Pashtun Leadership Dispute: How Mullahs Outmaneuvered the Khans

By: Abu Muslim Khurasani                                      

Structural changes in human societies are often influenced by social, political, and economic factors, which can be examined from both an internal and external perspective. This article seeks to explain the war between Khans and Mullahs for control of the Pashtun tribes’ leadership, as well as the internal and external factors that contributed to the Mullahs’ success. It is suggested that the Mullahs, who now occupy the positions of the Khans, are performing those roles with soldiers, living off the people, and lending the Shah, who is currently veiled as “Amir al-Momineen,” political legitimacy. Understanding why and how the Mullahs were able to alter the intricate structures of the Pashtun tribes and gain control over the Khans will help to explain the current state of affairs.

According to tribal dictionaries of the Pashtun tribe, the name “Khan” has a double prominence in Afghanistan’s middle and high power-wealth levels, particularly in the southern part of the country. Khan is associated with financial resources, political clout in the region, a crew, warriors, and occasionally a fully functional dictator with immense power. Even when a tribe is ruled by a monarch, it still defers to its Khan (Elphinston, 1994). The coalition of Khans served as the foundation upon which Ahmad Shah Durrani built his political power in the 18th century. However, British historian and Afghanistan expert Jonathan Lee believes that Ahmad Shah Abdali’s rise to power was the result of a military coup and that the existence of Sabershah Kabuli, the ethnic jirga, and the wheat cluster are the product of Pashtun nationalists’ fantasies, with no basis in actual events.

Irrespective of whether Ahmad Shah Abdali attained his legitimacy through a military coup or an alliance with the Khans, it is essential to recognize that the backing of the Khans, as well as that of Britain and Imperial Russia, was critical to the ascendancy of the Pashtun princes to power in the days that followed Abdali. Mullah Hebatullah, the masked leader of the Taliban, is now occupying the position that was once held by Ahmad Shah Abdali and the Pashtun princes, after more than three centuries of strife and savagery aimed at gaining political authority in Afghanistan. The distinction is that whereas Mullah Hebatullah obtained his legitimacy from the alliance of the mullahs and America’s clandestine support based on the Doha Agreement, Abdali and later Durrani princes obtained their legitimacy from the alliance of the khans and the support of the colonial powers of the era. The fundamental inquiry is now: How did the mullahs supplant the Pashtun khans as the political power brokers, and how did these changes come about?

Who Are the Khans, and Where Did the Mullahs Come From?

Khan’s semantic-historical origins can be traced back to the Mongol invasion and its influence on ancient Iran, which has Turkish-Mongolian roots (Kiawand, 1989). Khan in this context refers to those who occupy middle-ranking positions in the political-social power structure, ranging from local estate owners and village lords to the most powerful clan leaders. According to Ebrahimi (2019), the Khans were the Shah’s closest allies in Afghanistan. They organized rural communities into a centripetal network and collected taxes on the king’s behalf (Sharan, 2017). In reality, the Shah sought the loyalty of the Khans, and the Khans sought the devotion of the majority of those who shared their interests. This structure has been in decline for hundreds of years, and is now in disrepair. Even the mullahs at that time followed the orders of the Khans in local structures and the orders of the king in major cities, and they delivered speeches at Friday prayers in the king’s honor, demonstrating the strength of the Khans and the political influence of the kings.

The Khans held a prominent economic and political standing due to Afghanistan’s traditional and land-based economic system. They had tribal networks that both represented the king and had power over the local economic and political systems, as well as represented the people and conveyed their wishes and voices to the king’s court, showing a two-way relationship. The local mullahs were also under the Khans’ control and authority. All of these connections were formed in an informal and traditional way based on the mutual interests of both parties. Common interests formed the basis of all interactions between the Khan and the people and the administration, which was mandated by the regional structures of the tribal system. The Khans managed the main arteries of the regional economy and used it as a way to exercise their sovereignty, which demonstrated to them the importance of the economic aspect.

The clergy has a long religious and social history in Afghanistan, dating back to the introduction of Islam. According to Salehi (2018), the terms “mullah,” “mawlawi,” “qari,” “imam of the mosque,” and “prayer leader” all refer to those who study religious sciences, while “clergy” denotes people who teach religion in exclusive institutions and “soul” (Yagoubi, 2012). Mullahs have been an influential social class in Afghanistan, historically holding political authority as well as being active in education, legislation, and judgment. Notably, when the mullahs toppled Amanullah Khan’s developmentist administration, they became a powerful force with a high degree of internal cohesiveness and the capacity to organize the people and topple governments.

Despite the fact that the Mullahs, who acted as a legitimizing force, also interfered in the political system, they were unable to oppose the orders of the Khan and the Shah due to their lack of extensive economic networks and international ties. Before the Communist regime took control of Afghanistan, the Mullahs were less politically active and only concerned with their own interests, which governments should take into account and respect some of their requests. The Mullahs continued to obey the orders of the Khans up until that point. In other words, the uprising that overthrew Amanullah was a joint uprising of tax-evading Mullahs and Khans who found their legitimacy and acceptance in the opposition to the King’s reforms. Rather than controlling the government, the Mullahs wanted a government that would serve their interests.

The rise of the Communist Party in Afghanistan had an unintended consequence of bringing together the mullahs and other rebel factions. This led to profound changes in the political structure, local order, economic transformation, and most significantly, social order. Subsequent civil wars, the Mujahideen era, and the Taliban’s rise to power further altered the country, with one of the reforms being the replacement of the khans with mullahs and the erosion of their influence on politics and the economy. Prior to the Communist rule, the mullahs had no interest in establishing a government, but with the rise of political Islam on a global scale, they did so, as evidenced by the Taliban, which was led by Mullah Omar and is currently commanded by Mullah Hibatullah. This raises the question of how this transformation occurred and what its effects have been.

The Global Scale: Nationalism or Islamism?

The twentieth century was marked by global ideological conflict, the rise of nationalism, and numerous conflicts which the world addressed with various strategies and tactics. In this context, the author is referring to the Western world and the powerful countries that have a major influence on the international stage. For two primary reasons, with additional secondary ones, the free world in this case supported Islamism against nationalism in Muslim-Arab countries, providing it with considerable economic, political, and media resources. The primary factor was the struggle against the spread of communism. Western countries were aware that political Islam was the most successful force at the time.

Examples of international support for Islamism in the struggle against communism include the intervention of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the assistance of the Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviet-backed government in Kabul. Additionally, Pan-Arabism and nationalism both gained traction in the Arab world at the turn of the 20th century, with strong Arab nations such as Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt wielding considerable power in the region. This nationalistic perspective posed a threat to the newly established state of Israel, as it had the potential to unify Arab Muslims and create a powerful alliance. Islamism was seen as a counter to this, as it had the potential to divide Muslims and Arabs and push them towards extremism. This strategy was also beneficial to the major neocolonial powers, as it allowed them to gain control of oil resources while preventing an Arab-Muslim alliance that could pose a real threat to Israel, the Middle East’s symbol of Western influence (Abdel Bari Atwan, 2016). The rise of the mullahs to power was enabled by international support for Islamism, which also created an environment that was conducive to militant political monks seeking to gain power.

At the Regional Level: Pakistan and the Pashtuns

The global macronarrative was focused on Mullahs and fundamentalist forces, which served the anti-communist bloc’s short-term goals. Pakistan employed this strategy in order to undermine Pashtun nationalism at the regional level, due to the difficult relationship between Pakistan and the Pashtuns. Pakistan is concerned about the growth of Pashtun nationalism in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and uses all of its resources to counter this idea. However, on a local level in Afghanistan, Pashtuns’ interactions with other ethnic groups, including Tajiks, are contributing to the growth of Pashtunism and local nationalism, which is provoking the Pashtuns. As a result, General Pervez Musharraf, the previous leader of the Pakistani Army, introduced Ahmad Shah Massoud as a Pashtun opponent, and denounced Tajik rule. In an interview, he stated that Pakistan should restore the Pashtun victory, and that Pakistanis want an anti-Indian Pashtun Islamist regime in Afghanistan similar to the Taliban. The Taliban’s Afghan strategy is defined and established with reference to the Indian issue.

As the Pashtuns are routinely discriminated against in their own country, Pakistani generals such as Musharraf were exacerbating these tensions. The Pakistani army and other military institutions are largely composed of Punjabis and members of other ethnic groups. In an interview with Haroon Najafizada, the BBC Persian correspondent at the time, Musharraf stated that the Afghan army is made up of Tajiks and that Afghanistan should have a Pashtun-led administration. By employing this strategy, Pakistan not only hindered the emergence of a Pashtun macro-narrative based on tribal nationalism, but it also fomented Pashtun resentment within Afghanistan, thus paving the way for the rise of the Mullahs and the downfall of the Khans. The leader of the Pashtun Preservation Movement, Manzoor Pashtin, questioned in a speech who is responsible for the murder of 1,400 Pashtun elders and khans, which appears to be the Pakistani government in conjunction with Islamists and mullahs.

In an effort to counter India’s influence in Afghanistan, Pakistan has sought to utilize any means possible (C. Christine Fair, 2017). This has included sponsoring elements that are religiously antagonistic to Indians, such as the early Pashtun Khans, who were conventional secularists who viewed Indians as both devils and capable of cordial interactions, communication, and meaningful and lasting relationships. These powerful local figures were instrumental in sparking the growth of nationalist thinking in the macro-narrative, leading to the relationship between Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand line. As a result, Pakistan has focused on the mullahs and this formidable force in Afghanistan, which, through their incorporation and empowerment in political and social structures, has started the process of war with India and prevented the construction of a Pashtun-centric nationalist narrative as the continuation of fragile tribal lines were guaranteed.

National Level: Changing Structures, War, Economy, and Mullahs

During the Jihad era and the rise of Islamism, Afghanistan underwent a general structural transformation. The traditional and agricultural economies, which had been based on the Khans and farmers, were destroyed by the influx of black money from around the world and replaced by jihadists, mullahs, and warlords who now control the socio-political structures. These commanders, most of whom were mullahs and supporters of political Islam and the Jihad narrative, took away the local authority of the Pashtun khans. Furthermore, the value of the peasant, land, and wheat decreased as there was no longer a king to protect his local allies, and Afghanistan was receiving aid packages worth millions of dollars from other countries while its local economic systems were disintegrating.

The Mullahs, representing a more pure form of political Islam, and tribal agronomists, led by the Taliban, effectively ended the Khans’ reign as a source of social and political authority. This conflict was ultimately won by Mullah Hibatullah, who assumed the traditional role of Khan in Pashtun society. This serves as an example of how international policies can have a significant impact on national situations. The Taliban now take the money that the Khans used to collect in the form of taxes, Zakat, and donations, and have inherited the Khans’ ethnic position as religious scholars and dispute-resolution officials. Most importantly, they have gained local power, access to resources, and political standing. They have even issued a fatwa declaring that anyone who disobeys them is a rebel and deserves to die, as determined by the “Amir al-Momineen” and the Loya Jirga.

Having established the necessary conditions for their rise to power on a national, regional, and international level, the Taliban, under the direction of the mullahs, began to implement policies that would enable them to maintain their dominance. To this end, they created a network of connected mullahs, disregarding the lack of organization and bureaucratic hierarchy. Those mullahs who opposed the network or were from other tribes and could potentially wield power and challenge the network’s control were assassinated. According to a 2015 article in the Mandegar newspaper, over the past fourteen years, approximately one hundred religious professors who were perceived to be antagonistic to the network of mullahs have been killed. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of such murders. The Taliban have murdered hundreds of religious professors in order to reduce their numbers and make more room for the mullahs’ network to gain control. A significant proportion of the slain academics were ordinary citizens living under the former government.

Following the establishment of this network, the Taliban, under the leadership of the mullahs, killed and destroyed any forces that hindered the expansion of their power within local structures. A substantial percentage of this process involved killing and overthrowing the strong Khans of the tribes in the Pashtun-populated districts. This process began after 2006, and before the Khans seized control on August 15, 2021, the Taliban had already begun assassinating them. As previously stated by Manzoor Pashtin, the head of Pashtun protection in Pakistan, a wave of khan-killing and significant person assassinations started in order for the mullahs to eliminate the last bastion of traditional structures in Afghanistan and the tribal regions. Unfortunately, there are no statistics available indicating the number of Khans and other important local leaders who have been murdered by the Taliban. The Pashtun communities in both Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal regions were targeted by Pakistani efforts to put mullahs in positions of power, as the mullahs served Pakistan’s strategic interests.

It appears that the Taliban assassinated the influential Khans in the Pashtun-populated areas before they regained control. This resulted in the lack of significant challengers to their rule over Afghanistan, as they had eliminated local lords, jihadi leaders, and opposition mullahs in various regions, including the northern provinces. Through the use of terrorism, internal network unity, assistance from Pakistan, and the support of political Islam worldwide, the mullahs were able to overthrow the Pashtun Khans and take power. Financing for the Jihad and the Afghan war, changes in the political and economic structures, and other factors have accelerated the process and led to the current dire situation. With no significant challengers, the mullahs are continuing their political activities in order to increase their political influence.


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