Come Back to Afghanistan
Said Hyder Akbar,
Bloomsbury, 2005, 337pages, $14.50

The twelve-year old Pathan male shot his father’s killer as he emerged from a Peshawar courtroom, setting off a heated Pakistani debate.

If the youth had fired the deadly shot in one of Pakistan’s Federal Administered Tribal Areas such as in the North West Frontier Province, or a Provincial Tribal Area such as in Baluchistan Province, tribal justice might have been served. But the city of Peshawar falls in an area of Pakistan guided by a criminal code not dissimilar from Canada’s, at least in theory, and the act sparked a dilemma that challenged government officials and politicians.

Tribal societies and parallel codes for meting out justice are perplexing to most westerners, yet understanding such cultural norms is necessary to enlist tribal support among the Pathans in Canada’s area of responsibility in Afghanistan.

The cultural bridge to these communities is tenuous at best. There is very little common ground on which to build the foundations of any meaningful communication. Being treated as someone ‘from away’ only begins to touch on the ‘outside’ aspect that challenges our relationships. And a Pashto speaking translator may not be the conduit for making connections.

“Goodwill is easily lost in translation,” says author Said Hyder Akbar. In Come Back to Afghanistan, tribal justice and the role of ‘patney’ are but one example that only too well illustrates his point.

The Afghan province of Kunar lies adjacent to Bajaur Tribal Area in the North West Frontier. A Pakistani attack on a madrassa in that tribal area last fall provoked a suicide bomber attack that killed over 40 Pakistani soldiers at an army base. The province is a bellwether of how the war is progressing.

The local Afghan Military Force (AMF) commander has spent his entire life in a state of “duck and cover” – he has so many formal declarations of revenge against him that he dare not tarry too long in Kunar. On the other hand, this AMF commander has folded, on occasion, his list of personal enemies into the Coalition’s list of terrorist suspects. (The AMF is eventually to be replaced by the Afghan National Army.)

“After so many years of war, there are very few people in Kunar without enemies. Everybody has a side, but there are not just two sides, like Taliban or anti-Taliban, there are dozens,” the author notes.

Hyder’s father is the governor of this vital terrain, and comes from a village in which the family home is still a pile of rubble left by Soviet bombs. After two summers in Kunar with his father in 2003 and 2004, he still can’t name all the tribes of this province. Indeed, Hyder agrees that for American audiences, comparison with the Mafia is perhaps the best approach to understanding ‘patney’.

This comparison is further illustrated by the governor’s assertion that a security guarantee from a tribe to election officials means a higher degree of safety than any such guarantee from the central government or even himself as President Karazi’s representative.

As a source of human intelligence on a tribal society that makes revenge part of its norms, Hyder provides as reliable an insight as can be expected from a returned exile. Raised in California, he speaks Pashto fluently but admits to having difficulty reading it. As he confides, he is torn between his two nationalities, Afghan and American. Thus, this book is an ideal frame in which to examine Pathan tribal life and its impact on our own war in Afghanistan.

The book covers much more than the issue of tribal justice. And ‘patney’ is only one aspect of tribal justice.

Hyder’s father was Karzai’s presidential spokesperson in 2002 during the loyal jirga, and was working in a Kabul radio station in 1979 when the Soviets invaded. His father, who has survived numerous assassination attempts, was also part of the mujahedeen connected with Adul Haq. Thus, we are privy to insider information about the difficulties of bringing central government authority to the terrain of ‘sovereign’ tribes, an objective that our present CDS has enunciated.

Hyder wrote this highly engaging book with Susan Burton, a contributing editor to the radio program This American Life, who produced his two radio documentaries on his summers spent in Afghanistan.

The author has succeeded in providing an individual human bridge between North American and Pathan tribal societies. For me, this book is an invaluable source for all those wishing to understand the culture that permeates the operational environment of the tribal terrain where Canadians serve.

Roy Thomas, MSC, CD, MA (RMC) spent a year at the Pakistan Army Staff College in Quetta, Baluchistan, and served on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border as an unarmed military observer in both federal and provincial tribal areas.