The Code of the Hills

"A Scholar's Take" in white text above a white pen outline

The Code of the Hills

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.

When 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.

A 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 our freedom?”

It 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.

An 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.

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.

Pakistan’s military and intelligence elite, who are overwhelmingly from the qalangareas 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 relationship.

For 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.

Nang 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.

More 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.

When 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.

In 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.

The 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.

Due 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.

One 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.

When U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan, they were inadvertently fighting two wars: their own war on terror and, unconsciously, another war, this one against the nangPashtun 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.

Because 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.”

To 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.

Kabul 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.

They 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.

But 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.

This article was originally published on Foreign Policy.

ISPU scholars are provided a space on our site to display a selection of op-eds. These were not necessarily commissioned by ISPU, nor is their presence on the site equal to an endorsement of the content. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISPU.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap