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

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
March 30, 2004
By disrespecting Pashtun tribal culture in Afghanistan, the United
States may have failed to gain a vital ally in its search for al
Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, according to experts, including
National Geographic Adventure magazine's Robert Young

On a recent trip to Afghanistan, Robert Young Pelton went to visit a Pashtun tribal elder with whom he had spent time before.

This time the intrepid adventurer and author of The World's Most Dangerous Places brought with him a U.S. undercover military contractor stationed in Afghanistan to hunt for Osama bin Laden and other fugitives.

Pelton and his host, "Hajji"—a respected former mujahidin commander who fought the Soviet occupation in the 1980s—soon slipped into their thrice-daily pattern of long meals served on the floor, followed by endless cups of tea and hours of conversation through an interpreter.

The contractor, however, was uncomfortable. He refused the food: mutton, fresh bread, and a dish, specially prepared by Hajji's wife, of what appeared to be curdled milk with oil poured into it.

When the contractor finally left the room, Hajji turned to Pelton and asked, "What is wrong with your friend?"

In this tradition-bound society, the contractor had just committed a major cultural faux pas.

Pelton describes the episode in "Into the Land of bin Laden," his article in the April National Geographic Adventure magazine. He believes the scene illustrates how Americans have misread the Pashtun culture.

By disrespecting the Pashtun culture, the Americans have failed to gain a vital ally in their search for bin Laden and other suspected terrorists, Pelton says.

"Once you establish trust with the Pashtun elder, you can marry his daughter," Pelton said in a telephone interview. "But [the Americans] have failed to make connections with the tribal elders. We are not playing by their game."


The rugged and mountainous Pashtun tribal land where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding straddles the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which was drawn up by the British in 1893.

"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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