Measuring Perceptions about the Pashtun People

Afghanistan and Pakistan are sites of intense conflict—and intense international interest. Because the epicenter of the Afghan war is along Afghanistan’s southern and eastern border with Pakistan, and because important combatants use Pakistan’s tribal areas for sanctuary, there is correspondingly intense interest in better understanding the people who live in this border region. The dominant ethnic group there is the Pashtuns, who have experienced a long series of wars and other major disruptions since the 1970s. What little academic research has been undertaken about Pashtuns during this period is sorely outdated. Knowledge about Pashtuns affects policies and strategies in the region—including counterinsurgency—so it is important not only to study Pashtuns but also to study what is believed about them.

This report documents the results of a study about beliefs about the Pashtun people. The purpose was to identify the range of perceptions or misperceptions about Pashtun communities by cataloging “stereotypes” about Pashtuns held by English-speaking policymakers, experts, and other opinion leaders. The authors interviewed 52 officials and experts in the United States, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and analyzed 138 articles drawn from recent academic and popular sources. Pashtuns were most commonly characterized as proud, victimized, sectarian, tribal, and hospitable; they were not stereotyped as warlike, misogynous, illiterate, conservative, or medieval. Pashtun diversity was generally acknowledged, as were the changes Pashtuns have experienced in recent decades. Some saw Pashtuns as natural allies of the Taliban, while others considered them more opportunistic, which suggests there are competing schools of thought about counterinsurgency in the region (i.e., population-centric versus enemy-centric strategies). The report concludes by noting the absence of broad, deep, and, most importantly, current knowledge about the Pashtuns. Having such knowledge would be a good in itself, but would also help policymakers and strategists avoid having to make untested assumptions about how important populations might respond to different activities—whether military or political.

Robert D. Lamb

Amin Tarzi