Understanding Pashtunwali

As per the 2017 census, some 35 million Pakistanis, approximately 18 percent of the total population, are Pashtun. They are in the country`s civil and military bureaucracy, law firms, army, politics, and private organizations. They also own a significant share of small and large businesses and properties in Pakistan, and many Pashtuns work abroad and send remittances to the country every month. Even many top officials of the country also had/have a Pashtun ancestry or lineage. A few such examples include Gen Ayub Khan who remained Pakistan`s president for over a decade (1958-69), Lt Gen Asad Durrani who served as DG Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) (1990-92), Pakistan`s top spying agency, Gen Abdul Wahid and Gen Abdul Rehman, both four-star generals and Air Marshal Farooq Feroze Khan et cetera. The number of Pashtun public officeholders is also quite significant. The list goes long, overall. 

Pashtuns largely have a common grievance that they are victims of the wars that are fought in neighboring Afghanistan. Because such wars have imported terrorism and Kalashnikov culture into the tribal areas of Pakistan. This in the recent past has compelled our armed forces to carry out military operations in these areas affecting hundreds of thousands of residents of the areas. Another major grievance is that Pashtuns are victims of enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings that have created anger and frustration among them. Lack of development in Pashtun majority tribal areas such as the former FATA and blames for being marginalized are yet other common grievances many Pashtuns share. 

For this reason, this opinion piece argues that there is a great need to understand the psyche of Pashtuns to address their grievances and end a crucial internal security issue in Pakistan. The piece also attempts to lessen the gap between the Pashtun and the policymakers as was attempted in the piece “Understanding The Baloch Mayar,” to bridge the gap between the dissident Baloch and the state authorities.

Though it is rightly perceived that Pashtuns are more religious than a large segment of Pakistani society, it still cannot be ignored that they have a certain code of conduct known as Pashtunwali which is almost equal in weight for Pashtuns as Baloch Mayar, for instance, is for Baloch. It is treated as a strict social and legal code among Pashtuns with some taste of Shariah (Islamic Jurisprudence) in it, largely in rural areas as many Pashtuns themselves do not seem to follow Pashtunwali in big cities such as Quetta, Karachi, and Islamabad. 

Puth (self-esteem) is a basic pillar of Pashtunwali. Under the principle of puth, a Pashtun is bound to protect his/her pride and self-respect. His/her humiliation on various check posts or by police personnel, even by Pashtuns, obligates a Pashtun to do something to protect his/her self-esteem, which has been damaged in his/her eyes. The best option considered by a Pashtun in such an instance is badal (revenge) – another main principle of Pashtunwali. Badal has various forms like badal of a slap or abuse may not be the same. Instead, sometimes the badal of a slap can even be the life of the next person to set an example to remain in Pashtun folklore which praises Tora or zrawartya (bravery, hero character) – another principle of Pashtunwali

Tora is more often connected with badal (revenge). It is said that a Pashtun took revenge on his father after twenty years of his father`s death but still regretted that he acted in haste. It signifies that a Pashtun`s thirst for badal remains young, no matter how many years or generations pass until he gets the chance to take his/her revenge. Such people who take their revenge are regarded as hero characters among Pashtuns. There are side effects of this principle too. Many families and generations suffer because their forefathers had animosity, and have passed on their revenge to the next generations. However, military operations in the formerly known FATA, specifically in Waziristan need to be seen through this lens of badal and tora to understand what makes the populace particularly the Pashtoon Tahafuz Movement get angry and what makes them call someone their hero. 

Tarborwali (agnatic rivalry) is also an important element and aspect of Pashtunwali. Tarbor means the first cousin in Pashto language. Under this aspect of Pashtunwali, Pashtuns, particularly first cousins, are asked to get united against external threats. As it was observed in Afghanistan where a great number of Pashtun Taliban fought against American forces to expel them from their lands, though its political angle cannot be ignored. Then there were other Pashtun clans who were against the Taliban in accordance with the same principle because their tribesmen were killed by the Taliban.  Tarborwali also leads to rivalries of generations, for instance, relatives of a Pashtun are duty-bound to take his/her badal or revenge. This aspect of Pashtunwali makes it easier to understand what makes entire Pashtun tribes go against a party they consider murderers of their tribesmen.   

Nanawatey (sanctuary, forgiveness) is yet another principle of Pashtunwali. It asks Pashtuns to forgive an individual, a group, or even a tribe if it genuinely asks for forgiveness. And there are instances of such forgiveness. Considering this aspect of Pashtunwali, mistakes of the past should not be repeated, as Pakistan`s former Premier Imran Khan rightly acknowledges the mistakes made by us, as a nation, in the past and asks to not repeat the mistakes by becoming a part of other`s wars in the future. Such a gesture might make the state earn its lost trust among a great number of Pashtuns under the principle of nanawatey. Tribal Pashtuns who comparatively have more grievances than other Pashtuns should be ensured that Pakistan will not be a part of other`s wars in the future so that they forgive those they have anger against. 

Hence, it is necessary to understand the psyche of Pashtuns to not commit the mistake that was committed by the Americans, who could not achieve desired results from their ‘War on Terror’ in Afghanistan largely because they did not know the psyche of the locals. America and its allies had come to Afghanistan with the baggage of failure in Vietnam and partial victory against Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War (1991). The invasion of Baghdad in 2003 and its spillover somehow convinced the policymakers in the White House to deal with Afghans with an iron fist to not meet the same fate. Still, America, its allies, and the West-backed Afghan government could not stand against the Taliban, mostly Pashtun, because they could deal with them better if they had bothered to understand their psyche. 

In sum, Pashtuns hold key positions in Pakistan and have direct or indirect stakes in the state and vice versa. They neither lack numbers nor money. Therefore, there is an urgent need to understand the psyche of the Pashtuns to address their long-awaited grievances and see them through the lens of their code of conduct, the Pashtunwali. Pashtunwali should also be taught to officials and personnel that are posted in Pashtun-majority areas. Communication is the key to conveying the exact sentiments, therefore, people who can speak Pashto should preferably be posted in such areas. Though such an approach won`t end all their grievances immediately but will be a starter to addressing their concerns. Hence, Pashtuns should be understood before it’s too late.

[Photo by Mark O’Donald / US Navy, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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