Pashtun tribes and terrorism: A rebuttal to Rustam Shah Mohmand’s article – by Zaigham Khan

Rustam Shah Mohmand, a member of the team appointed by the government to negotiate with Taliban, ignited a debate this week through an article contributed to a national English daily, arguing that the destruction of the tribal structure by the state has unleashed violence in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and the situation can be normalised only by rebuilding these tribal institutions and taking a number of other steps, including military pullout from the area and radical changes in the foreign policy.

This column argues that it is in fact the state’s over protection of a decaying colonial governance structure in the area – in the name of tribal culture – that is the root cause of many problems. Had the governance system kept pace with the socioeconomic changes in Fata, common people in the area and the whole county would be better off.

Mohmand holds that Pakistan’s tribal areas have “their own indigenous institutions, steeped in the culture, norms and historic traditions of the tribes.” According to Mohmand: “Once the state intervenes and demolishes the institutional framework that has held an area together for centuries, it creates a dangerous administrative vacuum that is only filled by forces that have divisive and destructive tendencies, and which will polarise and fracture society, unleashing a cycle of violence that aggravates as more force is applied to curb the activities of the divisive forces, which, in turn, destroys the area’s structures and cadres.”

This argument essentially states that tribes are indulging in terrorism because their traditional tribal structures and the governance system set up by the British more than a century ago have been undermined. A somewhat similar argument was presented by Akbar S Ahmad, Pakistan’s most famous anthropologist, in an interview with Saleem Safi, reiterating the analysis he has presented in is his recent book ‘The Thistle and the Drone’.

According to Akbar, terrorism all over the Muslim world is based in tribal areas and has its roots in tribal culture. “All Al-Qaeda leadership is from tribal societies”, he said in the interview. “Ninety-five percent of AlQaeda comprises tribesmen and 18 out of 19 hijackers were Yemeni tribals, 12 from the Saudi Aseer province belonging to Yemeni tribes.” According to him, the tribal code based on revenge and honour is the main operating force behind terrorism. Rather than Islamic ideology of any sort, it is this tribal code that this violence is emanating from. He said: “Something has mutated and coming from the code. It is not (due to) Islam.”

Like almost all anthropologists and most state officials trained in British tradition, Akbar Ahmad has a nostalgic love affair with tribal cultures. In his analysis, the problem is not in the tribal cultures per se but the way governments (centre) have dealt with tribal areas all over the Muslim world as peripheries. What is common in the analysis of the two former bureaucrats with different academic backgrounds is the conclusion that lack of respect for tribal cultures by the central authority is at the root of the problem.

Fata is in no way unique in its tribal form of social organisation. All humanity has passed through a tribal phase and all the four provinces in the country have an element of tribalism in some areas. Elman Service, an American anthropologist, in his famous categorisation divided human societies into four categories of increasing population size, political centralisation, and social stratification: band, tribe, chiefdom, and state. As these factors change, tribes cannot run their affairs using tribal structures and turn into chiefdoms or get integrated into state structures. This is how state structures have replaced tribes and chiefdoms all over the world. Tribal structures cannot survive because of religious ideology, riwaj or psychological state like ghairat in face of change in population size, subsistence, political centralisation, and social stratification of an area.

It is these demographic and socioeconomic changes that had made tribal structures obsolete even before the Taliban dealt them a mortal blow. While Fata was ripe for integration with the rest of the Pakhtun areas and the nation state, successive governments resisted reforms in the area – not out of love for local culture but to keep the area as a strategic space for foreign policy objectives. This is what created a terrible vacuum and led to space for the Taliban and other extremists to find refuge here.

The Taliban physically eliminated jirgas and elders through their suicide bombers and turned these areas into their chiefdoms, if we use the Service’s categorisation. Some changes that distinguish Taliban chiefdoms from the tribal system are evident from these lines taken from Jared Diamond’s recent book, ‘The World until Yesterday’: “Chiefdoms develop shared ideologies and political and religious identities often derived from the supposedly divine status of the chief. Second, there is now a recognized leader, the chief, who makes decisions, possesses recognized authority, claims a monopoly on the right to use force against his society’s members if necessary, and thereby ensures that strangers within the same chiefdom don’t fight each other.

“The chief is assisted by non-specialized all-purpose officials (proto-bureaucrats) who collect tribute and settle disputes and carry out other administrative tasks, instead of there being separate tax collectors, judges, and restaurant inspectors as in a state.”

Those who are drunk deep on 19th century travelogues and memoirs of British civil servants must understand that history is not repeating itself in Fata this time. It is not tribes rising into revolt against the state or an empire, as has been the case in legendary anti-colonial struggles of these tribes, but armed groups that have exploited the governance vacuum and set up their chiefdom, undermining and destroying the tribal structures for good and posing an existential threat to the nation state.

A thin veneer of ideology is used in an effort to win legitimacy and build alliances with outside individuals and groups. The fact that these Taliban chiefdoms have not been able to win widespread support and legitimacy from common people in Fata is evident from their excessive reliance on violence. As numerous sociologists tell us, any authority enjoying legitimacy among people does not have to take recourse to such extreme use of force.

The state is culpable by denying political reforms and human development to the area and fostering a criminal elite that has turned this egalitarian society into a land of stark inequality. In terms of distribution of wealth, Fata is today the least egalitarian area in the country, home to a minority of extremely rich people living side by side with a large majority of the poorest and least developed people in the country.

No modern state can afford the presence of violent chiefdoms in its midst. As the state negotiates with the Taliban to wrest back control of Fata, what is needed is not tribal structures that supposedly held these areas together for centuries, but security, human development, rule of law, democracy, freedom of association and freedom of speech.

The people of Fata are some of the most enterprising, hardworking people in the country. They deserve equal rights and must be willing to share equal responsibilities with the rest of the people of the country. A new social contract is needed, not with tribes but with the people of Fata as citizens of Pakistan. Rustam Shah Mohmand in the meanwhile can write memoirs of a time that will never return.

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