Under the sign of "Badal"

(To Andrea Gaspardo)

The events of this 2021 in Afghanistan have profoundly marked the collective consciousness of public opinion in Western countries. The lightning advance of the Taliban and the collapse of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, supported and funded by the United States of America and no less than 20 other allied countries for 44 years, has deeply discredited both the US and NATO itself, under the whose umbrella the Westerners had embarked on what, to all intents and purposes, was a vaguely colonial mission of "nation building" that ended in the worst way and which literally made the Soviet intervention of 1979-89 pale.

Although the new Afghan disaster is already being studied to draw the necessary lessons from both a political and military point of view, it is equally fundamental to understand what kind of path the inhospitable Central Asian country will take now and whether it will turn into a so-called " instability factory ".

A tool at our disposal that can actually help us a lot from this point of view is the demographic analysis, given that, as already stated several times in the past, the demography it represents a very useful tool that can act, so to speak, as a "thermometer" to understand what kind of evolutionary or involutionary path a particular society is taking and, to be honest, the Afghan one is by no means an exception. However, the Afghan case is particularly difficult because this country between China, Central Asia, the Greater Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent is also a multi-ethnic country in which peoples of different origins and religious faiths have been forced by the waves of history to coexist alongside side by side, sometimes coexisting peacefully and sometimes fighting bitterly. Not only that, the further tribal subdivision present within the various peoples that make up the colorful ethno-religious mosaic of the country means that even within each of these "subjects" there are deep fractures and interminable tribal and clan feuds. which persist even when the Afghans are all busy fighting what should be perceived as a common enemy (as in the case of the Soviet invasion).

Among the various ethnic groups that make up the country, a prominent place is undoubtedly held by the Pashtuns. Also known in the Indian subcontinent with the name of "Pathan", the Pashtuns are actually the "real Afghans", since in ancient times, the term in Persian language "Afghani" was used to identify the Pashtuns. It is therefore understood that if the term “Afghani” can be used as a synonym for Pashtun, then also the term “Afghanistan” (the land of the Afghans) would actually be synonymous with “Pashtunistan” (the land of the Pashtuns). Nowadays, however, things have changed and Afghans are all inhabitants of the territory of Afghanistan regardless of ethnic origin, thus giving a much more inclusive meaning of this term. However, what has absolutely not changed is the role that the Pashtuns have maintained within Afghanistan (and neighboring Pakistan), so much so that it is almost impossible to understand Afghan events without first analyzing this people as feared as they are mysterious. For this reason, this analysis will be dedicated solely to the study of the Pashtuns, leaving instead the Afghan demography as a whole for a later episode.

To begin with, it must be said that from a cultural and linguistic point of view, the Pashtuns are classified as the largest Iranian people in the world, even more numerous than the Persians and Kurds. Although it is not clear how many Pashtuns there are in the whole, given that a vast diaspora has been created in areas far from their main settlement area in the last 2 centuries, the irreducible core of this people is made up of about 60 million individuals. (equal to the Italian population) mainly located in the highlands located between the modern states of Afghanistan and Pakistan, in an area that is colloquially known precisely as "Pashtunistan". The country where the highest number of Pashtuns live is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where they are present in no less than 45 million and where they represent the second ethnic group of the state, surpassed only by the Panjabi (the "Pakistani proper") .

About 15 million Pashtuns live in Afghanistan and they played a fundamental role in the creation of today's country. Traditionally the Pashtuns also constituted the absolute majority of the Afghan population however the massive influx of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen from Central Asia at the time of the Stalinist repressions and the subsequent demographic boom that characterized minorities throughout the twentieth century widely reshuffled the cards on the table.

Not only that, given that the last Afghan census dates back to 1979, it is now impossible to give precise numbers and the percentage of the Pashtun population on the total of the Afghan one is variously reported in a range between a minimum of 42% and a maximum of 53. %. This means that, at best, the Pashtuns have retained an absolute, albeit narrow, majority, while at worst they would have even lost it, retaining only the relative one.

Even in the latter case, however, the "people of the hills" in any case represent the strongest ethnic group in Afghanistan and the one of which one must have open or tacit support if one is to succeed in governing the country. From a social point of view, the Pashtuns are divided into no less than 400 tribes and clans, some very small (such as the Hotak tribe, which was the birthplace of the first Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar), others very much large (one of all, the tribe of Durrani, which numbers millions of individuals and which gave birth to the members of the homonymous founding dynasty of modern Afghanistan in 1747 and whose progenitor, Ahmad Shah Durrani, is still revered today as the " founding father "of the country by all Afghans in a cult that rivals those that in Turkey is reserved for the" Gazi "Mustafa Kemal Atatürk).

From a family point of view, Pashtun society is characterized by the presence of the so-called “endogamous community family”. This is to say that it is characterized by a strong solidarity between the male members of the same, in particular the brothers, and by a predilection for marriage between carnal cousins. If cousins ​​are not available, the Pashtun family can also welcome candidates from outside the family, but very rarely from outside the clan and EVER outside the tribal one, not to mention marriage with individuals of different ethnic groups or nations; the latter is simply a "blasphemy". This is why, despite the passing of the centuries, the very numerous Pashtun tribes have never merged into a "coherent nation". The rigidly endogamous social setting and the extreme tribal fragmentation make the Pashtuns the last so-called “segmented society” existing in the world together with the Jews.

Much has been debated on the origin of the Pashtuns, and the evidence patiently collected by scholars over the course of almost a century and a half suggests a heterogeneous origin, different from tribe to tribe. In addition to the heterogeneous origin, the Pashtuns are also affected by a linguistic split since the primacy of Pashto, the traditional language of the people, has been eroded over time by the Dari (the Afghan variant of Persian), already spoken by the other minorities of the country, which first took root among the most cultured Pashtun elites and was subsequently adopted by entire tribes. Nonetheless, the Pashtuns have managed to survive and over time forge an autonomous and unified culture based around their customary system of life, called "Pashtunwali". It is based on a long series of precepts and rules of conduct that shape the life of every Pashtun at 360 degrees, especially the male component of the people, a bit like the 613 mitzvot shape the life of a pious Jew. Among these precepts, the most important are essentially three:

Melmastia: translatable as “hospitality”, it refers to the Pashtuns' habit of showing all their respect towards visitors and foreigners, regardless of race, religion, citizenship, economic status. In a society where the standard of living of individuals is very low, to put it mildly, being able to count on sincere hospitality without having any kind of obligation to repay it (as opposed to what happens, for example, among peoples of Turkish origin), it can help a lot in times of difficulty;

Nenawate: translatable as "asylum", "refuge" instead describes the Pashtun habit of always defending, at the cost of their own lives, those who, literally, "knock on their doorstep to find refuge from their enemies". Please note that this type of help actually goes beyond mere "humanitarianism". If a suppliant asks for help in obtaining protection or justice, in the cultural logic of the Pashtuns, he is explicitly affirming the superiority of the Pashtunwali and his submission to it. That is why at that point the Pashtuns have the moral obligation to defend the "suppliant", because if they did not do so they would also end up losing their ability to "deterrence" others, whoever they are. To put it another way, Pashtuns must always keep the protection commitments made with others, otherwise they would no longer be feared or respected;

Badal: today modestly translated as "justice", in reality it traditionally represents "revenge", which can last for centuries and be inherited from generation to generation. The "Badal" is probably the pillar par excellence of the culture of the people, and no Pashtun man worthy of the name will ever give it up because such renunciation would lead to the loss of virility and social consideration that not even self-inflicted death would be able to wash ( contrary to what happens, for example in Japanese culture where suicide "restores reputation"). Even when revenge seems impossible, a Pashtun man must try to get it in every way, dying in the attempt if necessary. However, it is necessary to specify that not always what in our Western mentality would represent a serious criminal act may necessarily imply the application of the "Badal" by a Pashtun. In some Pashtun tribes, in fact, the murder (even that of a child) can be easily amortized with a financial reparation that is not too exorbitant. An example was the reaction of a Pashtun father who, at the news of the death of one of his sons hit by an HMMWV armored jeep of the American army, upon the arrival of the local American commander accompanied by the soldier allegedly responsible for the event, showed his other 12 children and replied: "Quiet friend, I have many", and proceeded to slaughter a mutton which was then cooked and served at a large table organized in honor of the welcome American "guests". Conversely, the news of the rape of some Pashtun women by Soviet soldiers during the capture of Kandahar in the early 1980s caused the instant rebellion of all the tribes quartered on the outskirts of the city, which was then repressed only when the forces of the Red Army called in strategic bombers who bombed the rioters mercilessly. In this case it can be seen how in the Pashtun logic the honor of women (otherwise "beings" of absolute male property) is worth more than the life of children, who are not yet "adult men" do not have the same rights and duties of others.

Anyone who thinks that these are just nonsense or nonsense useful as a cultural exercise and nothing more, is making a very serious mistake. When in the aftermath of the events of 11 September, Western diplomats made contact with the Taliban to obtain the handover of Osama bin Laden and the leadership of al-Qaeda, instead of acting intelligently and demanding his head by referring precisely to the "Badal ”, Believing themselves strong and thinking that the Pashtuns would disappear from history like leaves in the wind in the face of the preponderant armies of the West, they began to threaten Mullah Omar who instead refused to make any concessions. The reason for this behavior was neither the madness nor the stubbornness of the Taliban leader, but the awareness that, by yielding to the threats of the foreigner, he would have precipitated the Pashtuns from a position of strength to one of subjection, furthermore contravening the principle of the "Nenawate". As Mullah Omar himself said to the Pakistani journalist (also of Pashtun ethnicity) Rahimullah Yusufzai:

"I don't want to be remembered in history as someone who betrayed a guest. I am determined to sacrifice my life, my regime. Since we have given him shelter, we cannot chase him away"

Although this speech does not make any sense to the ears of a Westerner, in reality in Pashtun logic it is crystal clear. In fact, if the Pashtuns fail to one of the indispensable foundations of their identity and accept a compromise to the bottom even on that, then what remains of them? They cannot in any way betray the one element (the Pashtunwali) that has kept them together (they, such a heterogeneous people, as we have seen above) throughout history. It would be as if the Jews abandoned the religion they inherited from their ancestors. If they did, they would lose both their identity and the only deterrent weapon they have not only towards external enemies but also among themselves. The result would be chaos and anarchy. This is why, in 2001, Mullah Omar did not hand over bin Laden to us; not to hurt us or out of kindness to his bulky guest, but in the long run to keep 60 million living Pashtuns united and ruled between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

We conclude here this quick examination of the Pashtuns and their peculiar culture to allow readers to better understand the social context of what is the dominant ethnic group of Afghanistan and the one that has always decided their destiny. In the next episode we will instead address the issue of the demographic of the country as a whole and the effect that the processes of modernization and transformation will have on this still largely archaic society and what could be the results in the short, medium and long term.

Photo: US DoD