Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

AAN Myth Busters (II): Taleban = Pashtuns?

Thomas Ruttig 4 min

The Afghan government’s draft strategy for reconciliation with the Taleban and other insurgents to be published soon is heating up the discussion about talks to ‘moderate’ Taleban amongst Western politicians. While this discussion is useful, it is necessary to look at its background a bit more closely.

German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, a rising star in our political landscape, answers the question why he now thinks that talking to ‘moderate’ Taleban is a good idea as follows: ‘Weil wir in einem Land mit einer so großen regionalen Vielfalt nicht einen ganzen Volksstamm wie die Paschtunen außen vor lassen können, wenn wir tragfähige Lösungen für die Zukunft wollen.‘ [Because we cannot leave a whole tribe like the Pashtuns out in a country of such tremendous regional divergence if we want to get sustainable solutions for the future – quoted from here.]

We do not want to discuss here again whether there are ‘moderate‘ Taleban or not (and we also want to question briefly why he had to call the Pashtuns ‘a tribe’ while they are, well, a ‘nation’ consisting of many tribes – but in the public, it seems, such exotic people with their beards and turbans need to ‘orientalised’).

What we want to point to is the equalization implicated here: The Taleban speak for the Pashtuns, no one else. Wrong!

This we do not only hear from German politicians but from all over the place. (Guttenberg was only the most recent one I found who used that commonplace.) This commonplace, in turn, is the over-simplification of a school of thought that considers the Taleban a ‘Pashtun nationalist’ movement – which is not less wrong than the oversimplification derived from it.

For a Pakistani source, for example, take General Pervez Musharraf when, still Pakistan’s president, said in an address to the European Parliament in September 2006 that ‘the Taliban (…) have the seeds of converting and drawing the population to them and converting this [their fight against the NATO troops] into a national war by the Pashtuns’. Or Amina Khan (‘US and Growing Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan’, Islamabad: Institute of Strategic Studies, Reflections No. 2/2009, p. 6): ‘Afghanistan cannot be stabilized unless the issue of Pashtun alienation is addressed. […] The Taliban who are Pashtun, need to be brought into the political process’. Or from the US, Robert Kaplan (in Foreign Policy magazine, May 2009): ‘The Taliban constitute merely the latest incarnation of Pashtun nationalism.’

The Taleban (of Afghanistan) might be ‘national’ in the sense that they have an Afghanistan-only agenda. But they are not nationalist in an irredentist way. They have never promoted the reunification of ‘Pashtunistan’. How could they? That would have meant to bite the hand that feeds them.

Hamid Gul, the ex-head of the ISI, meanwhile will rub his hands in joy because the Taleban=Pashtun line is the line his outfit has been trickling into Western ears for years. The more often it was repeated the more it sank in, it seems. But when the international community now begins to debate ‘reconciliation’ in London and elsewhere, hopefully, we need to be a bit more accurate in what we are saying.

So let’s have a short look at how much Pashtuns and Taleban overlap (and I summarise from my paper ‘The Other Side’ which can be found here):

Most of the Taleban are indeed Pashtuns. This reflects patterns of ethnicisation that emerged during the civil wars between the late 1970s and 2001. However, during the period of the Taleban Emirate in power as well as in the present, there were and are small but significant non-Pashtun groups amongst them: Badakhshani and other Tajik, Uzbeks, Pashai and Nuristani and even Shia/Hazara, even though most probably for the sake of their own survival plus local politics (‘the enemy of my enemy…’). As a result, it is justified to call the Taleban a ‘predominantly Pashtun movement’.

By the way, the Taleban do not recognise tribal and ethnic distinctions. They would not accept being referred to as Pashtun. Mulla Omar stated in 2008: ‘The only bond, which binds us, is the bond of Islam’. (That also has to be taken with a pinch of salt since the Taleban, as individuals, are still deeply rooted into Pashtun society. For example, Taleban do understand pretty well – but of course not in all cases – that they cannot come to an area and kill a lot of people. They know that times can change and revenge will be taken.) In the early, pre-Emirate phase the Taleban rebuffed attempts by tribal leaders and political groups – who tried to put themselves at the helm of the new movement – to redefine them as a Pashtun nationalist movement. This included the Karzai family, some famous Pashtun nationalist intellectuals, the Afghan Mellat party and monarchist elements. They all were rebuffed by the Taleban leadership.

Furthermore, the Taleban are not the only political movement (or affiliation) amongst the Pashtuns. There are significant numbers of Pashtuns that support non-Taleban political groups across the spectrum, some of whom have shown impressive coherence over decades. This reaches from mujahedin groups (Hezb-e Islami, Harakat, Mahaz etc.) to the nationalist Afghan Mellat party and the leftist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) and its successor groups. The biggest group amongst ordinary Pashtuns, however, might be those who just try to survive by manoeuvring between the ever-shifting Afghan political alliances.

And finally: Towards the end of the Taleban Emirate, Pashtuns in various areas resisted the Taleban for different reasons, among them the dominance of the ‘Kandahari’, the ban of old tribal customs (including celebrating the New Year) and forced recruitments. This showed that not the whole Pashtun population stood behind the Taleban then. The same is true today – although current Afghan politics encompassed a strong element of ethnic mobilisation. This could be countered, however, by ensuring that a more open political landscape emerges.

Probably, minister Guttenberg – and those who develop these soundbites for him – think that the public needs core messages packed into one sentence because on TV you only have 25 seconds to make yourself understood and that’s not much time to differentiate.

Well, here is a proposal how to say it short but nevertheless in a differentiated way. It is taken from General Richard Barrons, the deputy head of the NATO ‘reintegration unit’ in Kabul, and I have quoted him in an earlier blog already: He says that the Taleban represent ‘parts [my emphasis] of the Pashtun ethnic group’.

Bendler-Block*, did you copy?
* The Bendler-Block is the seat of the German MoD in Berlin.



Taleban reconciliation Pashtuns tribes