The Magazine

Pashtuns and Pakistanis

A not-so-great game, but one America can't give up.

Sep 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 01 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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The war in Afghanistan obviously isn't going well. Depressing critiques from all quarters underscore Afghanistan's appalling poverty, warlordism, religious conservatism, corruption, poppy fields, and retrograde matrix of ethnicity and tribe. Many of those who wanted to cut and run from Iraq have become similarly anxious about what, at least until November 2008, they saw as a better war. The stay-and-fight crowd is still the more powerful in Washington, but armed tenacity is an unnatural position for many pro-war liberals and some post-Cold War conservatives. Their support of President Barack Obama's war could wane. The prospect of a long conflict in a Muslim country could be daunting.

To see that this war is worth fighting is not to deny that Afghanistan could become even more demanding than George W. Bush's "war of choice." Topography alone could make the conflict more wearing: Some of the most violent areas of Afghanistan have some of the world's most formidable terrain. Iraq is a nation of well-paved roads; Afghanistan is a rough, rolling sea of rocks and dirt. Like the Bush administration on Iraq, the Obama administration has yet to be frank about what an American commitment to the war in Central Asia will cost. No Larry Lindsey has yet arisen in the Obama White House and spoken truth to power. We could soon have 100,000 soldiers deployed, and we could have them there for years. Comparisons between the United States in Vietnam and in Afghanistan are for the most part surreal (the North Vietnamese and Vietcong had the Soviet Union behind them), but the image of helicopters flying over jungles will soon be matched--if the Obama administration is serious about fighting--by a horizon of helicopters flying over Afghanistan's parched mountains, verdant river valleys, and stacked-rock towns and villages.

We plan on massively augmenting the size of the Afghan army and police since we want them eventually to replace us. Perhaps 300,000 armed locals may be required. Afghanistan has no history of raising, let alone sustaining, such organized national forces. The cost of training and providing logistical support to Afghan units can't be fully calculated yet, but it is clear that Afghanistan cannot pay for what it desperately needs. It cannot do so even if Kabul legalizes the production and export of opium, a policy that the United States and many Europeans would oppose.

And it's most unlikely that Obama will be able to guilt-trip the Europeans into spending more. It will be a diplomatic miracle if the administration can just keep them contributing what they do now. Obama, who regularly chastised the Bush administration for its supposedly unrivaled capacity to alienate our allies, could well oversee the de facto dissolution of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. European leaders have clearly shown that Obama's election didn't make them any more willing to put their troops into combat.

Left-wing economists will soon be tabulating mind-boggling sums for the conflict, with all its remotely possible collateral costs. Senator Obama found such arithmetic for Iraq appealing; it may prove uncomfortable for him to make arguments for Afghanistan that sound, to borrow from Mother Jones's David Corn, "slightly reminiscent of what the Bush-Cheney gang tried to pull off when they were pushing the case for invading Iraq." And some of the president's arguments on Afghanistan will be less compelling. Politically, Iraq is an enormously influential country in the Middle East (its post-Saddam impact on Iran may already have been substantial); Afghanistan remains a cultural and intellectual backwater, even for Pakistanis who can't resist trying to draw their northern neighbor into a great game with India.

But there are many compelling reasons to keep fighting in Afghanistan. Most important among them is that an American withdrawal would return Afghanistan to civil war and reinforce frightful trends in Pakistan. In an Afghan civil conflict pitting the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Shiite Hazaras against the Pashtuns, the United States would have to choose the anti-Pashtun, anti-Pakistani side to protect against the possibility that the Taliban, a Pashtun-based movement, would again gain the upper hand. Remember Western insouciance about Afghanistan between 1994 and 1996, as the Taliban gradually gained ground? This time around, Washington would be obliged to intervene. It could not simply assume, as many suggest, that Pashtun jealousies, tribal differences, and powerful competing warlords would be enough to thwart a neo-Taliban advance. But successfully intervening in Pashtun politics from "over the horizon," with American troops no longer significantly deployed in Afghanistan, would be impossible. The Taliban currently have the offensive advantage throughout most of the Pashtun regions with U.S. forces active in the country; imagine U.S. forces gone.

Choosing sides would immediately thrust us into conflict with Islamabad, which remains a staunch and, at times, nefarious defender of Afghan Pashtun interests. Such a collision between Washington and Islamabad would be awful, fortifying Islamic militancy within Pakistan and placing al Qaeda and its allies, more clearly than ever before, on the same side as the Pakistani military establishment, which is only now getting serious about countering the radical Islamic threat at home.

The terrorist ramifications of this for us and for India could be enormous. Britain's domestic intelligence service, MI5, is working around the clock to monitor and thwart terrorist plots emanating from Muslim militants on the subcontinent. Great Britain does not receive the credit it deserves for doing the heavy lifting in building a security barrier against subcontinent Muslim radicals and their militant brethren resident in Europe. Even more than the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency, MI5 is America's frontline defense against mass-casualty terrorism.

Pakistan, not the Arab Middle East, is where extreme Islamic militancy probably has the most growth potential. And Britain's intelligence officers are quick to confess that they could not do their work without cooperation on the Pakistani side, which today, even after Islamic militants have lethally targeted members of Islamabad's intelligence and security services, remains complicated and problematic. Pakistan has been loath to sever long-standing ties to the Afghan and Pakistani Pashtun militant groups with which it has dealt for years. This is particularly true for those who come under the Taliban umbrella. Mullah Omar, the Taliban's divinely anointed founding father, is more or less an honored guest of Islamabad, holding court in Pakistan's western province of Baluchistan. Imagine scenarios where the Pakistanis receive requests for help from the British and the Americans, even as Western powers are aiding Afghanistan's bitterly anti-Pakistani non-Pashtun minorities against pro-Taliban Pashtuns.

We should never underestimate the potential for Pakistani recidivism. Even the most secular, pro-Western Pakistanis viewed the American invasion of Afghanistan with trepidation, if not hostility. Afghanistan was their backyard: A broad Pakistani consensus backed Islamabad's support of the Taliban. Even Pakistanis who serve Johnnie Walker Black at parties can like the idea of Muslim holy warriors in Afghanistan abetting the anti-Hindu jihadists of Kashmir. The Muslim identity is really all that Pakistan has as national glue. During the Soviet-Afghan war (1979-89), Afghanistan became a revered place for devout Pakistanis, some of whom crossed the border to fight with their coreligionists. For the secularized civilian and military elite, Afghanistan became an escape valve--someplace for religious Pakistanis to focus their attention. This attention was reciprocated north of the border.

Representing between 40 percent and 45 percent of the Afghan population and convinced of their right to political preeminence, Pashtuns have never lost their ties to their ethnic kin across the artificial, British-imposed border with Pakistan. The Soviet-Afghan war and the rise of religious militancy in the Pashtun community--which predates the Soviet invasion--further cemented ties and gave the Pashtun identity a sharper ideological edge. The long-standing cooperation among the Pashtun Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI, where Pakistani Pashtuns have served influentially), and the Pashtuns of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, North-West Frontier Province, and Baluchistan is natural.

Also strengthening cross-border bonds has been the deepening sense of religious identity throughout Pakistani society. The rule of General Zia ul-Haq (1977-88) in particular accelerated the careers and sentiments of Islamists within Islamabad's armed forces. The cheek-by-jowl association of diehard fundamentalists and whisky-loving English-educated wits within the Pakistani officer corps was an astonishing and delicate balancing act; it was made possible only by the secular-fundamentalist agreement about Afghanistan (support the Taliban) and Kashmir (support the jihadists). September 11 and the American invasion shredded this harmony.

Since Pakistan's creation in 1947, Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been building political, economic, and cultural muscle, but they have not developed a widespread ethnic-nationalist movement, as have the poorer and less powerful Baluch, who have serious separatist tendencies in Pakistan and no love for their Shiite Persianizing masters across the border in Iran, who oppress the Sunni Baluch and their age-old desire to have nothing to do with Tehran. As the French scholar Olivier Roy has pointed out, the Pashtuns' collective sense of themselves has usually been expressed within radical Islamic movements, the Taliban being the most famous and successful of these religious-cum-nationalist awakenings.

What is poorly understood in the West is the way radical religious callings have been a means for young male Pashtuns to escape from tradition-bound tribal society by appealing to a higher cause. This transnational, supra-tribal--and in that sense antitraditional--religious brew made the pre-9/11 Taliban and has, in part, made the neo-Taliban now battling American and allied forces. (It also gave birth to Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the two most vicious and long-lived of al Qaeda's Pashtun allies.) Roy, who has been the most percipient diagnostician of Afghanistan for a generation, doesn't believe that any policy designed in Washington and Kabul that plays traditional "good tribal elders" against the "bad Taliban" can work since it pits a decaying old order against a modern Islamist ideology.

Islamism and Afghanistan's deeply rooted tribal structure have often felicitously cohabited. (The same was true of Afghanistan's brutal strain of communism, which sometimes spared the lives of enemies from the right tribes.) But tension has been growing. Modern Islamism, which poured into Afghanistan from Pakistan and the Arab world in the 1980s, appeals to the historic, global mission of Islam and takes a dim view of local affections and social hierarchies that circumscribe the religious calling. The Afghans who grew up in the Pakistani refugee camps during the Soviet-Afghan war, and their philosophical descendants, aren't known for respecting the traditions of a lost world. Many of their elders were slaughtered by Afghan Communists or the Soviets. These men are modern in that their religious fundamentalism is stripped of the cultural and social complexities of age-old traditions and tribes. The enormous Saudi missionary influence on the practice of Islam among the Pashtuns has fortified this "purist" streak, nearly obliterating the more easygoing Hanafi and Sufi practices that softened Afghan village and especially urban culture.

Mullah Omar was ready for Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda's global holy war because he'd drunk deeply of fundamentalism, with its frenetic emphasis on extirpating insufficiently devout Muslims from the community. This aggressiveness--the desire to weed the Afghan garden of its imperfections--retains considerable appeal among devout young Afghans who feel their society, or their tribe, is rife with injustices. American and British intellectuals and soldiers may still be in love with the tribes of the Islamic Middle East and Central Asia (T.E. Lawrence is ever with us). But among the natives, tribal solidarity and respect for elders aren't nearly as powerful as they once were.

It's an excellent bet that if the Americans withdrew from Afghanistan, even the most secular Pakistanis, who finally recognize the threat that radical Islam poses to them, would be strongly tempted to try to make a deal with the Pakistani Taliban--a vastly worse deal than any they've made so far. The upper crust from the Punjab and the Sindh, who make up the bulk of Pakistan's civilian and military elite, normally find the folks in the northwest of their country and in Baluchistan to be almost beyond the pale of civilization. Giving Afghanistan back to them--a workshop for the rude and crude devout--would likely be enormously appealing. "Let's stop fighting each other," would be the opening line. "The Americans are dialing back the clock to pre-9/11. So can we." Most Pakistanis would no doubt be thrilled to have al Qaeda's headquarters return to Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden, who has long loved Afghanistan, might well oblige them.

It is the American presence in Afghanistan that keeps the Pakistani ruling class "honest." Islamabad appears to be slowly and bloodily winning the battle against its own militants, who want to push the country toward a religious civil war. The American army in Afghanistan is allowing the all-critical Afghan Pashtun community time to recover from the Taliban--giving it the chance to develop a competitive ideology that comprises Afghan nationalism, Pashtunism, and serious religion.

Although there has been more ethnic cleansing in Afghanistan than has been reported in the mainstream press (mostly Pashtuns migrating, voluntarily or under duress, from predominantly Tajik and Uzbek areas), interethnic antipathy hasn't metastasized as it did in Iraq. Badly mauled, the idea of Afghan fraternity still exists. The widespread savagery that we saw between Iraqi Sunni and Shiite Arabs seems unlikely to happen in Afghanistan.

Some critics of Westerners in Afghanistan argue that U.S. and NATO forces, by their tactics if not their mere presence, are breathing life into the neo-Taliban, who would remain deeply unpopular among the Pashtuns if it were not for outsiders' mistakes. Although we can quickly concede that Western mistakes make the Taliban look better, Westerners in Afghanistan have actually generated much less village-level antipathy among the Pashtuns than might have been expected given the Pashtuns' reputation for xenophobia. We might yet see a Pashtun-only "national liberation" jihad develop in Afghanistan, but we are far from this now.

Even now, "our" Pashtuns probably represent a big majority of their brethren. If the Americans were to leave, however, it's highly unlikely these friendly Pashtuns could long hold the high ground against a resurgent neo-Taliban movement. The Taliban possess the most effective Pashtun fighting force. Many, perhaps most, Pashtuns dislike the Taliban's aggressively inflexible religion (it's Pashtun village faith on speed), but the Taliban do have an ideology, tested repeatedly on the battlefield. It isn't just money and intimidation that bring them recruits.

Today's multiheaded Taliban movement is learning what Mullah Omar discovered after 1994: You can marry an unpleasant, vaguely foreign ideology to local concerns, customs, and warlords if you find the right mix of money, intimidation, Pashtun revanchism, the universal popular fear of disorder, and God. The neo-Taliban have successfully laid claim to Islam as a war-cry; other Afghan Pashtuns have not yet figured out how to harness the faith to their cause. And the Pakistanis will throw their weight, as they did in the 1990s, behind those Afghan Pashtuns who are the most militarily effective and have the strongest cross-border ties. The neo-Taliban could conceivably cut a deal with militants over the border to stop the Pakistani fratricide. No other Afghan Pashtuns would have such leverage.

The odds are, nevertheless, against the Taliban and their allies on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border. Unless Obama withdraws U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the Pakistani Army will be forced to keep fighting its own insurgents. Things were never going to get better in Pakistan before they got worse. The savagery of the Taliban in places like the Swat Valley has brought home what Islamic militants are capable of, as have their lethal attacks on Pakistani officials. We are beginning to see a great debate within Pakistan about jihad and Islamic ethics. Discussions of Pakistan's activities in Afghanistan and Kashmir are not yet what we might want, but Pakistan's chattering classes are serious (much more than those in most Arab lands). If they keep fighting their own demons, they may wind up asking themselves why their country's premier intelligence service has been implicated in so many ugly, bloody activities abroad.

Corrupt, mean-spirited, feudal in practice, and fragile, Pakistan's democracy has been far better at airing the country's dirty linen than was its military ruler, Pervez Musharraf. As the Pakistani military slowly makes headway against the radicals, civilian officials and officers have started sounding religiously more confident, going toe-to-toe with the radicals for the hearts and minds of Muslims. Government-supported anti-Taliban media campaigns in the contested northwest of the country have actually sounded sensible--something that cannot always be said for the American bankrolled and overseen efforts on Pakistani radio. U.S. officials should not try to veto Islamabad's hard-edged, very Muslim use of the Koran and the Prophet against radicals, preferring that the message echo Washington's favorite anodyne line that "Islam is a religion of peace." Political correctness hasn't yet come to the Swat Valley.

But the battle against the Taliban inside Afghanistan will be even harder since the creed opposing the Taliban for now is so traditional and the Afghan Pashtun personalities who can refute the militants are, with some exceptions, less than compelling. Traditional mores can compete with modern ones if the latter shock: The slowly growing revulsion throughout the Arab Middle East for al Qaeda is in great part a recoiling of devout Muslims from the violent excesses committed by holy warriors who once had broad support. But this process isn't necessarily quick. The grosser the atrocities, the faster the flip. In 2004, Sunni Arab opinion outside Iraq was inclined to describe Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda jihadists who butchered Shiites as anti-American "martyrs"; by 2007, after tens of thousands of Shiites had been killed, and the Shiites were brutally and successfully fighting back, a moral queasiness took hold among non-Iraqi Arab Sunnis, and Iraq's Arab Sunnis raged against al Qaeda.

At present, neo-Taliban violence against civilians is escalating in Afghanistan. Given the Taliban's nasty record under such dark figures as the suicide-bomber-loving Jalaluddin Haqqani, the anti-Taliban Pashtuns should be able to ally militarily with the Americans and win the hearts-and-minds tug-of-war with their countrymen. By the same token, however, if the neo-Taliban refrain from atrocities and ramp up the jihadist call laced with Pashtun pride, the battle could be far more difficult for the United States.

The allure of democracy for Afghans shouldn't be belittled, as has now become commonplace among Americans, both conservative and liberal. Afghanistan is a backward land, with entrenched sentiments and habits that are certainly deleterious to functioning representative government. The fraud charges in the recent presidential election don't help the cause of Hamid Karzai and other Pashtuns who are trying to develop, however fecklessly, an alternative creed for Pashtuns to believe in. But the Afghans have lived through hell. Their tolerance for ineffectual and corrupt government under the umbrella of the United States is probably still far from exhausted. The Obama administration and the Pashtuns are going to have to do better than they've done so far. But the bar for success is low--much lower in Afghanistan than it was in Iraq.

This is the biggest reason why Afghans can be quite straightforward about their desire to see foreigners stay in their country. They generally do not possess a prickly religio-nationalist consciousness that makes it extremely difficult to cooperate openly with Westerners. (Pashtuns are pussycats compared with Iraqis.) When trained and armed, Afghans are not scared or embarrassed to fight alongside foreigners. As battlefield allies, they are braver and more effective than many of the Europeans who've nominally joined us.

The Afghan Muslim identity has been battered and radicalized since the early 1970s. But Afghanistan is definitely one of those places--Iran is another--where many have actually become less enamored of religious militancy. Experience matters. Nonstop war for 30 years has made the Afghan people--especially their elites--more inclined toward rapacious corruption. They are certainly less fraternally disposed toward each other than they once were. But war has also taught many of them to back away from incendiary religious politics. The great Tajik Afghan military commander Ahmad Shah Massoud was a diehard Islamic ideologue in his youth. By the time he died in middle age, assassinated by bin Laden's men, he could wryly and mournfully reflect on his earlier passion. Such wisdom is not uncommon in Afghanistan, even among Pashtuns who are illiterate.

If we lose the devout Afghan Pashtuns and start seeing large swaths of Pashtun society siding openly with the Taliban against us, while savage intercommunal hostilities break out among Afghanistan's peoples, then we will have to debate withdrawing from Central Asia. But we haven't seen that. And unless we withdraw--or persist in a counterproductive military strategy (which, thanks to the failures and successes in Iraq, we won't)--the Pashtuns as a people probably won't rally against us. Things will remain far from perfect in Afghanistan--doing well in the Greater Middle East means that your successes just edge out your defeats. But we are cognizant of our problems. And if we look into Pakistan, we can see what is at stake.

That alone should propel General Stanley McChrystal to recommend the deployment of all the troops and resources he needs to turn the tide in Afghanistan. He and General David Petraeus, the overall commander of U.S. forces in the region, surely know that they have the president over a barrel. If Obama refuses to deploy all they request and Afghanistan continues to go south, then he will have lost the "necessary war" that defined his campaign and his presidency.

If that happens, one fact will be paramount: The Pashtuns will have laid low both East and West. Their brothers in arms who still truly believe in a global jihad against the United States will view our departure as their victory and a mandate from heaven. Jihadists everywhere will be thrilled and emboldened.

And in that case, we will all have to pray that MI5 is up to the challenge.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.