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The tribal mind

The Pakhtun tribes on both sides of the border are caught in the eye of the storm. In the present circumstances, it is important to know what Pakhtun tribes think about themselves, their leaders, the government functionaries who administer them, the world at large and how they conceptualise time and space. The archetype of the tribal people is that they are strange, unpredictable, hostile, annoyingly diverse, very traditional, parochial and mysterious.

Every society, more so the tribal, discriminates between two sorts of persons – the insiders and the outsiders. For the tribes the insiders are their own family, members of their own sub-tribe, tribe and people of other tribes in the same area. This, in sum, is tribalism. Next come people who are tribals like themselves in contiguous areas. Beyond this category are people whose culture places them unambiguously beyond the pale of the tribe. They are seen as outsiders. They are the political officers, development officers, the militia men and officers and, most importantly, foreigners. Relations with them may exist but are usually based on suspicion.

A foreign invasion is an extremely serious matter for every nation, particularly so for the Pakhtuns. While defending themselves they are not like other tribes in the world. The Pakhtuns have lived astride the route of imperial invasions and have dealt with many imperialists from Europe, Persia, Mongolia, Central Asia, the former Soviet Union, and currently the US and its many allies.

Neither are the Pakhtuns crazy warriors as is commonly believed. In truth, war is a sort of industry for them, since they have little else going for them apart from their indomitable spirit. For them war is a continuation of politics by other means just as Clausewitz characterised it. They fight to gain a better position in political negotiations. Negotiating with the Pakhtuns has its own kinetics. Their parleys are very long drawn. The dominant party will try to retain the transactional character of the relationship and not have the cutting edge of the bargain blunted by moral considerations or religion.

A second important theme in the tribal cognitive map is leadership. Tribesmen have traditionally recognised two kinds of leaders: a secular leader whom we call a ‘chief’ or a ‘Malik’ and a man of religious eminence or a ‘Mullah’. A ‘Malik’ is a man who is able to take care of his nang (honour) and who regards honour as a supreme value in social life. Honour entails the notion of competition and conflict. A man gets honour by demonstrating in various stylised ways that his rivals have less honour, that is to say, by shaming them when an opportunity arises. Heads of families, especially wealthy men of high birth, are all chiefs and they treat one another – when not in conflict – with a dignified formality and restraint.

In so far a man is a Malik, he is expected to protect the interests of his own followers against the rival chief and his followers. Leader-follower relations within a tribe have a fair degree of calculated self-interest. When the relationship extends to outsiders, the wariness hardens into suspicion and double dealing. Within the community the tribal understands the range of possible actions. Within those limits, he knows what his opponents will do because they share certain basic values.

To outsiders, however, none of these controls apply: official action is unpredictable, values are not shared and adjudication institutions are regarded as weapons to be used in the contest. Within the community, one looks carefully to see if the leader is fulfilling his side of the bargain. Outside the moral community one knows that a bargain will not be fulfilled and one must therefore insure oneself by anticipatory action.

And while a ‘language of cooperation’ does exist in the tribes, it is used between equals. Leaders do not appeal to their followers to pull together as a matter of moral obligation rather they offer them inducements (rewards or punishments) to do so. Outsiders cannot effectively ask for cooperation from the Pakhtun tribesmen. But they do so continuously. To the tribesmen this seems either opportunistic or something to be worried about. Maliks perform many roles, but are usually peacemakers and mediators, negotiating with the administration on behalf of the tribe. In this process they develop self-interests as well, which discredit them in the tribe. They are still tolerated though for want of a better alternative.

The second kind of brokers are those who use religious symbols. Tribesmen do not bargain with or exploit a saint. For most people the relationship is one of reverence. Tribesmen look more kindly on a man of religious eminence than a Malik. But like the Malik the ‘man of God’ too is looking after himself and his soul. He is respected and loved not for what he does for the community, but simply for what he is – a holy man. If with luck such a person is at hand then the job is easier to accomplish. The bigger the problem the higher the eminence required of such a man.

Negotiating peace is not a routine process in which all the steps are known and all contingencies anticipated. On the rare occasions when tribesmen enter this world voluntarily, they do so to get something out of it. If their expectations are not met, they withdraw. Only people who have a commitment to peace will persist in the face of disappointment and failure.

A Pakhtun tribesman has a free soaring spirit. He resents constraints, particularly those placed on him by an authority. This is why he resists the Frontier Crimes Regulations so much. His cause is taken up by the so-called liberals who understand nothing about the building blocks on which the tribal administration rests. The tribesman is loath to give up any tribal privileges in exchange for the change in or abolition of the FCR.

There is much that has changed in the Pakhtun tribal world, particularly the role of traditional Maliks after the onslaught of Taliban. There are many question marks about the future shape of this society, but one thing is for sure: there will be Maliks. Even the present day Taliban may become Maliks if they emerge stronger at the end. Traditional aspects continue to define the tribal mind. An outsider who strives to operate without an understanding of

the tribal mind may be a wonderful visionary or a blue-blooded missionary but acks the wherewithal to enter in a dialogue with complex tribesmen whose reactions and responses need to be seen in the context of an enduring framework of history and culture of the Pakhtun tribal world.

The writer is a former federal secretary and author of Fundamentalism, Musharraf and the Great Double Game in North-West Pakistan. Email: raufkkhattak@gmail.com

A. Rauf K. Khattak, "The tribal mind," The News. 2013-03-27.