The Rules of Pashtunwali

by Marissa Dearing:

Hakimjan Ahmadzai, a Pashtun born in southeastern Afghanistan, understands rules. Raised in a place where familial memory stretches back ten generations, revenge can be necessary to salvage honor, and promises are binding, Ahmadzai often attended the community meetings convened by his father, a local tribal leader. In those talks, he learned that the rules he knows so well are not simply meant to dictate particular punishments for particular crimes. Rather, these rules define the fundamentals of social conduct and conflict resolution. Known as the Pashtunwali Codes, they authorize the community to resolve its own conflicts. The Codes can be complex, as Ahmadzai acknowledged. “But it resolves the issues permanently.”

Afghanistan is an ethnically diverse nation, and the Pashtun, representing about 40 percent of its population, comprise its largest single ethnic group. The Pashtun have long played a dominant role in Afghan culture and politics, particularly in the influential eastern and southern provinces. Their cultural codes provide a look into the complexity of modern Afghani culture and the future of the development of Afghanistan.

Sports time for students in Bamyan province. (Courtesy Nasim Fekrat)

An informal, oral system of tribal values governing individual and communal behavior, Pashtunwali is defined by its emphasis on community consensus and local decision-making. By privileging village, tribe, and even family over the state, the Codes depend on active local participation. Other Afghan ethnic groups often follow their own, distinctly local tribal or traditional codes of governance and justice, particularly in rural areas.

Shahmahmood Miakhel, a Pashtun from Kunar province, former Deputy Minister of the Interior, and current chief of party for Afghanistan programs at the United States Institute of Peace, believes that the Codes’ basis in cooperation and consent is central to their enduring efficacy. Governance dependent on meetings of locally elected elders and councils, called jirgas and shuras, derives legitimacy from local consent. In Miakhel’s view, the Codes allow Afghans to “choose their own life,” a fundamental requirement for a functional and genuinely democratic political order.

The Pashtunwali system has served as the central source of stability in Afghan society through centuries of invasions, occupations, and tyrannical rule. The country’s tumultuous history has instilled a profound distrust of externally imposed power structures. Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist, believes this firm foundation has been central in holding together the backbone of Afghani communities. “The Pashtunwali are very much part of the society; it’s how the society sees itself,” he said. “Its traditions, its history: It’s all linked to Pashtunwali in a way.”

The influence of Pashtunwali extends into Afghanistan’s cities, and even into the capital of Kabul. In Kabul, as in more rural areas, the Codes have served as an essential backbone of stability in the vacuum created by ineffective state law. Noah Coburn, a Traditional Justice specialist at the United States Institute for Peace, cited a report written by an Afghan judge: “In the formal system, judges quite often take cases and refer them to shuras and jirgas, [which] make a decision, and the judge will ratify that.” Participation in the informal Pashtunwali system is widespread, and any stable system of governance in Afghanistan must acknowledge and somehow integrate its structure.

The Codes, however, might be improved by limited government intervention. “There is a need to reshift some of the focus onto individual rights,” Coburn said. “That’s really the space for government intervention, and for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to step in, for the Ministry of Justice to step in.” State law could work to address deficiencies in the Codes, at the same time that Pashtunwali might restore trust in the state system. Especially in times of high insecurity, informal institutions must provide avenues for the practice, and demonstration, of just governance when formal institutions are too weak to do so. “Some things the formal institution can do, some things the civil society can do … the government cannot do everything,” Miakhel said.

An informal, community-based system would also work to restore local agency, which would further strengthen trust in Afghan governance. As Coburn said, “One of the things that we forget is that our own legal code grew up organically and takes into account local political norms.” He sees the ideal system for Afghanistan as one that takes into account significant differences in the local political culture. “Any attempt to impose a uniform process on culturally different [areas] will founder—with collateral damage.”

Still, the implementation of this integrated formal-informal system of governance will not be easy or immediate. The absence of effective formal institutions in much of the country means that the government cannot implement anything beyond Kabul and other large cities. In many cases, the Afghan government has actively worked to stymie the integration process. Although tribal elders and community members would, in theory, be amenable to a hybrid system, the central government has eroded local trust by appointing district governors and judges from outside local areas.

Coburn sees this practice as an attempt by the Karzai regime to divide communities and avert any possibility of rebellion or challenge to its authority. Instead of nurturing cooperation between local and state institutions, the government has signaled that it would prefer to subvert or abolish local governance, driving a wedge been local communities and the central government. “Local communities are wary of negotiating with these guys who they see as outsiders,” Coburn said.

Shot of the village of Rabat, Afghanistan. (Courtesy Nasim Fekrat)

Nevertheless, the government does rely on Pashtunwali and local tribal structure to some extent. “The government still relies on conventions and councils [and] Pashtuns and Pashtunwali play important role in assisting the government,” said Ahmadzai. “[The Codes] are just strong cultural principles … But with more participation in the system, they can form a strong national government.” Ahmadzai believes that despite current resistance by the state, given even an initially minor role in the formal system, the Codes have the power to stabilize and legitimize the government in power.

Those crafting Afghanistan’s future must recognize Pashtunwali as an important element in the emergence of any sound, viable Afghan state in the coming years. The Afghan state was most functional when the government resembled a loose confederation with legislative power at the local level, said Michael Hughes, a foreign policy strategist at New World Strategies Coalition, a policy analysis group based in Afghanistan. Local and state institutions must work together to achieve effective governance in the unknown future of Afghanistan.

Ahmadzai believes Afghanistan’s political future should be founded on the existing, and influential, informal justice system set up by the Codes. “Hard work, loyalty, and hospitality are the things that make a person and community successful,” he said. He acknowledged that some of the Pashtunwali Codes violate human rights and freedoms and that there must be change in those areas, but he believes that change is coming. “Political socialization takes time, [and the Codes] will change over the course of time. I do not mean that they will completely go away. But, cultures do change over the course of time.”

For Ahmadzai, it is the youth that will bring this necessary change. “I think if the seniors let the young generation be part of making decisions, and the new generation use their knowledge of today’s world, while considering relevant Codes as [a] major contributor, rather than making all decisions based on the Codes, [it] will help to shape the Pashtunwali and its role in Afghan-Politics.” It is up to the rising generation of Afghans to use the traditional, organic Codes to forge a stable future for their country.

Marissa Dearing ’14 is in Berkeley College. Contact her at