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Fierce, ancient and proud, the people may not like the Taliban but resent U.S. attacks on their cousins in Afghanistan.
©New York Times
© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 28, 2001
PABBI, Pakistan -- When a male child is born in a Pashtun village, gunfire is the first sound he hears. Pashtun men celebrate the birth of a brand-new warrior by firing their rifles into the sky, and the lead falls back to the powdery earth like drops of hard rain.
The Pashtuns, who are the dominant tribe in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province and make up about half the population of Afghanistan, have done this since they first robbed British dead of their muskets two centuries ago. Muskets did not shoot very high and the bullets were tiny, say Pashtun elders, so there was little risk from falling lead during the celebration.
Then, generations later, Pashtuns took Kalashnikov rifles from Soviet soldiers they killed in the war that led to an ignominious Soviet retreat in 1989.
"But the Kalashnikov bullet was so big and heavy that, when we fired it in celebration, it dropped back down back out of the sky, and killed us," said Sher Zaman Taizi, a writer, professor and elder in the village of Pabbi, just outside Peshawar. That does not mean the shooting stopped. Tradition, the elder said, holds firm here.
Even the police, who frown on the power of tradition, are ignored. "A law, a government, is not so much a factor here," Taizi said.
The Pashtuns have their own tribal laws reaching back thousands of years to govern a people who consider themselves Pashtun first and Pakistani or Afghan second. It is why the border with Pakistan drawn by a British general a century ago is still considered just a line on paper, and why Pashtuns in Pakistan are enraged at the U.S. bombing.
To the Pashtuns, the bombs might as well be falling on the old men who trail behind water buffalo tending sugar cane outside Peshawar. This is a tribe that anthropologists consider one of the oldest on Earth, bound by a common language, but also by millenniums of marriage, and by blood.
As Islamic militants use religion as a rallying cry all around the Muslim world, on the border it is ethnicity as much as Islam that ties Pakistanis to their Afghan cousins -- even those in the Taliban.
A proud, almost arrogant people who fought Alexander the Great, they have fought among themselves for centuries, as families do.
"Handsome, well built, powerful and strong," intoned Raj Wali Shah Khattak, a professor of Pashtun studies at Pashtun Academy in Peshawar and a Pashtun himself. "They will rise as brothers against an outsider."
That code and kinship explain much of what is happening in this conflict, such as why the Taliban are reluctant to evict their guest, Osama bin Laden, who has asked them for a sanctuary they are honor-bound to give, and why even those Pakistanis who are not religious militants have joined in heated protests.
"The first thing the male baby hears is that sound of a bullet," Khattak said. "The second thing he hears is the name of God, from the mullah. And the third thing he hears is the voice of his mother speaking as she gives him a lesson of humanity. She sings a song and recites the deeds of his forefathers, and the values of his clan."
Among these values are certain iron-bound laws, called the Pashtu Wali, or Code of Life. One is badal, which obligates members of a tribe to exact revenge for a wrongdoing -- like the American attack on other members of the tribe. Another is milmasthia, which binds tribe members to serve a guest. That includes giving sanctuary to anyone who asks for it, even an enemy.
That is why, say tribal elders, the Taliban cannot give in to demands to hand over bin Laden.
"We are very hospitable people," said Sufaid Gul, 65, as he worked in an irrigation ditch in a wheat field in the village of Zakhi Charbagh.
But there is also a part of that code that gives the host leeway to evict a guest if he creates trouble for the family while he is in the home -- a tenet of the tribal law that the Taliban has apparently chosen to ignore, said elders in Pabbi. Pashtun law, like many a law, has loopholes one can drive a camel through.
Pashtuns in Pabbi seem to regard the Taliban as wayward cousins who -- racked by so much war and suffering -- had nothing left but their religion.
Khattak said the Pashtuns, historically, have not even included mullahs in tribal councils. They are farmers, shepherds and warriors. "A pure life," Gul said.
The mullah is a hired preacher, paid from the largesse of the village, usually not even a Pashtun.
But as Pashtuns in Pakistan left their rural villages over the decades to find skilled work in a variety of jobs, the Pashtuns in Afghanistan had almost nothing except their history of endless war. The mullahs, the older Pashtuns say, filled that void with an oppressive religion that elevated the fighter clans to holy warriors. With so much death, they made death glorious.
"They took power in the name of religion, not as Pashtuns," Taizi said.
The Pashtuns in Pakistan -- many of them, anyway -- do not want oppressive government, do not want to further subjugate their women, do not want Taliban-like lives. They love music -- musicians, like mullahs, are hired from outside the clan -- and women can choose to go unveiled. They dance. Their children run through the dusty fields outside the village, flying kites.
All that -- the singing, dancing, even the kite-flying -- has been banned by the Taliban.
But in the dusty fields and in the narrow alleys of brown-brick villages, Pashtuns in Pakistan said they condemn the United States. Some have said, like the Islamic militants have, that they will honor the code of badal and fight.
They do not scream it, the way the militant Muslims often do. They do not see it as a holy war so much as a simple duty. They ask not to be identified -- young men, most of them -- because they have jobs they do not want to risk.
"You people in America say that human life is sacred," Khattak said. "Here, life is nothing without honor."
Outsiders have, over the centuries, sometimes developed a lower opinion. The Pashtuns have been described by other tribes as fierce killers and as skilled and ruthless kidnappers. A British officer once advised his superiors not to waste bullets on the Pashtuns. Buy them, he said.
But the modern-day Pashtuns are as diverse as other societies, a people of small mud huts and city apartments, donkey carts and Suzukis, field hands and university professors. In Peshawar, the guns are in closets.
In the wild tribal areas, near the border, every man carries an automatic rifle. These are the Pashtuns who will more likely answer the call for badal -- as they did against the British and Soviets.
Others, too old, will watch from the sidelines. But even some of the most educated believe that the United States is wrong to bomb an emaciated country. "Five-billion dollars," Taizi scoffed, "to bomb a $10 tent."
But even as some Pashtuns have waited for the ground assault by Americans so they can carry out their code of warfare, others have been planning for the postwar government.
The Pashtuns demand that, in a post-Taliban Afghanistan, the new government should be multiethnic -- but one that gives a leading role to the Pashtuns. "They have to be given fair representation," Taizi said.
Some experts place the Pashtuns at 40 percent of the population in Afghanistan, but the Pashtuns claim to be 60 percent or more of the 25-million people. In a country that has never had a census, it is hard to tell who is right.
To the Pashtuns, the Northern Alliance -- which has fought the Taliban for years -- represents Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara and other minorities.
The Pashtuns do not consider those groups as their equals, and they do not recognize Pashtun members of the alliance, or even the fact that they are there.
If the Northern Alliance tries to rule, it will be only the beginning of another war for the Pashtuns, said elders and historians in Pakistan.
And war is just one more tradition.
There is, in Pashtun law, an alternative to war. If one village or clan wrongs another by killing one of its members, the village of the killer can offer to the wronged village a girl, to be taken as a wife by one of the villagers.
But the woman, Taizi said, is mistreated all her life. She is never regarded as an equal. "She is persecuted," he said. It is tradition.
"We are trying to move on from that one," he said.