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 Pelton.

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.

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