Bin Laden Hunt Hurt by U.S. Disrespect of Afghans, Experts Say

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"It's an imaginary line designed to separate the Pashtun people down the middle," Pelton said. "The Pashtuns are not really under the jurisdiction of either Afghanistan or Pakistan. It's a lawless area like a sovereign nation."

It's a region that has repeatedly repulsed foreigners bent on domination, from the British more than a hundred years ago to the Soviets in the 1980s. Osama bin Laden was one of the scores of Arabs who went there to fight the Soviet occupation, and stayed.

Now U.S. military forces are occupying this same tribal land. Some believe they are making the same mistakes as the previous occupiers.

"I guarantee you that Americans will not succeed," Hajji tells Pelton in the story. "They have turned away from the tribal elders and made bad friends."

Most of the Pashtun elders supported the Taliban, the extremist Islamic regime that was driven out of power by a U.S. military campaign following the 9/11 terror attacks. But while the Taliban was made up primarily of Pashtun people, it was controlled by members of the Wahhabi sect, a Saudi-backed group of Muslim puritans.

Today both U.S. and Afghan forces are routinely attacked by Arab fighters and remnants of the Taliban regime.

Code of Honor

The Pashtun culture is guided by a code of honor called Pashtunwali. Among the system's tenets are the jirga (council of elders), a punishment system based on revenge, hospitality, and sanctuary, which says Pashtun should provide protection to someone who has taken refuge with them.

The Pashtun tradition of offering sanctuary partly explains why many Pashtun are reluctant to give up Osama bin Laden—assuming he is in fact among them.

"If they have given sanctuary to people who came to them during the Afghan war, they must abide by that," said Saeed Shafqat, a Pakistani expert on Pashtun military and cultural issues. "It becomes an issue of honor."

The Pashtun tradition of taking revenge may further complicate U.S. efforts.

Some U.S. bombing raids have killed civilians. In the Pashtun culture, if someone kills your family member, you have inherited a duty to take revenge. Also, a wrong that has been done to one person is considered to have been committed against the entire tribe.

"It's like the old Wild West, where honor, revenge, rivalry, and gunfights were a way of life," said Shafqat, who currently teaches at Columbia University in New York City. "In a family dispute, you had to stand up to defend your manly honor."

Squandering Goodwill

Pelton says the lawlessness of the region also fuels the mistrust of outsiders. The rugged mountain land is rife with smuggling, drug trafficking, and kidnappings. If a stranger shows up, Pelton says, "He's usually up to no good."

"Like any tribal society, it's a protective mechanism that keeps people who shouldn't be there out and welcomes and protects people who are there to help them," he said.

Visitors must pass a form of low-tech credentials check—while eating dinners and drinking tea, sometimes for days—before Pashtuns will warm up to them. Outsiders who show up unannounced and without referrals are met with mute stares.

Pelton believes the United States has squandered the goodwill that it generated after toppling the strict Taliban, which many Afghans despised. One of the problems, he says, is that experienced U.S. military personnel who understood Pashtun cultural nuances have been rotated out of Afghanistan and replaced with people less in tune with the local customs.

"We stopped listening to what the Afghans were telling us, and we started imposing our own sense of law and order," Pelton said. "We shifted our system away from cultivating relationships with people who are in a position to help us to a system of payoffs and informants."

Pelton believes raising the U.S. government's bounty on Osama bin Laden from 25 to 50 million dollars illustrates cultural ignorance of the Pashtun people.

"If bin Laden is a criminal, and he killed thousands of people, why do we need to pay someone 50 million dollars to turn him in?" Pelton asked. "To the Pashtuns, that's an insult."

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