Meet the Pashtuns, the Afghani tribe who rule Pakistan's'wild west'

Residents of the plush suburb of Hayatabad in Peshawar city in north western Pakistan thought the war in neighbouring Afghanistan…

Residents of the plush suburb of Hayatabad in Peshawar city in north western Pakistan thought the war in neighbouring Afghanistan had come to their doorsteps this week. Shortly after midnight on Thursday they were awoken by a loud outburst of artillery fire.

But the clash with rockets and machine guns, which left three people reportedly dead and 12 injured, did not come from warring factions beyond the Afghan border only 30 km away. Instead, it was the escalation of a long-running dispute between Pashtun tribes in Jamrud in the nearby Khyber tribal zone.

Such dramatic confrontations are not uncommon in the lands of the Pashtun people, one of the world's largest tribal groups who trace their origins to back to Afghanistan. Most of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban belong to this ethnic and linguistic community, and the deep cross-border affinity explains why hoards of Pakistani Pashtuns have been beating a path to the frontier to take up arms against America.

The Pashtuns are a people apart; proud, loyal and fiercely independent, living by their own strict and bloody male-centred moral code, Pashtunwali.


They are steeped in a political culture of guns and violence. Many Pakistani Pashtuns live in reserve-like areas called tribal agencies in two western frontier provinces where state law holds no sway and entry by undocumented and unescorted foreigners is strictly prohibited. Areas outside the seven tribal agencies are known as "settled".

The agencies are overseen by political agents who act as middlemen between the provincial governments and the Pashtun elders, or maliks, of up to 60 different tribes of varying sizes. Like the British imperial authorities before them, the Pakistani state has been unable to tame the Pashtuns. Smuggling, drug dealing and arms manufacturing are an integral part of life in the tribal belts, parts of which are mountainous and inaccessible.

"You must highlight that these are not people who can be defeated by America in days or weeks," explains Jan Badshah, a Pashtun from the settled Charsadda district, an all-Pashtun area outside Peshawar.

"Why is America making the same mistake as the Russians and the British?" he asks, referring to unsuccessful attempted conquests of Afghanistan by the two nations in recent decades and previous centuries.

In the Pushtu language, the name Pashtun denotes honour, goodness, bravery, loyalty and dignity. Pashtuns are renowned and respected fighters and will battle to the death over three things: wealth, women and land. Inter-familial or tribal vendettas can continue for decades. To fail to avenge a wrong is seen as cowardice and there is a Pashtun saying that revenge is a dish which tastes better cold.

Seated in the rear of his crammed bookshop in Charsadda, Badshah explains how the Pashtun moral code works, preceding Pakistani law even in settled areas. He cites the recent example in the neighbouring Sardheri area of a property feud in which five people from warring families were murdered. A traditional council of elders, or jirga, was formed to resolve the dispute through negotiations. Both sides swore ceremonially on the Muslim holy book, the Koran, to observe the jirga's ruling. The jirga also negotiated with the Pakistani authorities to drop the murder charges against the assailants. "It's a form of informal society control at village level which leads to a speedy 'trial' and avoids more conflict," he said.

At its most extreme, Pashtunwali dictates that a man is duty bound to defend the honour of women in his family or clan which may be violated by as little as an unwelcome lingering glance. Such "honour killings," though less common now than formerly, still occur. If a woman commits adultery or elopes, both she and her male accomplice must die.

The moral code also enshrines a principle of hospitality and protection of guests, and this extends even to enemies under one's roof who surrender their arms upon entering and come under the host's protection.

"If you look at the Afghanistan crisis, Osama bin Laden is a guest of the Taliban and the Afghan nation who are protecting their guest. People are now dying there but the Afghan people still protect him," says Badshah.

"If somebody killed a person who disgraced their guest, by Pakistani law he is a criminal. As far as we are concerned we do not consider him a criminal because he is upholding our norms."

The entrance to the Khyber tribal agency is through a busy checkpoint on the western outskirts of Peshawar. A faded notice in white with red lettering states that entry to foreigners is not permitted.

The barrier divides in two the sprawling smugglers' market, Karkhano Bazaar. On the "settled" side are cluttered shops stocked with tax free refrigerators, cigarettes, toiletries and electronic goods which are stored in bulk in houses in the tribal areas. Beyond the barrier in the tribal belt are stalls selling hashish and firearms, ranging from pistols to Kalashnikovs.

The Khyber Agency takes in the Khyber Pass which stretches through the Suleiman mountains to the Afghan-Pakistan border and has long been a key gateway between the two nations. This enigmatic landscape, once traversed by Scythian warriers and Greek troops, is populated mostly by the Afridi and Shinwari tribes, which also extend into Afghanistan. Small stone army-forts and flat-roofed fortress-like houses pepper the area's barren hills. Brightly decorated lorries crawl along the winding dusty roads while men and boys play cricket or stroll casually along the dusty roads with Kalashnikovs draped casually over their shoulders.

Foreigners can only travel this road with an armed escort and a permit which strictly prohibits them from diverging from the main route or moving around before sunrise and after sunset. Pakistani law gives way to tribal law not far from the main road and non-Pashtuns risk being kidnapped for ransom in remote areas.

In a high-profile case six years ago, a Pakistan tax official was kidnapped by tribal people in the Khyber Agency who demanded the release of their jailed colleagues and claimed he owed them money. Mr Yunis Abid, a diabetic, was eventually released, but subsequently found dead.

Mr Abdul Lateef Afridi is a lawyer living in Peshawar who grew up in the remote northerly Maidan region of the Khyber Agency.

As his name indicates, he is a member of the Afridi tribe, which also boasts among its ranks a multi-millionaire drug smuggler and money counterfeiter currently in custody in Karachi. This malik's family still live in a lavish, heavily fortified house visible from the main road through the Khyber Pass. Local legend has it that he once boasted that he would clear Pakistan's international loans if he were allowed access to its airports to transport narcotics.

Lateef Afridi points out that the overwhelming adherence of his people to Pashtunwali means that general crime is much lower in tribal areas than in "settled" areas.

He says: "In Anglo-Saxon law here if several people are accused of an offence and one confesses, it has no binding effect on the other co-accused. In tribal areas the Pashtun principle is that the confession of one co-accused, unless proven to have been motivated by malice, will implicate the others. Therefore theft and other crimes are rare."

The lawless "wild west" image of the tribal areas is only to be expected of people who are cut off from mainstream society and barely educated, says Mr Afridi.

"We were wild tribes and we still have that wildness because in 100 years the British could hardly influence one per cent of the population," he says. "Pakistan, during the 54 years since its creation, could hardly educate more than five per cent of the people. The literacy rate is seven per cent, including people who can just sign their signatures. What do you expect of such people? Won't they be wild and violent and only know arms?"