The killing of Osama bin
Laden has thrust the town of Abbottabad, Pakistan, into the
international spotlight. However surprising it may be to find al Qaeda's
notorious leader not in a cave in the tribal areas but in a comfortable
villa near the capital, it is perhaps fitting that Abbottabad is having
its 15 minutes of fame. The hill resort town -- named after Maj. James
Abbott, the first British deputy commissioner who arrived there in the
mid-19th century -- is a perfect example of one side of the cultural
divide that now defines Pakistan.
I arrived in Abbottabad to enter boarding school at Burn Hall, a
century after Abbott, it was a bustling town with retired officials
living in neat homes, a golf course, and, of course, the famous Pakistan
Military Academy. I was later posted there as assistant commissioner
under training for the Pakistani government, in the late 1960s, a post
that oversaw judicial, revenue and law and order matters. There could
have been no town more integrated into the state than Abbottabad.
decade later, I found myself in charge of a region that could not be
more different: South Waziristan. While Abbottabad's population is a
mixture of ethnic Pashtun tribesmen and Punjabi settlers, Waziristan is
made up entirely of Pashtuns. The Waziristan tribes, who were long
suspected of providing a safe haven for bin Laden, have long felt that
they possess their own history, culture, code of behavior, and identity
that are distinct from the Pakistani nation-state. When I would ask the
elders of Waziristan why they resisted the modern state, they would
reply good-humoredly, "Why do you wish to impose the corrupt police and
revenue officials of Pakistan on us, while at the same time taking away
is crucial to understand the dynamics that differentiate these two very
different parts of Pakistan now associated in the world media with bin
Laden. Only by more successfully navigating the tension between the two
regions, and between tribe and state in Pakistan, will the United States
have any hope of stabilizing South Asia.
old Pashtun proverb sums up the historical divide well: "Honor (nang)
ate up the mountains, taxes (qalang) ate up the plains." The proverb
means that tribesmen living in the mountains, where the government has
little sway, destroy each other in tribal warfare over honor. Meanwhile,
the settled populations below are subject to the dominance of the
state, and are suppressed through oppressive taxes, or qalang.
societies live in plains, on irrigated lands that are often fed by big
rivers, and their economies are integrated by highways into market
towns. These people pay rents and taxes and live within the state system
in hierarchal societies that are dominated by powerful feudal,
political, or military authority. Unlike in the mountain areas, leaders
in qalang societies have their status bestowed on them by birth or
through economic or political means.
military and intelligence elite, who are overwhelmingly from the qalang
areas and are the ultimate instruments of the state, consider bin Laden
and his affiliates, al Qaeda and the Taliban, as terrorists. They
loathed bin Laden not only because he was on top of the wanted list of
the United States for the 9/11 attacks, but because he had wrought death
and destruction in Pakistan as well. Although the Taliban were
patronized by Pakistani intelligence in the 1990s, as "our boys," after
9/11, the 180 degree turn against them as Islamabad was pressured into
getting in line with U.S. policy, resulted in a complicated and bitter
this reason, bin Laden's voyage from nang into qalang society may not
have been entirely voluntary. It is likely that at some point, Pakistani
intelligence successfully convinced him to move as their "guest" to one
of their "safe houses" there -- which may explain reports that bin
Laden arrived in Abbottabad as long as six years ago. He was now
vulnerable because he was at the mercy of his hosts -- who would have
seen him not as a guest to be honored, but as a commodity or asset to be
bartered for gain with the Americans at the right time.
people, on the other hand, make up bin Laden's natural constituency.
They live in scarcely populated mountains that are largely inaccessible
to the central government. They have a pastoral economy that depends on
goats and camels, and do not pay rents or taxes. Their societies exist
outside the state's legal systems, yet are egalitarian. Elders must earn
their status through acts of honor and bravery, and problems are
adjudicated by the jirga, or counsel of wise men or elders.
than anything, the nang prize their freedom. Even under British rule,
the authority's jurisdiction rarely exceeded more than 100 yards on
either side of the main roads. In the most profound sense, the nang
people were probably among the freest in the world.
bin Laden first consolidated his organization in South Asia, he made
sure to locate his military headquarters in a nang area -- Afghanistan's
Tora Bora. When he was pursued by U.S. troops following their invasion
of Afghanistan, he reportedly crossed into Waziristan -- another nang
area, this time in Pakistan. Waziristan, of all the tribal agencies, has
the toughest terrain and the toughest tribes, which enjoyed a
reputation for maintaining fierce independence from any outside forces.
Waziristan, bin Laden would have been invisible. In all his recent
photographs, the al Qaeda leader looked and dressed like a typical nang
elder and, unless someone heard him speak Arabic, he would have been
difficult to identify as an outsider.
people of nang would see bin Laden through the prism of their code of
hospitality. Even if he had outworn his welcome, they would be
constrained from betraying a guest. Besides, many nang tribesmen were
actively involved in fighting NATO forces in Afghanistan, seeing them as
invaders of Pashtun lands. Even non-combatants would have general
sympathy for a man like bin Laden, who was viewed as courageous for
standing up to the West and sacrificing his wealth for a noble cause.
to their radically different perspectives, both nang and qalang peoples
tend to look down on each other. Nang see qalang folk as having
compromised their freedom, and therefore their identity. The qalang see
those from the nang areas as backward and barbaric people who will
inevitably succumb to the march of history and be absorbed by the state.
of the many dynamics that bin Laden's death should highlight for us is
this distinction and tension between nang and qalang groups. Without a
better understanding of it, Afghanistan and Pakistan's battles against
their nang populations will continue to generate death and destruction.
The nang have never been vanquished -- and never will, even at great
cost to themselves. Their region is a graveyard of conquering invaders.
U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan, they were inadvertently fighting two
wars: their own war on terror and, unconsciously, another war, this one
against the nang Pashtun tribes of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The deeper
they sank into the quicksand of the Afghan war, the more blurred the
American objectives became. The nang tribes on both sides of the border
soon saw this as an all out war against the Pashtun tribes. The Taliban
grew in popularity as Pashtuns began to see them as their champions, in
spite of the violence occasionally perpetrated against them.
Islam is such a central part of Pashtun identity, it was easy to add
the notion that the United States was on the warpath against Islam.
Mutilating Pashtun bodies, desecrating the Quran, dropping bombs from
30,000 feet, and killing women and children fed the perception that
Americans were not people of honor, and it invoked the code of revenge.
There is a Pashtun saying: "I took revenge after 100 years, and I took
it too soon."
make matters worse, U.S. experts, policy advisors, officers, and
diplomats, blind to these aspects of tribal identity, raised thousands
of non-Pashtun police and army units to supervise the Pashtun areas,
thus consolidating the idea in the minds of the Pashtun that the
Americans were out to destroy them through their enemies. And because
Americans did not understand that this region had been dominated by
Pashtun for centuries (the very name "Afghanistan" means the land of the
Afghan or Pashtun) they could not understand the resentment.
and Islamabad, as well as Washington, need to devise a different way of
dealing with the nang populations. Americans need to begin to think of a
post bin Laden and even post war on terror scenario in Afghanistan and
Pakistan; building up and maintaining goodwill is crucial if the United
States is to maintain some influence in the future. Americans need to
rapidly learn about the dynamic of nang and qalang and the complex
relationship of the state with its tribes.
must take action to show respect for what is respected in nang areas --
the lives of women and children, the Quran -- and ensure that the
Pashtun sense of tribal identity and autonomy is not threatened. They
should consult the elders and utilize the jirga in order to introduce
schools and health schemes within their traditional systems so that the
people of the nang areas have a sense of hope for the future. The
extensive network of madrassas in the nang areas -- which are sometimes
the only source of education for young Pashtuns -- should be reformed
through the jirgas and elders, their syllabi and teacher training
programs improved, and boys given a chance for scholarships.
more than anything, America needs to understand the importance of
Pashtunwali and operate through it. People who see themselves through
the lens of honor will respond positively if they are treated honorably.
Akbar Ahmed is an Adjunct Scholar and on the Board of Advisors at ISPU.
This article was published by Foreign Policy magazine on May 6, 2011:
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