History is replete with instances of colonial powers imposing their culture on a subjugated people in the lofty name of “civilization” or “manifest destiny.” From our Western point of view—if we’re honest—imperial conquest has been a mixed blessing. Living in a 21st-century pluralistic society, we in the United States understandably look askance at the hubris of our forbears. However, even the more liberal among us must admit that certain practices, such as sati, in which a widow in rural India demonstrates her piety by throwing herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, or female genital mutilation in the Horn of Africa, are cultural practices that the British Empire and other Western powers rightly opposed. Whether or not the United States is an empire in the traditional meaning of the term is debatable, but an understanding and familiarity with the local culture is necessary if we want to be successful in those regions of the world where we have a military commitment.
By culture, I mean the habits and customs of a people in a particular country or region that have built up over time, most notably language and religion and other prevailing assumptions that dictate social relationships and gender roles. To elucidate how an appreciation of a culture can serve our military interests abroad, I would like to focus on Afghanistan. The country consists of an ethnic patchwork that includes above all the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras. For the purpose of discussion, I will single out the Pashtuns because they form the ethnic base of the Taliban. Most of the insurgency our military faces today occurs in the southern and eastern parts of the country, a swath of difficult terrain that forms part of Pashtunistan (“land of the Pashtuns”). The other part spills over into Pakistan, for the Pashtuns have never recognized the arbitrary boundary line that the British drew up in the late 19th century. The Pashtuns, which include President Hamid Karzai and Mullah Omar, live by a moral and legal code that establishes the ways people should interact with one another. Seth G. Jones, author of In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan, explains that this code, Pashtunwali, “determines social order and responsibilities and governs such key components as honor, solidarity, hospitality, mutual support, shame, revenge.”
Pashtunwali is a funny-sounding word, but any organization working to secure or rebuild Afghanistan’s infrastructure—from humanitarian relief organizations to NATO and the U.S. military—must become familiar with it. Counterinsurgency, in other words, requires a commitment to learning the complexities of tribal culture. Bridging the cultural chasm that separates us from the civilian populace involves working within its prescribed limits.
We should understand that Islam and certain aspects of Pashtun culture do not always mesh. The distinction between religious ideology and regional customs can offer us opportunities to discourage people from following militants. Journalist Gretchen Peters in her book Seeds of Terror: How Drugs, Thugs, and Crime are Reshaping the Afghan War, for instance, exposes the lie that Taliban leaders often give to justify the trafficking of drugs. They claim that the Qur’an allows Muslims to make money off opium for the purpose of jihad; however, the Qur’an makes no such exception. To the contrary, Islam forbids the cultivation and production of narcotics. In this sense, as Peters writes, Islam’s holy text “can be an ally in the war against drugs.” Moreover, militants say that the selling of drugs is permissible so long as infidels are the ones buying and using the stuff. In reality, drug addiction is rampant in Muslim countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. The Taliban and other networks opposed to the United States rely heavily on drug money to fund their weapons and training. Our counterinsurgency efforts should expose such lies by broadcasting the truth over the radio and spreading the word through civil affairs teams and their translators. Unless we are willing to negotiate the rough terrain of Pashtun culture, we’ll never thwart the influence of the Taliban and convince people that our intentions are good.