How to Negotiate Like a Pashtun


(Foreign Policy)

Ambassador Munter Attends Pashtun Tribal Jirga in Quetta in 2011

photo by U.S. Embassy in Pakistan

by Jonah Blank

June 4, 2013

A field guide to dealing with the Taliban.

The Taliban spokesman tried to make himself so clear that even the most dimwitted foreigner could understand. “The government has failed to stop drone strikes,” he said, after an American attack killed the deputy to the Pakistani Taliban's leader this week, “so we decided to end any talks with the government.” The regime in question was the new leadership in Islamabad — but the message was also intended for the Taliban's ultimate negotiating partner: Washington.

For the past decade, American policy in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) has relied on overwhelming military force and unimaginable sums of money. Even with a peak of 100,000 troops and $100 billion a year, the results have been, at best, underwhelming. Can we do better with only a small fraction of these resources? We'll have to: By the end of 2014, the U.S. military presence could be as small as 3,000 personnel, with the accompanying financial commitment shrinking exponentially. Whether our goal is counterterrorism, promotion of regional stability, or merely an orderly withdrawal of forces, America will soon be playing “Let's Make A Deal.” Can we learn the Afghan rules of this game?

We can, and we must, but it's far from certain that we will. Much ink has been spilled on such topics as counterinsurgency doctrine, population protection, and how best to use the pashtunwali code to discredit the Taliban. The end result, however, has generally been a policy geared towards an Afghanistan that exists mainly in our imagination. In that land, friendship can be bought, respect can be seized, and agreements made under duress are binding even after their basic premises have been turned upside-down. This would be a convenient place to conduct a war — but it isn't Afghanistan.

Fortunately, the rules by which Afghans (and particularly Pashtuns) forge durable pacts may be difficult to master, but they are quite comprehensible. As a cultural anthropologist, I suggest one key guideline to help understand the societal meaning of Afghan negotiation: Every deal is precisely as strong as the relationship on which it is built.

A better appreciation of this concept won't transform intractable problems to easy ones, but it will save policy planners from many unnecessary headaches. It will help differentiate the straightforward deals from the complicated ones, and the complicated from the impossible. And, best of all, it leads to a paradoxically optimistic conclusion: The coming drawdown might actually help the United States form the type of strong relationships that are the foundation-stone of every lasting deal in Afghanistan. An understanding of a few key points can help Americans become better negotiators:

A Pashtun deal is NOT a transaction. Americans view a deal in coldly contractual terms: You give me this, I give you that in return, we shake hands and may never see each other again. Americans buy cars from complete strangers and refinance houses with banks that are bankrupt. This can be done because there is trust in the overall system: rule of law, functioning courts, policemen accountable to the public rather than the local warlord. The system gives Americans the confidence to entrust their credit card numbers to call centers staffed by prison inmates. (You didn't know that? Yes, it's true.) But in Pashtun society, this confidence has never come from the government. The law that matters is pashtunwali: a traditional system that relies on interlocking webs of deep relationships in order to function. Pashtun life is all about multigenerational relationships: I benefit from the reputational seed-corn stored up by my grandfather's grandfather, and if I live my life well, I'll amass enough family honor to feed my grandchildren's grandchildren. To make stronger deals, Americans must learn to forge better relationships.

“A deal is for now, not forever.” This saying was relayed to me by the anthropologist Charles Lindholm, who conducted fieldwork among Pashtun of Pakistan's Swat Valley. Every Pashtun deal is merely the memorialization of the status quo at a given time — if the underlying premises change, the deal itself inevitably changes, too. Every agreement is based on a personal relationship, and every Pashtun relationship is an organic thing. It's like a fragile plant that must be constantly watered, and without careful attention every relationship not based on bloodlines (sometimes even those) will wither and die. As an American official based in southern Afghanistan put it, “A deal is a data point.”

The currency that matters is honor. Money is a good thing to have in every society, but for Pashtuns it is useful primarily as a means of increasing one's izzat. This term is often translated as “honor,” but a more precise description might be “good name” or “how I am seen by people who matter.” A deal that increases the izzat of a tribal elder is more likely to be kept than one which merely makes him look like a foreigner's bought-off stooge. Wali Shaaker, a Pashtun who has served as a translator for NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, explains the concept: “If I break a deal with a foreigner, he may bad-mouth me to far-away people whom I'll never meet.” But nearly every Pashtun family has kin who are Taliban — kin who will talk about these actions for decades to come. If a deal with an American comes into conflict with obligations of blood, Shaaker says, “It's a no-brainer to decide which tie gets broken.”

If we can't count on our partners to uphold their deals, why bother with negotiation at all? Many Americans, quite understandably, despair of forging any meaningful agreements in Afghanistan — particularly with the Taliban, whether at a local or national level. American relationships will almost always be fairly weak, and the drawdown deprives the United States of the only three elements (power, money, and time) that, if used judiciously, might permit durable ties not based on kinship to be forged. The United States can certainly do far more to avoid unnecessarily weakening its relationships (for example, by avoiding needless slights and careless affronts to our partners' izzat), but it will never have the generations-long relationships built up even by widely-disliked outside players, such as Pakistan's ISI. Is the only choice left just to shut up and get out?

Quite the contrary: Odd as it may sound, the thinned-out U.S. position may actually help Americans forge better deals. Overwhelming military power and economic bounty have not permitted prior empires to dominate Pashtun lands for long. Will bigger guns, more advanced technology and richer treasuries secure Pashtun cooperation? Go ask the Soviets or the British, the Mughals or the Safavids. Here are a few causes for optimism about the potential efficacy of a lighter touch:

A smaller footprint may win Americans more friends. Traditional Pashtun society is a bit like a mob-dominated town, with local leaders subtly competing against their rivals to be seen as the godfather of the community. When anyone has a problem that needs fixing, he must plead his case (and owe a debt) to the local patron. For the past decade, ISAF lieutenant colonels have unwittingly seized this role, with the American commander in Kabul playing the part of the capo di tutti capi. Even the 27-year-old captain of an infantry company has far more money in his Commander's Emergency Response Program piggybank (not to mention far more firepower) than the Pashtun elder who had previously been the Big Man in Town. This displaced khan used to be able to demonstrate his status by arming his supporters with Kalashnikovs and donating a dozen goats for sacrifice at Eid. Think he's been happy at his demotion? Think he hasn't been letting his Taliban cousins store IED components in a secret cache within his compound? A smaller U.S. footprint will let this khan resume his role as community patron — and perhaps deal with Americans on a ground less fraught with humiliation.

More money, more problems. The great Danish ethnographer Fredrik Barth noted that as recently as the middle of the 20th century, Pashtun society was largely cashless. Trade carried the same taint as it did in medieval Europe; taking a salary was equivalent to becoming a servant, and no self-respecting tribal chieftain would demean himself by accepting a government position. Much has changed, but not all: Despite the oceans of cash that have flowed through Afghanistan (and the unquenchable appetite for it displayed by many Pashtuns), there remains a distaste for being seen as a “bought” man. When, as a U.N. official in Kandahar in the 1990s, Thomas Gouttierre sought to forge working relationships with Taliban officials, he found a constant stream of small gifts — simple gestures of respect, the water that nurtures a growing plant — far more effective than any large pay-offs. Now, in an era of drastically shrinking budgets, the United States may find that friendship is much less expensive than dominance — and a better basis for deal-making.

Fewer guns, more glory. A central element of izzat is bravery, and true courage (in Pashtun terms) requires a degree of recklessness. There is no honor in simply possessing more power than a rival. Pashtuns see our Apache gunships, they hear our Hellfire-armed Reaper drones, they don't even sense our F-18 fighter jets until after the bombs have reached their targets — and they regard all of this as evidence that we haven't got the courage to meet them in a “fair” fight. They believe that one Pashtun is as good a fighter as 10 Americans or Russians — and perhaps 20 of anybody else. With the drawdown, we may gain a newfound respect. Our military presence will be skewed heavily towards Special Operations Forces and other elite small units. A lot of our action will be more “reckless” than a 100,000-strong force would permit. It's not a prescription any commander would want, but it may help the Pashtuns regard Americans as equals.

Afghans will take the lead. For years now, U.S. rhetoric has emphasized transition to Afghan authorities, training Afghan troops, empowering Afghans to solve their own problems. The reality, however, has never matched the rhetoric. How could it? The sheer scale of our military capabilities and economic resources has made it impossible for Afghans to step into our shoes. But there's a reason that Afghans wear simple chappals rather than polished wing-tips or high-laced combat boots. Without an overshadowing foreign presence, Afghans will once again find their own solutions to their own challenges. American trainers, like their Soviet predecessors, try to teach Afghans how to do things (march in formation, type up a report, conduct surveillance) in a Western way. That's never the only way to do things, and quite often not the way best suited to the local circumstances. When it comes to dealing with the Taliban, Afghans of all ethnic backgrounds — Tajiks and Hazaras, Uzbeks and Turkomen — tend to understand the Pashtun rules far better than outsiders do.

A Pashtun proverb states: “A man with the power to fight doesn't need to bargain.” For more than a decade, power and money have shielded America from the necessity of negotiation. That luxury is over. A decreased U.S. footprint is no guarantee of success, any more than was the past few years' surge of troops and funding. But neither is it a guarantee of failure. The only thing the drawdown assures is greater reliance on deal-making than we've ever had to resort to in the past. The coming months will see a range of new negotiators, from a Green Beret captain buttering up tribal elders in a Musa Qala shura to a business-suited diplomat bargaining with an envoy of Mullah Omar in a Qatar hotel suite. In each case, the American interlocutor will have to learn how Pashtuns build relationships and forge durable agreements. After years of talking past our Afghan friends and foes alike, perhaps we will be forced to learn how to talk to them.

Jonah Blank, an anthropologist by training, is the author of Mullahs on the Mainframe and Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God. He is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation.

This commentary originally appeared on on June 3, 2013.

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