Success in Afghanistan lies where religion and politics meet
US counterinsurgency strategy must take account of Pashto-Islamist justice.
Arlington, Va. — It is not often that one hosts an influential Pashtun Islamist for 10 days. So, when the chief minister of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), Akram Khan Durrani, visited America for the first time a few years ago as my guest, I wasn't quite sure what to say when we first met. I found myself asking, why do you do what you do?
He replied: "I believe that I will stand before God on the last day and be held accountable for whether or not I governed my people with justice." I told him that I believed something similar.
The idea of "justice" – of an orderly, moral governance – is deeply appealing to the 40 million Pashtun Muslims who live on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan ("Af-Pak") border. Unless the American counterinsurgency strategy understands and respects this principle, no amount of troops or drones will prevail.
The chief minister later invited me to Pakistan several times as his guest, providing me with unique access to the people there. Conversations with Mr. Durrani and other Pashtun leaders, religious and political, revealed a deep resentment for Washington and Islamabad. America had abandoned them after the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, leaving the NWFP overwhelmed with 6 million Afghan refugees. And Islamabad had never properly funded the NWFP and tribal areas, resulting in widespread poverty, rampant illiteracy, and poor police protection for the Pashtun people.
The multiple Islamist, mostly Pashtun, groups that now make up the Taliban use this perceived injustice to their advantage. They enter a village and establish Islamic courts that prohibit "un-Islamic" activity such as pornography. They adjudicate local disputes, and prosecute local criminals. They then kill the local tribal leaders, providing no alternative to their rule. The people accept this "justice" because they have no choice – their local government is unwilling or unable to stand up to the Taliban.
A US counterinsurgency strategy should focus on demonstrating a vision of just governance that is different from the insurgents. To be sustainable along the Af-Pak border, that vision must account for a Pashto-Islamic understanding of justice.
Islam is indelibly interwoven into the Pashtun identity and will frame how justice is conceived and received.
And the tribal-religious culture varies locally, shaping how grievances about security and public services are voiced in particular valleys and villages.
These local grievances are often rooted in the long-standing injustice of the boundary that the British drew between Afghanistan and Pakistan in 1893. This border artificially separates the world's largest ethnic group without its own state. This colonial fact, at least in the Pashto-Islamic mind, punctuates all understanding of justice.
And finally, no matter where the boundaries are drawn, the Pashtun people do not like armed foreigners in their land – from Arabs, Chechens, and Uzbeks who belong to Al Qaeda to the NATO coalition and Pakistani forces that are fighting them.
Unfortunately, America's efforts do not seem to actively consider this understanding of justice.
In Afghanistan, the US has established "reconstruction teams" in each province since 2003 to facilitate civilian-military aid from America to the local government.
By most accounts, the results have been mixed. Amid short-term staffing and a lack of guidance, coordination, and funding, there is no discernible evidence that those responsible for coordinating the reconstruction teams have given comprehensive consideration to how the Pashtun-Muslim people understand justice.
That said, Afghanistan is the easy part. Our efforts will make no difference there unless there is better governance on the Pakistan side of the border. Washington has not stressed or funded governance reform in the border regions with Islamabad. The Pakistani Army's offensives, focused on bombing and artillery, and ongoing drone strikes kill too many civilians. Such actions enhance the Taliban, preemptively defeating US counterinsurgency strategy and its focus on providing the people the essential security and services they need.
In cooperation with our allies, effective US counterinsurgency strategy should:
•Enable local cease-fires, gathering local religious and tribal leaders to listen to grievances and governance suggestions;
•Convene a grand gathering of religious and tribal leaders from throughout the region to discuss the international boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan that divides the Pashtun people, as well as the removal of all foreigners from the "Af-pak" boarder areas;
•Understand that a Pashto-Islamic approach to justice is critical to governance in the border regions;
•Incorporate this understanding into our strategic communications and policies through new training programs;
•Establish cross-cultural training programs for US and NATO personnel, civilian and military, before their deployment to Afghanistan.
•Engage the Pashtun diaspora. They know the language, the faith, and bring skill sets not found in our military and civilian agencies. They also represent the potential for financial investment in Afghanistan and Pakistan;
•Build and equip the local police – they know the culture best and are the bridge back to good governance. The NWFP government's recent call to hire 25,000 retired army personnel as police officers is a step in the right direction.
Understanding a Pashto-Islamic concept of justice and governance is not a panacea and does not promise success. But there will be no success without it.