The recent torching of over 100 NATO military depots, a Pentagon official claimed, ‘has had an overall insignificant impact to date’ in the US’s strenuous effort to stabilize Afghanistan.  The comment couldn’t be further from the truth.

This significant attack did not occur in Afghanistan but on the US’s new front in the War on Terror – the tribal areas of Pakistan.  The Guardian and The Boston Globe identified the Taliban as the perpetrators, while other outlets, like the International Herald Tribune, said ‘Islamic militants’  were too blame.  There is speculation, however, that the attackers had no affiliation to either identity, and that in fact, they were simply Pashtun tribesmen defending their ancestral homeland, their tribal codes of honor, and their religion of Islam.  But how can the US distinguish between the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Pashtun militants?  The label of ‘terrorist’ remains loosely defined but yet dangerous as ever.

When the War on Terror began in 2002, the US identified the Afghan government, then controlled by the Taliban, and the terror network they supported, al-Qaeda, as the primary enemies.  Bush invaded Afghanistan, captured Kabul, and overthrew the Taliban stronghold – which eventually found a safe haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas.  Bush also gave millions of dollars to support his military alliance with Musharraf, who eventually conducted military raids in the ‘Talibanized’ tribal areas dominated both in population and culture by Pashtuns.

When the Taliban regrouped after the initial battle for Afghanistan, Bush blamed Musharraf for his lackluster commitment in destroying the terror cells in the tribal areas.  As a result of Musharraf’s poor performance, Bush increased the US military’s presence in the Pashtun dominated tribal areas.  This diplomatic blunder created the greatest mishap of the Bush administrations War on Terror – the little consideration paid to the intricacies of tribal culture and the fierce resistance with which the Pashtuns have historically shown towards foreign invasion.

The Pashtun tribe is the largest ethnic group in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Their geographic region extends along the border from northern Pakistan into southern Afghanistan.  The Pashtuns are historically a fierce and very proud people, as they have ousted the likes of Alexander the Great, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union from its ancient turf.  The Pashtuns govern themselves on the Pashtunwali, the traditional tribal code that strictly governs behavior and personal honor – it also provides warm hospitality to visitors – hence why their Muslim brothers of the Taliban were welcomed after the overthrow of the Afghan government in 2002.  Moreover, they are proud Muslims and adhere closely to the Islamic law, customs and values.

The Pashtuns today, my colleague Frankie Martin notes, ‘feel threatened by the Pakistani government and military, composed mainly of urban ethnic Punjabis; the government in Afghanistan, composed mainly of Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras’.  Recently, the Pashtuns are threatened with the US’s cross border raids into tribal villages in pursuit of terrorists, as well as with US drone attacks that often claim the lives of innocent civilians.  It should come as no surprise, then, that many Pashtuns are identifying and sympathizing with the religious rhetoric and zealotry of the Taliban’s mullahs and al-Qaeda’s charismatic leaders.

Poor diplomacy and culturally insensitive policies towards the Pashtuns have proven to be the US’s achilles heal in Afghanistan.  If Obama seeks to change the direction of the war, he must avoid the disastrous policies initiated by President Bush.

Cornering the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the tribal areas will be an unsuccessful military maneuver if the US does not win the respect and favor of the Pashtun people.  A surge of up to 20,000 soldiers will only encourage the Pashtuns to defend their culture and religion from outside influences.  Obama should engage in consistent dialogues with Pashtun leaders in an effort to establish a relationship of mutual cooperation.  Listening to the fears and concerns of the Pashtuns can help Obama swing the pendulum away from the Taliban and into the US’s court, a shift drastically needed to bring stability to Afghanistan.

Most importantly, Obama must be extremely careful with how he labels ‘terrorists’.  Will a terrorist be anyone that attacks US or NATO military convoys?  Hopefully not.  The Pashtuns are not terrorists like members of  al-Qaeda.  Al-Qaeda is a global network that brings terror to other countries.  The Pashtuns simply defend their homeland, their culture and their religion from foreign invasion.  If US or NATO military outposts are attacked on Pashtun grounds in the future, and if the US declares war on the entire Pashtun tribe, Obama should then prepare for a long, arduous and probably fruitless guerilla war.

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