the existence of Taliban; otherwise the movement would have been annihilated by the strong and experienced forces of their rivals.
- The treatment of women by the hands of Taliban was nothing unusual for them as it was both part of culture and Deobandi-Salafi traditions.
- They were Pashtuns therefore their imposition of Pashtunwali code was natural as they knew nothing else other than the code as the best and honorable way of living.
- The ethnocentrism of Pashtuns played a pivotal role in their all practices and theories.
- Had no idea about the world and international arena of politics so they never bothered to care about what might be the world thinking about them and their activities.
- The Pashtun issue came up once again when Pakistan demanded the Taliban regime to recognize the disputed Durand Line as the border between the Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Taliban leader Mullah Omar flatly refused and hence continued the policy of his predecessor Afghan kings and presidents (all of them were ethnic Pashtuns and always categorized Durand Line and Pashtun areas in Pakistan as part of Afghanistan)
- The Taliban, raised, away from their homeland, were not fully aware of the implications of code and thus abruptly imposed it on their non-Pashtun subjects, resulting in a wave of hatred against the Taliban in particular and Pashtuns in general.
- It is very true that Pashtunwali code is not part of Islam, but Islam was taken by Pashtuns an addition to the code and it became a part of their culture. The real essence of Islam is very different from the governing code of Pashtun tribes. In other words the Pashtuns had embraced Islam in their own way and absorbed it into their code. « The Taliban’s interpretation of the Sharia or Islamic law demanded the execution of the murderer by the victim’s family, but not before a last minute appeal is made by the judge to the victim’s relatives to spare the murderer. If they granted mercy the victim’s family would receive blood money or monetary compensation. But how much of this interpretation of Islamic law by the Taliban is owed to the Sharia and how much is owed to the Pashtun tribal code of behaviour or Pashtunwali, is what is disputed by many Muslim theologians, both inside Afghanistan and beyond. »
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.
istorically 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.
-  Olaf Caroe, The Pathans 550 BC to 1957 AD, Macmillan and Company, London, 1958, p12-13
-  The Quetta Shura: A Tribal Analysis, Tribal Analysis Center, October 2009, p.1, available at: http://www.tribalanalysiscenter.com/PDF-TAC/Quetta%20Shura.pdf
-  Ibid
-  During the Afghan regime of King Zahir Shah (1933-73) the Durrani tribe was at the helm of affairs. King Zahir Shah was toppled by his own cousin Dawood Khan in collusion with Afghan National Army and People Democratic Party of Afghanistan (a Soviet Union backed Marxist party). President Dawood Khan was assassinated in 1978 and after a series of consecutive leadership changes the Soviets intervened. The Afghan resistance against the Soviet invasion began immediately after the invasion and comprised mostly of Ghalzai tribesmen. Of seven major Afghan resistance groups four were Pashtuns and led by Ghalzai leaders: Gulbedin Hekmatyar, Abdul Rab Rasul Sayal, Younas Khalis and others.
-  Although no exact date of conversion could be ascertained. Pashtuns believe that they converted to Islam during the early days of the religion and entered the fold of religion as a whole nation.
-  Pashtunwali: Honor among them, Special Report, The Economist, December 19, 2006
-  Palwasha Kakar, Tribal Law of Pashtunwali and Women’s Legislative Authority, Harvard Law School Gazette, 2006, p.2
-  John H Cathel, Human Geography in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Region: Understanding the Taliban Using Traditional Pashtun Social Structures, Paper submitted to faculty of Naval War College in partial satisfaction of the requirements of the Department of Joint military Operations, Naval War College, Newport, R.I., May 2009
-  1996: Afghan forces routed as Kabul falls, BBC News, September 27, 1996, available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/september/27/newsid_2539000/2539973.stm
-  Jason Burke, Waiting for a last battle with the Taliban, The Guardian, June 27, 1999, available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/1999/jun/27/afghanistan
-  « Afghanistan: People and Society, The World CIA Factbook
-  Deobandi sect is a Sunni revivalist movement in South Asia, named after the city of Deoband in Central India as the movement’s first madressah was established there by movement’s founders Qasim Nanatwi and Rashid Gangohi. The Deoband sect is considered to be ultra-orthodox and highly conservative in approach. The inspirations of Deobandi clerics were from Wahabi version of Islam, originated from present Saudi Arabia in 17th century.
-  As Taliban leaders and rank and file raised and brought up at refugee camps in Pakistan where the Saudi-backed non-governmental organizations were active in relief works. The madressahs at those refugee camps were run by Deobandi Islamist parties of Pakistan such as Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam. They were from Pashtun household where the only norms and values being practiced were of and about Pashtunwali code.
-  Present day Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932 in King Abdul Aziz bin Saud. The Kingdom had its roots in 17th century Wahabi movement against the Ottomans. The Wahabis are ultra-orthodox Muslims and strive to purify Islamic beliefs and reject any innovation occurring after the 3rd century of Islam. Osama bin Laden is said to be a Wahhabi Muslim.
-  According to one estimate, in Pakistan, the Shias are 18%, ismailis 2%, Ahmediyas 2%, Barelvis 50%, Deobandis 20%, Ahle Hadith 4%, and other minorities 4%.for details see, Global Security, available at: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/intro/islam-barelvi.htm
-  Though slightly different in creed the essence of both Wahabism and Deobandism is same, at least to the extent of their political agendas and approaches towards treatment of women and minorities. Deobandism is itself a Wahabi-inspired movement of South Asia.
-  The Taliban’s War on Women: A Health and Human Rights Crisis in Afghanistan, A Report by Physicians for Human Rights, Boston and Washington D.C, 1998, Library of Congress Catalog Card No 98-067767
-  Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, I.B.Tauris, 2000, p 97
-  Ibid, Rashid, page.100
-  For details on Durand Line issue, see: The Durand Line: History, Consequences and Future, Report of a conference organized in July 2007 by the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies and the Hollings Center in Istanbul, Turkey, November 2007, available at: http://www.bu.edu/aias/reports/durand_conference.pdf
-  Op Cit Rashid, page.4
-  Op Cit Rashid, page 112
-  For a detailed study of Pashtun history see, Sir Olaf Caroe, The Pathans: 550 BC to 1957 AD, Macmillan and Co LTD, London, 1958
-  Compilation of Usama Bin Laden Statements 1994-January 2004, FBIS Report, January 2004, available at: http://www.fas.org/irp/world/para/ubl-fbis.pdf