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The last Great Tribe

Like Persians, Kurds and Tajiks, Pashtuns are a twig on the Iranian linguistic branch. Today there are two Pashtun dialects, a north dialect around Jalalabad and Peshawar, and the southern dialect around Kandahar and Quetta. Pashtuns live by the tribal code, Pashtunwali. Tribal council, adjudication of disputes, women’s rights, raising the militia, everything a Pashtun needs for right living is in the Pashtunwali. The resulting way of life is independent, egalitarian and quarrelsome. Pashtuns are hard to unite politically, but aggressive enough to annihilate or displace other peoples. Over centuries they have grown into perhaps 40 million people.

Islam arrived in 650, but Afghans already had Pashtunwali so they converted reluctantly, taking almost four hundred years. Even now, the Pashtun version of Islam looks suspiciously like Pashtunwali under a different name. The Taliban are a weird, backward puritan example of the hybrid.

Afghans were auxiliaries in Turkic, Indian or Persian armies for a thousand years, but didn’t form a kingdom of their own until 1750 when Ahmad Shah Durrani joined the tribes together. He launched a series of plunder raids from the Oxus to the Indus which established the hegemony of the Afghans, but created little in the way of administration. In the 1880s an Afghan in the model of Edward Long-Shanks arrived and forged a nation. Abdur Rahman, the Iron Amir, broke defiant Pashtun tribes, resettling them in the west and north, smashed and enslaved the Hazara and converted Kaffiristan, the last pagan holdout, to Islam by force.

Some Pashtuns, especially those in the valleys and towns, have taken up Dari, the language of the Tajiks, and learned to live with unrelated neighbors, which requires a dilution of the independence and ferocity of the Pashtunwali. Rural Pashtuns distain such "domesticated" Pashtuns, but this is the way of the future. A modern state requires law, taxes and submission to government. In exchange it provides freedom from endless brutality, poverty and ignorance.