A People Forged in War: They Are the World's Largest Tribal Culture and the Dominant Ethnic Group in Afghanistan, but They Have a Reputation in the West as Fearsome Warriors from Whom the Taliban Emerged. but the Pashtun People Have a Long and Enigmatic History, a Complex Society and Strong Beliefs

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The Western forces that have been battling the Taliban in Afghanistan for nearly ten years are engaging not only with an insurgency but with a tribe. Taliban and Pashtun are one and the same, for it is this all-powerful Afghan tribe that gave birth to the movement and it's their tribesmen who fill its ranks.

'Westerners forget the historical context in which the Taliban emerged in 1994, although no Afghan ever will,' says British author James Fergusson. 'The Taliban's first purpose was to bring law and order to a country that had been devastated by five years of vicious civil war (following the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989) and in those areas that came under their control, they succeeded brilliantly.'

One could argue that peace and stability imposed by a ruthless dictatorship isn't an acceptable state of affairs. Moreover, history has shown that once tyrannies become institutionalised, they often have a long life expectancy. But it's beyond doubt that only the Pashtuns could have brought Afghanistan--with the exception of a small pocket of resistance in the north--under its thumb so quickly and successfully.

LOCAL DOMINANCE

Throughout history, the Pashtuns, who constitute around half of Afghanistan's population, have dominated every aspect of Afghan life, more often than not to the detriment of Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks and other ethnic minorities.

The Pashtuns are the world's largest tribal society, with some 42 million living mainly in the southern and eastern regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal belt in the North-West Frontier Province (now known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). The fact that most Taliban fighters operate within ten kilometres of their homes reflects a crucial reality: that rather than defending a nation, the insurgents are fighting to safeguard a perceived threat to their society and tribal customs.

Thanks to a handful of British soldier-scholars who campaigned in Afghanistan during the 19th century and on the North-West Frontier under the Raj, a great deal of knowledge has been passed down to us about the reclusive Pashtuns, their tribal code of honour, Pashtunwali, their culture and poetry--even their sense of humour. When a British political officer in the 1930s asked a malik, or village elder, whose side his people would take in the event of war between Britain and the Soviet Union, the old greybeard replied: 'I shall tell you the truth, sahib. We would just sit here watching you fight until one side was utterly defeated. Then we could come down and loot the vanquished to the last mule. God be praised!'

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Pashtun society can perhaps best be understood as a complex hierarchy. A British Army manual published in 1910 catalogues every bit of data that military researchers had gathered on the Pashtuns. The book classifies them first by tribe, then by clan, division of the clan, sub-division of the division, section of the sub-division and so on. In all, there are nearly 5,000 entries.

Afghanistan's Pashtuns are made up of two main tribal groupings: the Abdalis, or Durranis as they later became, and the Ghilzais. The spiritual and cultural centre of the Abdalis has traditionally been Herat, while the Ghilzai stronghold is Kandahar. The Frontier Pashtuns' contacts were primarily with the Mughal Empire, which ruled Peshawar and Kabul from Delhi.

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OBSCURE ORIGINS

We know who the Pashtuns are, but where they came from remains an ethnographic enigma. They have inhabited what is today Afghanistan for at least 3,500 years. One theory is that they migrated from Central Asia around 1500 BC, but this and other hypotheses are difficult to substantiate, for the earliest Pashtun texts date only from the 16th century.

However, the Pashtuns themselves are in no doubt about their tribal roots. At some point in history, they began to weave a nexus of tales to explain their genealogy. …