Beyond Victory

Did you know that there are 45 million Pashtuns?  I did not either until I saw Frontline’s documentary about the Taliban last week.  Watch it here.

The Pashtun tribes provide the ethnic base for the Taliban insurgency.  Their demographics matter.  According to Mao Zedong’s dictum, guerilla fighters move in the population like fish in the water.  The larger the host population, the harder it becomes to suppress irregular fighters.

Iraq only has some 22 million inhabitants.

The sheer number of Pashtuns means that we could redeploy every soldier and contractor from Iraq to Afghanistan and we still would not have enough troops to prevail militarily.  Likewise, Europeans could double and triple their forces in Afghanistan, which they won’t unless the new administration can formulate a strategy promising success, and we would still be short handed.

While British commanders have been talking about the futility of the Afghanistan mission, to Americans Afghanistan is still the good war.  But there may be no road to victory.

Of course, we can hope that Afghan and Pakistani forces might be able to pacify the Pashtun regions.  To date, the Afghan army only numbers 76,000 troops, which is a good help but insufficient to establish control.  Pakistan’s armed forces, seventh largest in the world, field an army of 619,000 active troops and 528,000 reservists but has nonetheless been unable to assert the sovereignty of Pakistan in the tribal areas.

Despite indiscriminate violence and human rights abuses, the Red Army has had similar problems in Chechnya.  With 1.1 million inhabitants, Chechnya’s population is relatively small.

It appears then that we will not be able to achieve the destruction of al Qaeda by imposing our will on the Taliban militarily.  Rather, we will have to come to some sort of accommodation with Pashtuns and the Taliban, their de facto rulers.  At the very least, we must divide the Taliban.

Judging by my own ignorance, it is probably safe to assume that too few of us know enough to appreciate the war in Afghanistan even remotely.



  1. I hate it that I have to go to Al Jazeera to get good news reports on Afghanistan. I am so upset at the situation here in America.

    Thanks for the reminder of how many Pashtuns there are. I can see why many military leaders are starting to talk about a peace agreement.


  2. Ronan- I talked to a political scientist today, who is Pakistani by birth. And he seemed to think that the 45 million figure quoted in the documentary is wildly inflated. He said that of one counted all the various Pashtun tribes, the total number of Pashtuns, both in Pakistan and Afghanistan, who are Sunni, wouldnt total 20 million. Probablky would be 15 mill or even less.
    I wil have to contact Prof Hassan Abbas to verify this,however.


  3. Sid, the Pakistani government estimates that there are some 25 million Pashtuns in Pakistan. According to the Encyclopedia Iranica, there are around 13 million Pashtuns in Afghanistan.

    An exact count is somewhat confused by the back and forth of refugees between the countries.


  4. Here is the link to the ethnographic tables by the Pakistani government (PDF):

    Encyclopedia Iranica:

    It seems that the Frontline estimate concurs roughly with the expert opinion. There is certainly nothing “wild” about it.

    Lets assume for the sake of argument that there are “only” 20 million Pashtuns, that number would still be as large as the population of Iraq.


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