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Afghanistan: Tribal Law, Or Pashtunwali, Maintains Its Influence

By Mohammad Hasham Mohmond and Don Hill

As the West and various Afghan factions debate the possibilities for a new government in a post-Taliban Afghanistan, an ancient tradition -- Pashtunwali, or the code of the Pashtun -- gains ever more significance. RFE/RL correspondents Mohammad Hasham Mohmond and Don Hill delve into the meaning of a traditional code that for 1,000 years or more has never yielded to the complete control of any Afghan government.

Prague, 20 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Since the 18th century -- and never more than right now -- Western powers have found the governance of Afghanistan mysterious.

This landlocked, ruggedly mountainous nation of 25 million people is more than 40 percent Pashtun, a quarter Tajik, one-fifth Hazara, and 8 percent Uzbek. Since 1996, the predominantly Pashtun Taliban Islamic militia has, in effect, governed most of Afghanistan.

But the Taliban must have understood, as many in the West may not have, that governing in Afghanistan always involves cooperation with and accommodation to the rule of Pashtunwali, or the traditional code of the Pashtun.

Rossul Amin of the University of Peshawar in neighboring Pakistan explains the subtle importance of this code of values and conduct on Pashtuns. Nearly every problem a Pashtun might face -- a murder, a runaway wife, a quarrel over inheritance or other property -- can be resolved by a local jirga, or tribal council, referring to centuries-old knowledge and wisdom. When a problem is too great for one jirga to resolve, it can join with other jirgas to apply the knowledge and wisdom of a larger council.

News agencies in recent weeks have been referring to this system as "tribal law." In fact, as Amin said in a telephone interview from Peshawar, Pashtunwali is not a legal system in the Western sense.

"These are unwritten codes and conventions. The whole of these codes make the Pashtunwali."

Amin, an Afghan Pashtun, is the author of a book on Pashtunwali. He says the system survives despite the power of the Taliban, the inroads of armed commanders, and decades of turmoil.

"Some people believe that these rules have changed. There are, in fact, only cracks in the society because of the 23 years of war. But the codes and the values remain the same. Many problems were resolved by the jirgas before, and the same is true today."

So when news reports in recent days say tribal authorities have arrested leading members of the Taliban, or that a local tribal council has taken control of Farah province in western Afghanistan, the correspondents are recognizing the powers of a web of jirgas only dimly understood by most outsiders.

In Kandahar -- the city often referred to as the Taliban's southern stronghold or spiritual center -- some reports say that tribal councils have opened negotiations with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, offering him safe passage if he will leave the city without more bloodshed.

Amin said any such discussions so far involve only one or a few jirgas and cannot succeed. He said a large council comprised of all tribal jirgas will be needed for any talks to be effective.

"If the effective people -- the true leaders -- of the tribes do not get together and make effective decisions and take over power from the Taliban, one single person or one local jirga cannot solve the problems."

Even so, Amin said, the best chance for some level of stability in Afghanistan lies with the jirgas. He said any outside forces that fail fully to consider them are doomed to impotence.

"I believe that jirgas comprise the only system that can work in Afghanistan to a certain degree in a certain period of time -- but not all the time -- and which can be effective and useful. The reason is that their leaders have influence on those who live in the villages and localities, and the people will obey their decisions and their rules."

A Western authority says that as the United States and other Western powers prepare to shower billions of dollars of aid into Afghanistan, they run the risk of giving insufficient attention to the power of the tribal councils.

Christopher Langton, head of defense analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, spoke to RFE/RL in a telephone interview today.

"Certainly, the Western authorities know about this, and it is a question -- and this may be a fear in this situation -- of how much importance they attach to it or don't attach to it. They may say, 'Well, this is not important to have a grouping of jirgas in order to achieve local government in a particular region.' "

Langton said he perceives a danger that the West, impatient to settle matters in Afghanistan, may try to move too rapidly without giving enough time for the system of Pashtunwali to congeal and build consensus.

"There's always this problem of sometimes moving too quickly. And, as I say, we don't want aid going into an area where the political and the systematic moves have not sufficiently developed to get jirgas to work together locally and then, of course, regionally, and then, of course, countrywide from Kabul. So my advice would be they need to look at this before they start pushing aid."

U.S. authorities are saying that the United States will use all its influence to block any arrangement by which Mullah Omar, suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden -- or their lieutenants -- would be permitted to leave Afghanistan under safe passage.

Another complicating factor is the makeup both of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, whose victories on the ground have staggered the Taliban regime, and of the many foreign volunteers who have flooded the country in support of the Taliban.

The Northern Alliance comprises mostly Tajiks and Uzbeks, who live outside the Pashtunwali system. As for the Taliban, local reports say that even where Taliban units are willing to surrender, their foreign Arab allies -- often terrorists and fanatics -- are not.

(Mohammad Hasham Mohmond, an ethnic Pashtun, is a broadcaster in RFE/RL's Tajik Service.)