Book Review: The Pashtun Question By Abubakar Siddique

By Ayesha Chugh


June 11, 2014


We are like the ozone layer for this country… We protect it from many dangers and bad

influences. Our destruction will expose it to unthinkable hazards.”

-- Afrasiab Khattak, a Pakistani lawmaker

These words are the crux of Abubakar Siddique’s The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan, an in-depth exploration of Pashtun society and the challenges it has faced over three decades of war. A majority of Afghanistan’s population and the largest minority in Pakistan, the Pashtuns live in lands straddling the two countries. The Pashtun heartland has been home to some of South Asia’s most violent conflicts, while the war-torn and dislocated Pashtun society continues to destabilize the entire region.

In this book, Siddique makes a compelling case that the key to regional peace lies in resolving The Pashtun Question. During the past three decades of turmoil, scholars, journalists and diplomats have contributed substantially to our knowledge of the Pashtun homeland. These accounts have, however, largely focused on regional geopolitics, exploring how India and Pakistan have acted to destabilize each other, as well as the legacies of American and Soviet intervention in the region.

Beyond discussing the Pashtuns’ role in the rise of militancy, very few analysts have attempted to understand Pashtun society. The lack of deep scholarship on the Pashtuns reinforces misunderstandings that are harmful and stereotype an entire community based on the activities of a few militant groups. Siddique rejects this approach and instead conducts an in-depth exploration into Pashtun communities on both sides of the Durand Line – the 19th century border between Afghanistan and Pakistan that has never been formally recognized by the Afghan government.

This book is an insider’s account of past and present conflicts. Siddique grew up in Wana, the administrative capital of South Waziristan, a tribal district in Pakistan’s western Federally Administered Tribal Areas. His intimate connection to the cultural context enriches the book, giving the author access to local actors and insights only someone like Siddique could provide.

For example, Siddique draws on an interview with a Taliban mullah to illustrate sentiments in Waziristan on the cusp of 9/11 and the aftermath of the death of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance who was killed by the Taliban two days before the September 11 attacks. The mullah warns Siddique, “we have taken care of Massoud, and we will soon come to Pakistan to implement true Islam there.”

The mullah’s comments were a chilling forecast of the rise of the Pakistani Taliban, which later coalesced into a deadly alliance called the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).  In another part of the book, Siddique includes an interview with a former Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil. Through Muttawakil’s story, Siddique demonstrates how many impoverished Pashtuns living in Pakistan’s western borderlands ended up in Pakistan’s Deobandi madrasas and became militants in the 1980s.

The Pashtun Question’s foremost contribution however, is its presentation of alternative imaginings of Pashtun society, as well as Afghan visions of social progress that are seldom explored. Indeed, the deferred nature of this community’s dreams is a persistent theme throughout the book. Siddique explores these visions and analyzes their dissolution in the face of militancy and violence engulfing the borderlands.

The diversity in thought and perspective within Pashtun society is highlighted by Afrasiab Khattak, a Pashtun nationalist whom Siddique has personally known for years. Described as a “nonconformist politician,” Khattak embodies the Pashtun nationalism of a bygone era—a moderate kind.

Through Khattak’s conversations with Siddique, the reader becomes aware of a non-violent decolonialist current in Pashtun politics, starting from Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s Khudai Khidmatgar (‘Servants of God’) movement. Khan was called ‘the Frontier Gandhi’ because of his alliance with the Indian freedom icon Mohandas Gandhi. Following the subcontinent’s partition into India and Pakistan in 1947, Khan mobilized Pashtuns to lobby for autonomy. These efforts continued after independence, in the form of the National Awami Party (NAP), a pro-democracy Pakistani political party with a large following among the Pashtuns.

It is worth understanding that Pashtuns like Khattak played a major role in pro-democracy movements within Pakistani politics. Khattak himself was an active member of NAP, personifying its nationalism and commitment to development, anti-imperialism, secularism and equality for all ethnic groups. As the book outlines, NAP split into factions allied with either China or the Soviet Union in 1967.

The Soviet faction—that Khattak was a part of— was a major force against the centralizing policies of Pakistani President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, supporting movements for autonomy among the Baloch, Pashtuns and Sindhis – major ethnic minorities in Pakistan. Secular movements, like NAP displeased the Pakistani state’s ruling elites, including those in the military and the Pakistani Peoples Party (PPP), who began to view the party’s members as disloyal to Pakistan.

Sididque’s accounts of Khattak ultimately symbolize the decline of moderate Pashtun nationalism. As the party continued to oppose the ruling PPP in the 1970s, Islamabad cracked down on secular Pashtun and Baloch leaders after the secession of East Pakistan (Bangladesh) in 1971, leading to Khattak’s imprisonment and then exile in Afghanistan. After returning to the country in the 1990s, Khattak was unable to reintegrate himself into the dense maze of patronage networks that have come to characterize Pakistani politics. Like many leftist intellectuals of his time, he was secular and moderate, and hence a political minority in a state providing succor to militant groups, like the mujahideen, to counter Soviet and Indian influence.

In reflecting on his first interview of Khattak in 1997, Siddique speaks of the veteran politician as foreseeing the rise of extremism in Pashtun society. According to Siddique,

“He foresaw the Pashtun lands, already vulnerable, becoming a laboratory for extremism and political violence. ‘We are a low-pressure zone in terms of socioeconomic development,’ he told me. ‘I am afraid it will attract storms.’”

Siddique reveals how Pashtuns like Khattak are deeply aware of the descent into extremism and militancy in their community. He shows that the tragedy lies in the lack of a unified movement within Pashtun society to counter the problem of extremism. This is unsurprising, considering Pashtuns today are one of the most marginalized and displaced populations in the world thanks to three decades of continuous conflict.

Yet Siddique does not suggest that Pashtuns lack a future.

In line with his portrayals of a moderate Pashtun political identity, he shows that many Pashtuns rejected extremism in the form of the Taliban, seeing the group’s actions as an attempt to Islamize Afghan and Pashtun identities. Although many Taliban members are Pashtuns and retain tribal and clan identities, Siddique shows how foreign funding, militant influences, and the geopolitical environment enticed the Taliban to embrace Islam, rather than Pashtun culture, as its primary identity and alienate a population tired of wars and violence.

By creating a space for stories of Pashtun resistance to militancy, Siddique challenges the notion that Pashtuns were ‘willing hosts’ to Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. For example, Siddique demonstrates that after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, many tribal leaders held councils called jirgas to build a new Afghanistan. He recounts the story of the Mangal tribe in southeastern Afghanistan and a large jirga it held in 2003 to pledge support for Afghanistan’s new government and the country’s reconstruction. In another instance, the author cites the activism of 1,000 tribal leaders in Khost who protested the killing of a popular Paktia Province governor by a Taliban suicide bomber. The leaders adopted a pledge to support the Afghan government, outlining their commitment to rejecting terrorism and violence.

The Pashtun Question ultimately suggests that Pashtuns are not a homogenous group, contrary to how they are understood by the West, and even the state structures of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Siddique conveys this through his intricate accounts of the Pashtun tribes, their genealogies, and the regions they inhabit across the Durand Line.

Although titled The Pashtun Question, the book provides key answers to the community’s dilemma. Outlining a series of considerations in the final chapter, Siddique suggests that Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the international community must reassess and recalibrate their own actions, and mitigate the negative effects of their strategic manoeuvring in the region. In suggesting this, Siddique highlights that the answer to the Pashtun Question lies in allowing Pashtun and Afghan voices to answer this question themselves.