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Taliban and Pashtunwali

Amb. (R) Asif Durrani

08th Sep, 2021. 03:25 pm

Few people are ready to believe that it’s a new Taliban. The closest reference to the Taliban is their five-year rule before 9/11, which symbolized brutality. However, the Taliban apologists justified the extreme measures as a big factor that brought peace and stability.

What’s next? This is a question everyone may be asking once an “inclusive” government takes shape in Afghanistan. The Taliban have made the right noises about the inclusiveness of future participation in the country.

Their promises to government servants, security forces, doctors and teachers to carry on their work sound like music to the ears. Their assurances to women that they will be able to enjoy their rights, including the right to work, according to the tenets of Sharia, should be reassuring. Skepticism, however, abounds.

The natural query is whether such an “inclusive” arrangement will enjoy international recognition or be a repeat of Taliban 1.0?

No doubt, under the previous Taliban rule, peace was restored, warlords were subdued and no one dared to keep a knife in public let alone brandish a Kalashnikov. However, an eerie silence would immediately haunt visitors walking through the streets of Kabul at that time, as if it was the silence of the graveyard.

Whether we like it or not, there is no denying the fact that the militia waged a 20-year-long struggle against the lone superpower of the world. Therefore, it should not be surprising for those in politics that the Taliban are the victors and, rightly or wrongly, will be writing history.

It may sound bizarre to Western scholars. Still, the Taliban lived with the Pashtun code of honor – the Pashtunwali – a code calling upon a Pashtun to be hospitable (melmastia), protect his honor (ghairat) and take revenge (badal) on his enemy.

The Taliban sacrificed their government but could not compromise Pashtunwali, of which hospitality is a major plank, refusing to hand over Al-Qaeda Chief Osama bin Laden to the Americans. They withstood the onslaught of the lone superpower on Earth to honor the other two planks of Pashtunwali: honor and revenge. They took revenge for their humiliation by forcing the U.S. to come to the negotiating table and recognize them not as terrorists but as stakeholders.

Now apply Pashtunwali to the broader aspect of Afghanistan’s political mosaic. Many explanations have been given by the Afghan and international commentators about the failure of the Ashraf Ghani government, including inefficiency, corruption and lack of leadership. However, Pashtunwali played a significant role in supporting the Taliban to share their views with tribes across the country.

The major grudge the Taliban could propagate against the U.S.-led coalition’s presence in the country was that Afghanistan had been occupied by the infidels who were out to disgrace the entire Afghan nation. Undoubtedly, bad governance, especially corruption and selective appeasement of favorite warlords, were additional factors responsible for turning the Afghan populace against the American occupation and their installed governments.

Although modernity and progressiveness seemed to emerge under the successive governments led by former Afghan presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s conservative shade of society dominated the Afghan political and cultural scene.

Parts of Kabul may have offered semblance of modernity, but the conservative norms of Afghan society were visible in the streets and alleys of the city. Although 27 percent of Afghanistan’s parliament was reportedly female, the conservative aspect of the entire nation was visible, with women playing a subservient role in domestic and state affairs.

In a patriarchal society, where women are not discussed in the public discourse, raising women’s issues was considered anathema to the Pashtunwali, which also applies to the non-Pashtun ethnic groups. The majority of cabinet members in the Karzai and Ghani governments did not allow women to appear in public. However, to please the Western mentors, an optical illusion of modernity and women’s rights was created, even though patriarchs ruled the roost beneath the surface.

Back to the Taliban. Occupation apart, the question of women coming out of homes at the behest of the West was considered an insult to the Afghan honor. Ironically, for political expediency, the Karzai-and Ghani-led governments failed to convince the Americans or the West that Western concepts of democracy or human rights were alien and could become a major source of irritant or resistance for a traditional Afghan society.

This is precisely what happened. The Taliban message, which had already been accepted by the tribal society, was so compelling that two-thirds of the provinces fell to the Taliban without much resistance in two weeks. The same happened in Kabul.

Ghani may have done the right thing to save his life by fleeing the country, but his escape has become a part of the Afghan folklore symbolizing cowardice. Similarly, Americans abandoned the Bagram Airfield, the hub of its war in Afghanistan for 20 years, without informing its Afghan commander. It goes without saying that coming generations of Afghans will be discussing these feats in their homes and chaykhanas (teahouses).

The Taliban’s return is being discussed around the world with various explanations, excuses and accusations. Hopefully, the Harvard and Cambridge scholars with a wealth of knowledge at their disposal would dispassionately revisit the concept of Pashtunwali. They may try to find out the reasons behind an archaic force’s success, especially when Afghan society has been fractured due to tribal and ethnic disputes, but has rallied around the concept of Pashtunwali.

The Taliban may have learned some lessons over the past 20 years. They may have refined their ideology to make it sound more acceptable to educated Afghans, especially women. But their real battle will start once they start ruling the country.

For that to happen, they will need the support of the Afghans in a true spirit of the Pashtunwali, which has the unspoken plank of justice – not in terms of punishments but a natural socioeconomic justice, even if with the Afghan characteristics.

This article earlier appeared at China Television Network (CTGN) website.

The writer is the former ambassador to Iran and UAE.

 

 

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