Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Pashtunwali: A Set of Fake Cultural Rules

Anyone who deploys out to, or just studies, Afghanistan will undoubtedly spend at least a day learning about Pashtunwali (or "way of the Pashtuns").  Pashtunwali is allegedly ten rules that the Pashtun ethnic group live by and will die for.  The ten rules are

  • Hospitality 
  • Asylum 
  • Justice 
  • Bravery 
  • Loyalty 
  • Righteousness 
  • Trust in God 
  • Courage 
  • Protection of Women 
  • Honor

Pasthtunwali has been featured in movies like The Beast...

 ... by amateur historians who believe the ten rules tie the Pashtun with the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel...

... and by United States military officers, State Department officers, and academics who study Afghanistan all study, write about, and interact in Afghanistan on Pashtunwali terms.

The problem with all this is Pashtunwali is made up.  The first mention of it comes from British Lieutenant J. S. Broadfoot in 1880.  The ten rules bit was based off the Western understanding of the Ten Commandments.  Most likely ten was chosen to equate the code with the Ten Commandments.  Later on, Pashtun words were given for each rule to make Pashtunwali sound more native and less British academic.

In fact, here is an 1886 summary of Pashtunwali from Broadfoot in a journal from the Royal Geographic Society

Yet today we teach our war fighters, peace makers, and academics that Pashtuns are like slavish robots to Pashtunwali.  We ignore that Pashtunwali was a rule of thumb to understand rural Pashtuns in the late 1880s.  This ignores cultural evolution, the shift from traditional Islam to introductions of foreign Salafi forms of the faith, and the fact that Pashtun culture has been deeply impacted by forty-plus years of war.  Any captured soldier who screams for asylum (nanawatai) is probably going to be found without his head.

Here is a Google Ngram study of the use of "pashtunwali" in literature.  The mention in the 1960s merely referred back to the original 1880s use of the term.  It was only during the 1970s Communist-made turmoil that the romantic notion of Pashtunwali took off.  We have been suckers for the term since.

I greatly favor teaching culture and using culture in military operations.  However, we must not make the Western orientalist mistake of believing others are complete slaves to their culture.


Dina said...

What you tell us here is shocking!

Catholicgauze said...

Agreed. When I found this I was shocked as well.

Dina said...

Is there no way to open the eyes of the misguided officials?

Catholicgauze said...

I've tried. Oh how I have tried.