In his book ‘The First Afghan War 1838-1842’, J.A Norris quoted one of the relevant descriptions of the Afghan character. The
quote from the Asiatic Journal states that the Afghans “are neither irritable nor implacable, but retain a long remembrance of injuries not retaliated: revenge is esteemed a duty.” Norris emphasized that “we should remember this in all that we read about the First Afghan War.” There were two more Anglo-Afghan wars, a decade long Soviet occupation and now we are at the tail end of yet another inconclusive war between the Afghans and the NATO forces. How much did the western world care to remember what Norris and many others had advised?
Most of the Afghans are ethnically Pashtuns or Pakhtuns. Apart from Afghanistan a large number of them live in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan and even larger numbers live in the Federal Administered Tribal Area (FATA) a semi-independent region between the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. When it comes to foreign interventions, Pashtuns and non-Pashtun tribes of the region fiercely resist their enemy. But why is revenge their most powerful weapon to date? Part of the answer comes from their history, which is yet another avenue neglected by military and political strategists.
Since centuries the region is known to be a world where even tribal and family quarrels can easily turn into blood feuds giving birth to endless cycles of revenge. Revenge is therefore, ingrained in Pashtunwali (literally, the way of Pashtun), the unwritten moral and social code that predates Islam. The code has evolved through the centuries hence historical currents, along with socio-cultural forces, have gone in the shaping and making of the Pashtunwali. Each new invasion and occupation, beginning from the Achaemenid kings of the Persian Empire to Alexander the Great and from the Moghuls and Nadir Shah of Iran to Runjeet Singh of Punjab, had only sharpened the vindictive instincts of a people who value independence above all. So it is logical for revenge to replay its role with more vigor in the present Great Game between the new contenders. Each drone attack gives a new life to the resolve of revenge against the US army, and the bloodshed continues. Is there a way to put an end to the cycle of revenge?
Law of revenge – an eye for an eye – is engraved on Hammurabi’s code. It may have existed as a convention even earlier but so has the desire to erase it. There are only bits and pieces of circumstantial evidence scattered in mythology, folklore and literature to support the existence of such a desire. Greek trilogy Oresteia tells us that Goddess Athena succeeded in replacing it by law of mercy. In recent past Truth and Reconciliation Councils have been advocating forgiveness to resolve conflicts. Imran Khan’s peace march to demonsterate solidarity with the drone victims by all means is the beginning of a process which might lead to the ending of drone attacks and the chain of revenge. His march is also a reminder that Pashtunwali has another potent component- hospitality. That is why even in the days of deadly drone attacks peace is not altogether disregarded. The elders of the tribes had welcomed the march, Americans refrained from bombing, the Talibans promised a safe passage; decades of war must have worked a change in their thinking. Khan’s mission was to draw world attention towards the heavy ‘collateral damage’ of civilian killings caused in Waziristan by American drone attacks. An investigative report prepared jointly by Stanford and New York Universities has already revealed harrowing accounts of the victims and recommended a serious re-evaluation of current policy of target killings by drones. Participation of CodePink, Lauren Booth and Clive Smith in the march is symbolic of the fact that American, British and Western people are equally against civilian killings.
Now that the United States is already in the process of withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan it is time to sit around the table and plan future relations. This calls for some degree of mutual trust between participants- Americans, officials of Afghanistan and Pakistan governments and representatives of different tribes and militant groups. Once again we need to turn the pages of history to see how receptive Pashtunland is to peace. Surprisingly, non-violent religions Jainism and Buddhism had lasted here for centuries under the Mauryan and Kushan dynasties. The fact that the largest Buddha images in the world are carved in the mountain walls of Bamiyan, that Buddha came to be represented in human form under the Kushans and that the most beautiful specimens of Buddhist art were sculpted in the Gandhara region of Pakistan and Afghanistan, proves that peace must have lasted long enough for all these accomplishments. History mostly highlights the mountain passes, large enough for armies to enter and exit, but again if one cares to look into its margins it shows the Silk Road that merchants frequented to barter their goods, exchange culture and enjoy exotic stories. So there is more in the region than mere revenge and bloodshed. Today there are graveled roads waiting to welcome any messenger of peace and there are institutions, experienced in conflict resolution, ready to assist. Conflicts between tribes are solved by Jirga which is a body composed of the elders of the tribes who draw their authority from the people. Perhaps these can help in reconciliation, already there is a thinking that the institution of Jirga should be allowed a role in the present governance of Afghanistan. Why can’t it play its role in the global conflict that involves its people?
It’s about time global makes room for local in the process of peace. It is also expected of representatives of the tribal world to move a step forward and follow certain global norms and who can be the most effective representative of the region than Khan. Hailing from the Burki tribe, long settled in Punjab, he has returned to his ancestral troubled region of Waziristan to nurse its wounds. He has already written a travel book on the region and he now plans to demonsterate against the drone policy in front of the United Nations. Though Khan was barred from marching in Waziristan but he has shown the road that leads there. Hopefully, the World will see the troubled region beyond the blazing images of drone attacks and will register the positives of the tribal society. Women are inconspicous in that society which is a shame but there are seeds of democracy. Jirga, at the moment addresses the grievance of each individual involved. Pashtunwali looms large over these indigenous courtrooms, it stresses on community consensus and expects decisions to be unanimous. The system goes beyond the western concept of democracy, to explain this I can only borrow the words of Nelson Mandela he used while describing the tribal system of justice practiced in his native land: “Democracy meant all men were to be heard, and a decision was taken together as a people. Majority rule was a foreign notion. A minority was not to be crushed by a majority.” Hopefully women in this part of the world will rise above the status of minority.