Posted by: Christian | June 27, 2007

Pashtuns Must Have Their Revenge! Sometimes!

June 27, 2007.

With wonderful Rudyard Kiplingesque hyperbole the journalists and commentators of the West write about the Pashtun code of honour, or Pashtunwali, that requires family members to seek revenge for relatives that are killed. The concept of Badal, or revenge, means that every Pashtun who has lost a family member is on the warpath, bent on revenge.

        [Insert obligatory image of scary, hairy Pashtun man.]

                             Pashtun dude

So then how does Afghanistan function at all? What Pashtun hasn’t violently lost a relative? Is it possible that not every Pashtun male is lurking in the darkness, sharpening his knife or loading his AK-47 with fresh ammo? Do Pashtuns actually go on with their life without taking revenge? Has the media been exaggerating alleged aspects of Pashtun culture? Do I ask too many rhetorical questions?

I would venture a guess that if it was possible to do a quantitative analysis of revenge in Afghanistan, a researcher would find that few Pashtuns actually attempt revenge and even fewer attain it. But damn it, that whole Pashtunwali thing makes for an interesting article. And never mind that it is a wee bit Orientalist and sensationalist; Whatsisname at that there newspaper wants to tell you that Pashtuns are an unthinking bunch of maniacs bent on revenge, guided only by their basest emotions and incapable of logic, reason, forgiveness or pragmatism. I’m not going to cite any articles because there are so many to choose from, and not just from second-rate rags like [insert name of any newspaper in the world], but in quality sources such as The Economist and The Christian Science Monitor.

What those journalists are leaving out are the concepts of Nanawatay, Rogha, Nagha and Jirga. All these concepts are, in some form or another, tools for reconciliation, forgiveness, compensation, punishment or justice. And guess what? They are included in Pashtunwali along with Badal. So journalists have been a little bit selective in highlighting one particular part of the Pashtun honour code. And my God, are standards ever low for journalism these days (have they ever been high?) I would look to social scientists for a more thorough and honest view of Pashtun culture. You can start at this bibliography (pdf). Or for the lazy and/or disinterested I’ll go to a Thomas Barfield report and excerpt some passages in a manner that suits my bias:

Pashtuns […] who moved to large cities were even farther removed from the values of the Pashtunwali because there they were enmeshed in state systems of government that restricted autonomy and cash economies that valued money more than honor. [….] It is for this reason that examples of customary law as a living tradition are found mainly in the marginal areas of rural Afghanistan even though the ethos of the Pashtunwali is common to all rural Pashtuns.

What?! Rural and urban Pashtuns are different? What a revelation! [Sarcasm alert]. And Badal, that whole revenge thing, has a caveat:

Revenge (badal) is the means of enforcement by which an individual seeks personal justice for wrongs done against him or his kin group. It is this right and expectation of retaliation that lies at the heart of the Pashtunwali as a non-state legal system. Kill one of our people and we will kill one of yours; hit me and I will hit you back. While the community may recognize that acts such as theft, homicide or rape are wrong, it does not take collective responsibility for judging or punishing people who commit such acts. This is a right reserved to the victims. However, the Pashtunwali, local tradition, and public opinion do play a large role in structuring how, on whom, and where one may take revenge legitimately. It also lays out mechanisms for resolving such disputes through mediation or arbitration. Although lacking the power of adjudication that states take for granted, local communities can use social pressure to push for resolution of disruptive disputes, particularly in blood feuds where successive cycles of revenge attacks can only be brought to an end by the intervention of outside intermediaries.

State law codes depend on fines paid to the state and imprisonment to punish wrongdoers while Pashtun customary law is more concerned with questions of restitution. At a minimum this includes the return of goods stolen or their cash value in cases of theft, payments for wounds inflicted, or even arranging a marriage settlement and blood money in the case of a revenge killing. If a family is too poor or politically weak to carry out revenge on its own it may also seek community arbitration to end the conflict, though this may involve a loss of face. In either the case a maraka is held in which the judges set a blood price (nake or khun), traditionally 60,000 afs or about $1200. This money is paid to the victim’s family by the murderer’s family along with two sheep as a shame payment and an apology. In addition the victim’s family is receives an unmarried girl in marriage. Giving a girl in marriage serves two purposes: it provides a replacement for the life lost and binds the two families with a marital alliance that should act as a barrier to further hostilities.

Did I say caveat? I meant multiple significant caveats. So yes, the Pashtuns, being of the species Homo sapiens, actually have a complicated decision-making process that takes into consideration multiple factors. They are not robots programmed with Pashtunwali. They are capable of forgiveness and pragmatism.  

The way in which Western journalists invoke Pashtunwali is usually in the context of civilian casualties. I don’t have that big of a problem with this. Civilian casualties alienate and anger the local population and make counterinsurgency that much more difficult. The journalists may be exaggerating the threat of every male relative of each victim taking revenge, but at least I’m on the same page as them. Oh yeah, and its not nice to have innocent people killed (I love the passive voice).

My problem is when people reference Pashtunwali in a manner which frames Pashtuns as murderous savages beyond redemption, doomed to be forever backwards in their miserable reactionary villages (i.e., “Let’s just pack up and leave this country to its own devices”). It is essentially a tactic of vilifying Pashtuns and putting them outside the pale in order to justify a withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan (AKA “Abandonment”). It’s easier to abandon people when you see them as the savage “other.” 


  1. […] in the country.” Now, I’m no expert on Pashtunwali, but Afghanistanica made the very strong case back in June that it really isn’t as vicious, or necessarily all-powerful, as many […]

  2. […] in the country.” Now, I’m no expert on Pashtunwali, but Afghanistanica made the very strong case back in June that it really isn’t as vicious, or necessarily all-powerful, as many […]

  3. […] have provided appropriate, non-violent means of conflict resolution and justice, and it is only in recent decades, as we deliberately imported Saudi-style Salafism into the tribal regions, that things got out of […]

  4. […] about a group. The worst offenses are usually related towards discussing Pashtuns. You can read this entry at Afghanistanica that attacks false stereotyping of Pashtuns, for example. This quote from The Economist is […]

  5. […] One of the favorite tools is usually a grossly ill-informed discussion of Pashtunwali. I’ll skip that since it was already analyzed at Afghanistanica. […]

  6. […] or revenge, one of the tenets of Pashtunwali. I believe it to be mostly bunk. You can read my full argument here. Pashtunwali really needs a full assessment to show how parts of it are contradictory and how some […]


%d bloggers like this: