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Pashtun Traditions versus Western Perceptions

Leo Karrer


This ePaper is dedicated to my friend Alexander Khamagaev, in remembrance of many hours of stimulating conversations.

The author would like to thank all those who contributed to this ePaper by participating in the survey. First and foremost, he thanks his wife, Magali, for her love, support and advice.

Texte intégral

1On Saturday, 18 June 2011, Hamid Karzai announced that the US was, henceforth, engaging in ‘peace talks’ with the Taliban (BBC News, 2011).Although the President’s statement could plausibly have been understood as somewhat euphemistic, it was shortly confirmed by then-US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The move became possible following a unanimous UN Security Council decision to separate Al-Qaeda and Taliban sanctions lists (UN Resolutions 1988 and 1989) made the previous day.This vote was likely intended to pave the way for differential treatment (and corresponding status) of the two groups, thus rendering the Taliban more acceptable as negotiating partners for the Western coalition. The potential for US-Taliban negotiations thus raises the question of the ‘clash of civilisations’ that such a negotiation process would represent. The challenge for US negotiators, as well as Taliban representatives, would be not only able to understand each other’s language (even in the very sense of mere linguistic comprehension) but also to create an amenable negotiating atmosphere.

2One year later, we know that the negotiation process has not met with success. It is obvious that this failure cannot be attributed to simple communicative mismatch or a lack of cross-cultural sensitivity. Rather, the difficulty lies in the fact that the opposing camps are characterised by a political cleavage so sharp that it was, and remains, illusory to believe in a negotiated settlement of any kind. This, in turn, hints at an important limitation of the present paper. Whilst it does, indeed, attempt to highlight the cross-cultural aspects of current interactions in Afghanistan, the paper does not suggest that the cultural ought to be put before the political. It is important to recognize the significance of concrete political and economic issues, and attendant power games, that are unlikely to be overcome by higher cultural awareness alone.    

  • 1  Estimates of the total number of foreign and national NGOs operating in Afghanistan in 2006 ranged (...)

3Cross-cultural experiences take place every day in contemporary Afghanistan. Several thousand foreigners live and work in the country, as diplomats, officials of international organisations, ICRC staff, and members of one of the myriads of foreign NGOs present in the Hindu Kush.1 As such, this short paper aims to shed light on the cross-cultural issues likely to contribute to the difficulties encountered by the international community in ‘dealing’, or negotiating, with Afghanistan (and vice versa).

4The representatives of the international community in Afghanistan are civilians working with the previously-mentioned institutions, multinational ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) military personnel and private security contractors. While these individuals are not all technically ‘negotiators’, they each negotiate their working conditions with Afghans daily (with, of course, the exception of those people – military or civilians – so entrenched in an environment they never encounter an Afghan in Afghanistan). In this sense, as their work requires them to interact with Afghans – friends or foes – in a manifold of ways, all foreigners are, at least indirectly, required to negotiate. In other words, one can say: ‘I work [in Afghanistan], therefore I negotiate’. This paper thus adopts this broader sense of the term ‘negotiation’.

5At the outset, it is important to recognise the extensive cultural variety within the foreign community present in Kabul. It would therefore be just as misleading to consider the behaviour of foreigners uniformly ‘Western’ (this term, in turn, constituting a gross generalisation), as it would to equate Afghanistan’s diverse population with some monolithic, homogenous Afghan culture. As a consequence, one could (and should) reasonably question the possibility of analysing a cross-cultural situation constituted by opposing two cultures, when in fact each side exhibits significant cultural diversity. That said, it is the contention of this paper that it is possible to identify two distinguishable communication and negotiation cultures roughly corresponding to the somewhat generalised terms ‘Western’ and ‘Afghan’.

  • 2  These Pakistani NGOs cannot be counted as ‘foreign’ in the cultural sense.

6The majority of foreign stakeholders are of European or North American cultural background and, if they are not, they nevertheless generally represent an institution whose customs and philosophy bear witness to a Western inheritance. These Western roots may be considered to constitute their ‘cultural foreground’ (Micheletti, 2009). The ‘Afghanistan Analyst’ website provides an illustrative – though certainly not exhaustive – list of foreign NGOs operating in Afghanistan indicating that fifty NGOs are based in North America, and forty-three in Europe (mainly the UK, Germany and France) (Afghanistan Analyst, 2012). Only four NGOs, in contrast, are from Pakistan2, and one is from Japan. This illustrates a predominance of ‘Western’, and particularly Anglophone, corporate culture within the ‘NGO-industrial complex’. Similarly, although the Afghan population is heterogeneous from ethnic, linguistic, and sectarian standpoints, there are sufficient institutions and patterns of behaviour, derived from the Pashtun cosmos, in conjunction with (and occasionally in contradiction to) the more universal rules of Islam, to constitute a common cultural basis. In this sense, the main fault-line of negotiations appears to be between an international community whose negotiation behaviour is heavily standardised within a Western-inspired framework, on the one hand, and on the other, an Afghan society that is bound by, in addition to shared history and Islam, a common unconscious strongly pervaded by Pashtun societal traditions.

7The economic imbalance between the pecuniary potency of the Western powers and the comparatively impoverished Afghans has promoted a shift towards a Western-leaning discourse, emulating imported values and theories, in the behaviour and rhetoric of a not-inconsequential part of the Afghan population. This submissive ingratiation exacerbates the cleavages already present in intrinsically-disunited Afghanistan, further compounding the failure of Afghan state-building. Thus, any movement on the part of the international community towards an (however vaguely-defined) ‘Afghan consensus’ could help prevent the Afghan intelligentsia from becoming alienated from its own cultural identity. This latter disconnect is likely to constitute another seed of conflict in the future.

8Throughout history, Western armies have met with heavy resistance when trying to subjugate Afghanistan. Whilst geography, the bravery of Afghan fighters and other strategic considerations may have significantly contributed to these repeated defeats and half-victories, one might also ask whether the foreign invaders – British, Soviet or US/NATO – failed for purely military reasons, or whether greater cultural awareness would have given them the strategic advantage. The danger of such a hypothesis lies in the temptation to overemphasise the cultural factor in a context where the political and military power game, with all its concreteness, is predominant. That said, and this is the raison d’être of the paper, the cultural factor in such an encounter, be it military or civilian, between Afghans and non-Afghans cannot be simply ignored. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has recently attributed, at least partially, the increase in so-called ‘insider attacks’ against NATO armies to the lack of cultural awareness (NATO Live, 2012), prompting the Afghan authorities to produce ‘cultural awareness guides’ (Ferris-Rotman, 2012). Similarly, while misunderstandings are likely to have such devastating and immediate effects in the field of foreign aid, aid workers are not immune to the phenomenon, and the lack of cultural sensitivity can become a potent obstacle.

9This paper uses the academic literature to broadly outline selected elements of Afghan, in contrast to Western, negotiation culture, and discusses the extent to which this negotiation culture may be attributed to Pashtun tradition. The paper thus identifies elements of Afghan, and particularly Pashtun, culture applicable to negotiation, often working in opposition to the Western mainstream habits. The insensitive handling of this cultural tradition by representatives of the international community is likely to exacerbate mutual distrust, and to thwart, compromise or, at best, delay the successful resolution of negotiations. In doing so, the paper attempts to refute some generalising views that seek to easily fit Afghan society into a preconceived cluster of Western cross-cultural negotiation and communication theories. The paper thus tries to highlight the complexity of Afghan negotiation behaviour against the binary indexing predominant in such theories.

10Methodologically, a survey was sent to 35 foreigners currently working, or having worked in Afghanistan, 17 of which were returned. The results of this survey are discussed throughout the paper, where relevant, rather than separated into a distinct ‘results’ section. With the exception of personal observations made by the author during the time he spent in Afghanistan (2009-2010), this survey is the only primary source used. As a result, this paper has no pretention of revealing any undisputed truth(s) or statistically significant results. Instead, it aims at raising a fundamental question relating to the importance of cross-cultural negotiation, and attempts to foreshadow some potential answers derived from a combination of the academic literature and a limited number of individual experiences.

11Chapter 1 outlines some of the basic characteristics of the Afghan/Pashtun context. Chapter 2 enumerates some of the common, often binary, characterisations of this context in the field of cross-cultural communication, relating the ways in which Afghanistan is understood as fitting into one or another of these categories. Chapter 3 describes the setting in which encounters between Afghans and foreigners take place. Chapter 4 uses the survey, along with academic articles (as well as personal observations) to tentatively refute the generalisations introduced in Chapter 2.


1  Estimates of the total number of foreign and national NGOs operating in Afghanistan in 2006 ranged from 800 to 1400 (Olson,2006).

2  These Pakistani NGOs cannot be counted as ‘foreign’ in the cultural sense.


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