Posted by: Christian | August 28, 2008

The Vilification of Pashtuns

As I have seen it over the last few years, elements of certain groups have been consistently vilifying Pashtuns. The motivations are quite different, but the techniques are quite similar. These are the main sources that have been in my view (again, not monolithic blocs, but rather elements of these):

  1. Non-Pakhtun Pakistanis.
  2. Urban and/or non-Pashtun Afghan(istanis).
  3. The western political left.
  4. The western political right.

I’m not going to go into the Pakistan element since I am no expert on Pakistan (beyond a New York Times level of “expertise”). But it does seem that there are some Punjabis and Mohajirs who have a habit of making denigrating comments about Pakhtuns. Consult a Pakistan expert on the varied reasons for this.

Painting of a Pashtun man via PRAP:

As far as within Afghanistan goes, you can find a multitude of examples of ethnic bigotry on the internet going in both direction among Afghans, from and against Pashtuns. But that’s just the internet, you can find racism like this among Western kids on the internet as well. It’s in the non-internet media where the ethnic bigotry is most disturbing. It’s nowhere near the level that Rwanda’s Radio Mille Collines was, but still disturbing nonetheless.

Small elements of the non-Pashtun educated elite engage in ethnic politics as “ethnic grievance entrepreneurs.” Their portrayal of Pashtuns is of oppressors, uneducated/uncivilized barbarians, religious extremists and tools of foreign powers. The attempt is to tie in all past grievances (of incidents carried out by a small fraction of Pashtuns) to contemporary grievances and political mobilization strategies. There are, of course, legitimate grievances from both the past and present (on both sides). However, the level of hyperbole and the resulting dangers of ethnicizing politics need to be taken into account. This ethnic bigotry is, as many of you now, enthusiastically returned by a certain Pashtun nationalist political group. So the battle here is between organizations and elites, not between entire ethnic blocs of people.

The point I want to make about this back-and-forth is that I believe it is mostly irrelevant to the vast majority of Afghans. Macro-Ethnic based grievances are likely very low on the list of their priorities. But ethnic politics at the elite level will eventually harm all Afghans whether they want to be involved or not.

And from some urban Afghans, Pashtuns among them, I have heard denigrating comments about their rural Pashtun/Pakhtun “cousins.” It sounds a lot like the ignorant comments that some urban/coastal Americans and Canadians make about rural folks (i.e., inbred, racist, uneducated, backwards, gun-nuts, etc…).

As far as the West is concerned, I divide its anti-Pashtun rhetoric into political spheres: right and left. Elements of the right predominantly portray Pashtuns as murderous religious zealots on one side of a Manichean struggle between the West and Islam. This is where the “kick their ass and win” perspective is most common. And a new factor in this equation is the people who believe leaving Iraq will be a massive mistake. They see Afghanistan as in a competition with Iraq for resources and feel the need to portray Afghanistan as beyond redemption and Iraq as the more worthy cause. Hence the denigration of Pashtuns.

As far as certain elements of the left are concerned, their priority is to end Western military involvement in Afghanistan. One of the strategies here is to vilify Pashtuns and make them appear to be “beyond reformation,” forever frozen in their pre-modern state. During their battle for public opinion in the West they match their counterparts on the right in the viciousness of their portrayals of Pashtuns. It’s so much easier to wash your hands of a place and people when you view them as less human.

Both sides of the political equation are using techniques of isolationism for their purposes in this regard.

Pashtuns are often pictured in the media with a weapon:

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.

The point I would like to end with is that I believe these views are of a vocal minority. Their are significant levels of sympathy and respect for all people of Afghanistan from all sides of the political spectrum, from all parts of Pakistani and Afghan society. But those hateful voices are able to make themselves heard, even if they are in the minority.

There are some “excellent” examples of the sort of rhetoric I have mentioned above. I didn’t link to or excerpt them for two reasons: one is that I don’t feel like starting an online fight with these people (who live to start fights) and the other is that what I have written is not terribly original. Many people that read this will automatically call to mind examples of this sort of rhetoric. They may identity it as ethnic bigotry, racism, orientalism, Islamophobia, a modern anti-war version of revolutionary defeatism, leftist racism or selective strategic racism, but it is obviously out there on a daily basis.

Old school 1921: “They make excellent soldiers” plus “virile and warlike”:

Afghan Pathan

And I would also like to add that the vilification of Pashtuns is not always strategic. I’ve heard/read samples of NGO workers, journalists, soldiers and Afghans themselves making rude comments about Pashtuns in a manner that is not consistent with any coherent strategy. These remarks seem to be merely an exercise in venting or of self-esteem boosting by denigrating others.


  1. […] et heurts ethniques. Dans son dernier billet, le blog Ghosts of Alexander s’interroge sur les causes et les enjeux de la diffamation des Pachtounes dans l’affaire […]

  2. “Many people that read this will automatically call to mind examples of this sort of rhetoric.”

    Yeah, unfortunately. Heard it from the Left and the Right, and yes, usually with a very special isolationist streak.
    I don’t throw around that word often but to me that’s racism at its worst.

  3. Racism, perhaps but the Pashtun tribes in the southeast Afghanistan, FATA and NWFP are the backbone paramilitaries of the Taliban. Whether they fight to spread Hanbali Islam in its various sects or fight against extra tribal (GOA) intervention into intra-tribal affairs, they represent the bulk of the fighters. As such, they are subject to the bulk of analysis and commentary both admiring and derisive.

  4. Vilify me but I second Dave.
    Start with Heckmatyar, move to Sayyaf and then Haqqani, next come the Taliban and Islamic militants in FATA; much of what has been going on in the country has had touches of Pashtun involvement. With these characters and their ‘lashkars’ around, you shouldn’t expect other ethnic groups not to vilify Pashtuns.
    As for Pashtuns being above the law and norms, well, FATA has until recently been outside any Pakistani administrative and legislative authority and Pashtun appeasement has had a lot to do with longevity of any administration’s term.

    Get over it. About time Pashtuns stood up and started taking responsibility. As a definite and strong majority in Afghanistan, they are a dragging force. I would love to see at least a little more non-Islamist and non-nationalist Pashtuns…

  5. “Start with Heckmatyar, move to Sayyaf and then Haqqani, next come the Taliban and Islamic militants in FATA; much of what has been going on in the country has had touches of Pashtun involvement. With these characters and their ‘lashkars’ around, you shouldn’t expect other ethnic groups not to vilify Pashtuns.”

    Yes, I expect people to vilify Hekmatyar, Sayyaf and the Taliban. But no, I do not think that it’s justified that Pashtuns’ reputations should be based on these characters. Same goes for Dostum and Uzbeks or Bacha Saqao and Tajiks.

    “Get over it. About time Pashtuns stood up and started taking responsibility. As a definite and strong majority in Afghanistan, they are a dragging force. I would love to see at least a little more non-Islamist and non-nationalist Pashtuns…”

    A) Pashtuns should pull themselves up by their bootstraps?
    B) They are a plurality, not a majority.
    C) The majority of Pashtuns are neither Islamists nor nationalists. If the reverse were true Hizb/Ettehad/etc and Afghan Mellat would be much more popular.

  6. Christian,

    Excellent post.

    I see a constant trend, particularly in the West, to oversimplify the Pashtun. Whatever the base motivation is for this oversimplification, the end result is an unfair vilification of Pashtuns.

    I am in Afghanistan and I work with Pashtuns on a daily basis. (I also work with Nuristani, Tajik and Hazara.)

    My anecdotal, first-hand experience says that:
    a) the vast majority are just as disgusted with the excesses of the Taliban and Al Qaeda as the rest of us
    b) they are not ignorant or stupid, nor are the majority fanatics

    Tribal cultures are far more complex than we in the West give them credit for. There are so many subtle relationships between all the various Pashtun tribes that when you start looking closely, an interesting and varied cultural tapestry emerges that is not strange at all. In fact, it has many similarities to the Celtic culture of the Scottish Highlanders.

    One of my Pashtun colleagues read a book I offered him about Scotland. He came back wide-eyed and excited about the similarities between Scottish clans and Pashtun tribes.

    But appart from “romantic” notions, most Westerners do not understand tribe/clan based social systems, so they immediately denigrate them.

    In Afghanistan, NOTHING is as clear-cut or simple as it first seems.

  7. no doubt, pashtuns are the majority in Afghanistan, they are always the ruler class, they are capable in every sphere of life, they have the capacity of to build their lot, they are zealous etc.

    But what is the need to comment so, why not to inject a feeling of oness, unity, fraternity etc.
    I would prefere to say Afghans are all the same whatever they are, however they do. they know what to do and how to do if they are let alone away from foreign interference and other enthnic discriminations.

  8. Dear Christian,

    I never comment on any articles regarding Afghanistan, Afghans and Pashtuns in particular. The reason being is that none of these articles carry any weight and therefore does not seem worthy of a comment. Your article/thread seems little closer to the truth and balanced. There is so much about Pashtuns and its culture that the whole western world is ignorant of. I do not want to touch on any of these issues here. But I would like to let you know and ask you a question. What is the probability of an enemy writing good things and the truth about its enemy? If you look at every single analysis of Pashtuns and history books on Pashtuns, you will find out that majority of these writings has been done by Indians, Pakistanis (Punjabis), Iranians, Russians, Brits, minority groups in Afghanistan and now Americans and French. And you need to look at the dealings that Pashtuns had and has with these groups of people. You will find out that many of these groups have and had bitter relations with Pashtuns. Thus, their historical touches do not carry strong weight and they are victim of history distortion.

    P.S. to those who thinks that fighting against coalition forces and Pakistani forces is a grave crime and an act of terrorism, then you are either ill informed or part of that very same coalition and time will tell, who is running from the battle field with it’s tale between their legs.



  9. Im am myself half pashtoon and half german and, pashtoons are very urban and open minded people the media show them like barbaric animals. Obviously my father is a open-minded person since he married a german :p, but man racisim just sucks. Pashtoons are the majority in Afghanistan and I think it’s time for them to stand up!


    Eva Yasmeen

  10. Awesome post Christian, as a pashtun born canadian, i wish all the best of luck, and hopefully all the ignorance on the picture of pashtun will disapear one day. This is a war of propoganda, and it has been on for hundreds of years.

  11. […] The Vilification of Pashtuns […]

  12. Hi..I My Name is Muhammad Sohail Khan…I am Pukhtoon Lived and born in Peshawar…as i read a above article..These r all the Propegandas to Pukhtoons..Phukhtoons r not like that as they Skhetch..They r Open minded…As they taught that in afghanistan why is Taliban…So simple answer of this is that if some one attack ur country or home so u will defend it..even if some one attack our countery..I will also fight for it…Afghanistan is Thier country So defend thier country…we had not way to object on them that what they do….In short a pukhtoons is very Religious, braved,hospitables adn many more qualityies in pukhtoons…

  13. The big question is why do these Pashtuns not live in their homes? Afandyar Ali Khan tells that 6,000,000 Pashtuns live in Karachi. One wonders why? Why don’t they live at home? Is there are problem back home? Lets think and anlalyse why this happens.

    Pashtuns have made their area out of bounds to others. NO body can go their and drive a taxi. If he does that he will be murdered if he is not a Pashtun. Similarly no one can open a shop if he is not a Pashtun.

    In conditions like those who wants to go there and invest and develop. The result is people have no avocation. There are no jobs. So they move out. And weapons is their attire they say. They go not to nearby Islamabad or Lahore but to far away over 1,200 miles to Karachi.

    They are not allowed in Punjab or even Baluchistan but enter the beautiful place of Karachi and with their mindset try to convert that area also as the ungoverned area.

    For God’s sake develop your own area and live with peace with others.

  14. See how this uneducated Shahi Syed spitting venom and inciting people to violence. They go to the far off Karachi and do this. Their language no one can understand. Their own place they have not made it worth living.

  15. Peshawar Lawyers

    Peshawar ungoverned

    Israel’s lost tribe



    Pashtun Pride

    Shahi Syed Venom

    Shazia Batool


  16. Mr Ezbe

    Keep your IMmigrant Terrorist MQM mouth shut

    i can send links of 1000000 videos of ur terrorist MQM whos godfather is hiding in the good ol Britain!

    U terrorise people who r not mojjahirs, we dnt undestand what the hell u have contributed to Pakistan besides coming in the Millions and ruling the criminal trade there

    clean ur own house before u speak of others

    u r not representatives of sindh, ur a Immigrant from India!

  17. Asalam Alaikum
    Pukhtano ronro mung yaw tehreek shoro kere de “Dr. Khan Tehreek” da pukhtano da yawale aw tarakaye dapara ke chare tasu zamung kar katal ghwarayae no de web bande zamung pegham shta

    M. Idrees Khan
    Finance Secretary
    Dr. Khan Tehreek
    Peshawar 0092912592534

  18. Dear Cristian

    i really loved your article i would like to translate it to Pashto and Publish it again in some Pashtun web pages and my own group at face book which is called Pashtun National Unity Group please visit by and tell me if i can translate your article.


  19. There is so much mis information.
    In Peshawar most, the provincial capital, most businesses are run by non_Pashtun mostly because Pashtun are not very business minded.
    The “Bandookwalla’s” are Gujarati’s who sell guns to the Pashtun, and Sadar bazaar is full of shops owned by non Pashtuns.
    In Kabul most of the money changers were/are Sikhs and or Hindu’s.
    In Swat such a large population was Sikh that during the recent Pakistan army “action” – world sikh leaders descended on Mardan to help with Aid to this community – Sikh leaders came from Canada and Australia.
    In South Waziristan, the central Pashtun territory under attack today, the capital is called Kaniguram – not a Pashtun name, but a Hindu city name.
    NWFP was at Partition time the ONLY congress party ruled province in Muslim majority area and for this fact we have been branded ‘traitors’ by all Pakistani’s from day one.
    Hekmatyar was a nobody till the CIA gave him millions to build his own army. The same for Sayyaf and Haqqani. Through the ISI the CIA created the LARGEST covert operation in its history (source: The Charlie Wilson’s War).
    First some one creates a Frankenstein, then blames Frankenstein for what he is doing.
    What BS is this?
    Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. There is one country on Earth which we know, because of its wonderful freedom of the Press, to have committed atrocities all over the world.
    Source: “Killing Hope” – the book, but check out the web site.

    Most people are familiar of the carnage of My Lai, the senseless killings in the name of an exaggerated communist threat.
    What threat did Grenada pose? Or Panama?
    Or Chile?
    Do we forget about Abu Ghraib so easily? Or the black nameless prisons in other countries? Gitmo with teen inmates?
    The entire American Muslim population being vilified daily on Fox news?
    Pat Robertson calling our Prophet all kind of nasty names, pedophile because of his marriage to Bibi Ayesha, murderer for the wars of self protection he conducted, anti-Semitic, even as he was a Semite himself, and much worse.

    Here is a complete list:

    1. China – 1945 to 1960s: Was Mao Tse-tung just paranoid?
    2. Italy – 1947-1948: Free elections, Hollywood style
    3. Greece – 1947 to early 1950s: From cradle of democracy to client state
    4. The Philippines – 1940s and 1950s: America’s oldest colony
    5. Korea – 1945-1953: Was it all that it appeared to be?
    6. Albania – 1949-1953: The proper English spy
    7. Eastern Europe – 1948-1956: Operation Splinter Factor
    8. Germany – 1950s: Everything from juvenile delinquency to terrorism
    9. Iran – 1953: Making it safe for the King of Kings
    10. Guatemala – 1953-1954: While the world watched
    11. Costa Rica – Mid-1950s: Trying to topple an ally – Part 1
    12. Syria – 1956-1957: Purchasing a new government
    13. Middle East – 1957-1958: The Eisenhower Doctrine claims another backyard for America
    14. Indonesia – 1957-1958: War and pornography
    15. Western Europe – 1950s and 1960s: Fronts within fronts within fronts
    16. British Guiana – 1953-1964: The CIA’s international labor mafia
    17. Soviet Union – Late 1940s to 1960s: From spy planes to book publishing
    18. Italy – 1950s to 1970s: Supporting the Cardinal’s orphans and techno-fascism
    19. Vietnam – 1950-1973: The Hearts and Minds Circus
    20. Cambodia – 1955-1973: Prince Sihanouk walks the high-wire of neutralism
    21. Laos – 1957-1973: L’Armée Clandestine
    22. Haiti – 1959-1963: The Marines land, again
    23. Guatemala – 1960: One good coup deserves another
    24. France/Algeria – 1960s: L’état, c’est la CIA
    25. Ecuador – 1960-1963: A text book of dirty tricks
    26. The Congo – 1960-1964: The assassination of Patrice Lumumba
    27. Brazil – 1961-1964: Introducing the marvelous new world of death squads
    28. Peru – 1960-1965: Fort Bragg moves to the jungle
    29. Dominican Republic – 1960-1966: Saving democracy from communism by getting rid of democracy
    30. Cuba – 1959 to 1980s: The unforgivable revolution
    31. Indonesia – 1965: Liquidating President Sukarno … and 500,000 others
    East Timor – 1975: And 200,000 more
    32. Ghana – 1966: Kwame Nkrumah steps out of line
    33. Uruguay – 1964-1970: Torture — as American as apple pie
    34. Chile – 1964-1973: A hammer and sickle stamped on your child’s forehead
    35. Greece – 1964-1974: “Fuck your Parliament and your Constitution,” said
    the President of the United States
    36. Bolivia – 1964-1975: Tracking down Che Guevara in the land of coup d’etat
    37. Guatemala – 1962 to 1980s: A less publicized “final solution”
    38. Costa Rica – 1970-1971: Trying to topple an ally — Part 2
    39. Iraq – 1972-1975: Covert action should not be confused with missionary work
    40. Australia – 1973-1975: Another free election bites the dust
    41. Angola – 1975 to 1980s: The Great Powers Poker Game
    42. Zaire – 1975-1978: Mobutu and the CIA, a marriage made in heaven
    43. Jamaica – 1976-1980: Kissinger’s ultimatum
    44. Seychelles – 1979-1981: Yet another area of great strategic importance
    45. Grenada – 1979-1984: Lying — one of the few growth industries in Washington
    46. Morocco – 1983: A video nasty
    47. Suriname – 1982-1984: Once again, the Cuban bogeyman
    48. Libya – 1981-1989: Ronald Reagan meets his match
    49. Nicaragua – 1981-1990: Destabilization in slow motion
    50. Panama – 1969-1991: Double-crossing our drug supplier
    51. Bulgaria 1990/Albania 1991: Teaching communists what democracy is all about
    52. Iraq – 1990-1991: Desert holocaust
    53. Afghanistan – 1979-1992: America’s Jihad
    54. El Salvador – 1980-1994: Human rights, Washington style
    55. Haiti – 1986-1994: Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?

    And now people are worried that Muslims want to take over the world?
    Have you forgotton the Colonial period? Was that Muslims subjugating millions of people under inhumane condition?
    In India alone the Brits would tie an unruly blackie to the end of a cannon, and blow him off at morning in Public to persuade others to be docile and compliant.
    Please do not assume all readers here are illiterate, the first crusade after all was declared by the Holy Pope. Another Pope was the great denier of the Holocaust.
    So please give our large post-colonial masses a break, I am sure they would be better world citizens if they had your level of education which was denied to them because educated people do not make good slaves, as the South well knew.


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