Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

AAN Myth Busters (I): ‘Afghans Always Fought Outsiders’

Thomas Ruttig 3 min

There are a couple of stereotypes about Afghanistan that simply refuse to go away. Instead, they are recycled in some media time and again. But it is particularly annoying when they appear in statements of politicians being elevated into some kind of eternal truth. Today, we start another series that attempts to deconstruct some of them – driven by a recent interview of the US Special AfPak envoy, Richard C. Holbrooke.

‘The United States is planning to focus more on promoting reconciliation between the Afghan government and relatively moderate Taliban elements’, Richard Holbrooke told Eurasia Insight on 7 January (see originalhere), and this would be ‘high on our personal priority list’. But in his rationale, an old myth reappears. The Taleban, Holbrooke states, ‘fight for various reasons; they are misled about our presence there. They have a sense of injustice or personal grievances. Or they fight because it’s part of the Afghan tradition that you fight outsiders [emphasis added]’. This one belongs to the same class of myths like the ‘graveyard of empires’ one.

I am sorry – there is half a sentence missing in Mr Holbrooke’s statement. It should read: ‘It is part of the Afghan tradition that you fight outsiderswhen they come to conquer your country‘. It is not a tradition of Afghans to fight every stranger. Alexander the Great, the British and the Soviets came to conquer – and now the US-led Western NATO coalition is increasingly seen in the same tradition.

Very much to the contrary: Afghans are extremely hospitable to everyone who comes in good faith. Everyone who came as a friend into a Pashtun house will confirm.

One expert on the issue, Lutz Rzehak, writes: ‘Within the Pashtuns’ code of honour, the principle of hospitality and generosity assumes a central position. Pashtuns offer anyone who enters their house tea and food and, if necessary, overnight accommodation. Even poor people show themselves hospitable in an extent that often create a completely wrong impression about their economic situation’ (source: Lutz Rzehak, ‘Das Paschtunwali – traditionelle Normen, Wertvorstellungen und Bräuche der Paschtunen [The Pashtunwali – traditional norms, value perceptions and traditions of the Pashtuns], in: asien, afrika, lateinamerika, Berlin: 15 (1987) 5, pp. 821-32).

Indeed, yhey will slaughter the last sheep or chicken for a guest even if they would not know how to feed their family when the guest has left again.

Let me quote late Bernt Glatzer on this issue: He speaks about ‘hospitality, up to the material ruin of the host, stands at the top of the list of virtues in pashtunwali’. Someone who disrespects this obligation and does not live up to it loses the respect of his own community and his honour as it is reported correctly quite often. Bernt Glatzer again: A khan’s power ‘is measured according to the number of his followers who regularly sit in his hujra (guest house) and support him in case of conflict’ (source: Bernt Glatzer, ‘Zum Pashtunwali als ethnischem Selbstportrait’, [On Pashtunwali as an ethnic self-portrait], in: Günter Best & Reinhart Kößler (eds.): Subjekte und Sysyteme: Soziologische und anthropologische Annäherungen. Festschrift für Christian Sigrist zum 65 Geburtstag, Frankfurt: IKO-Verlag, 2000: pp. 93-102).

Note: If you’re someone’s guest you also are kind of his follower and some payback might be expected at some point.

Being a guest also bears certain responsibilities: to behave like one, not to poke one’s nose into the hosts business (he also will make sure that you don’t by never letting you alone; there always will be a son or so with you but this will be done in a way that you feel – in most of the cases, very well treated) and, more generally, to respect that the host’s house including its inmates (and the female ones in particular) is untouchable. You will be obliged to tell your life story and possibly, pre-war travellers report this, to show what is in your luggage, to satisfy the hosts’ curiosity. (That habit might be lost, by now, I was never asked to do so.)

Everyone who was in Afghanistan in late 2001 and 2002, after the fall of the Taleban, will also remember that the foreign soldiers were welcome by most Afghans. They did not only preferred them to Mulla Omar’s people but also to ‘their own’ warlord militias of whose rule of non-law they had been sick and tired. The reasons why this changed have been discussed on this website before.


Afpak Taleban