By Nicky Reid aka Comrade Hermit
Exile in Happy Valley
There is a narrative commonly held by observers in the west that the Afghans are a people defined by perpetual warfare. Like many stereotypes, this one comes with a cornel of truth. After all, the people of Afghanistan just got done throttling the bare hindquarters of the greatest empire Satan ever devised for the last twenty years with little more than rusty Soviet junk and raw grit. The rural highlands of southern Afghanistan have certainly fostered a distinctly martial culture that has aided its people in resisting generations of conquest, but to simply sum these people up by the wars they’ve fought completely misses the context of why they fight and what they were fighting for.
You see the Afghan people, in particular the Pashtuns who have made up the bulk of the Taliban, are a people who simply refuse to be ruled by anyone or anything besides their own distinctly stateless culture. The Pashtuns of Afghanistan’s rugged borderlands are essentially anarchists and their successful centuries-old resistance to conquest didn’t begin with the Soviets or the British or even Alexander the Great. It began with the first taxman sent by a local emir to those mountains, who was returned riddled with bullets for his trouble.
The rugged mountainous region now separated superficially by the Durand Line forming the border between what is now modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan has always been a distinctly wild country populated by hard men who love their rifles and hate being told what to do. This region was traditionally known as Yaghistan which roughly translates to the land of lawlessness and rebellion. But this title was clearly bestowed upon the rural Pashtuns by another simple-minded outsider, for even though these people are certainly stateless, they are anything but lawless.
Pashtun society is governed by a strict code of honor known as Pashtunwali, or the way of the Pashtuns, which is upheld by decentralized local councils of elders and religious figures known as Jirgas. For centuries it has been the Jirgas and the Jirgas alone which have governed the land of lawlessness by settling disputes among the tribes. Every other form of rule has been stubbornly rejected and successfully resisted. No single entity has ever managed to hold a monopoly on the use of force in those mountains and many have tried. It wasn’t until the 1940s, with advent of tanks and aerial bombardment in the region, that a central Afghan state was even able to successfully quell a tribal uprising and this fire superiority only gave Kabul the upper hand for a few decades before the Pashtuns could outfox them.