The Pashtun Question

By Daud Khattak

Foreign Policy 

June 10, 2014

After 13 years of fighting the Taliban, the United States and its NATO allies are drawing down by the end of 2014, handing over greater responsibility to their Afghan partners.

Notwithstanding some landmark achievements, such as the parliamentary and presidential elections, the increase in school enrollment, infrastructure development and a degree of improvement in human rights conditions, the security situation in Afghanistan is still far from satisfactory.

Just across the border, the Pakistani government and its security forces are engaged are fighting its own war with the Taliban, also called the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP, and its affiliate groups.  

The war zone on both sides of the British-era Durand Line is inhabited by nearly 50 million ethnic Pashtuns, who, over the decades, have been stereotypically described by historians and contemporary writers as the martial race who loves to fight and kill with little regard for peace and development.

So what will become of the world's largest tribally organized society caught up in complex struggles with extremism, marginality, modernity and globalization after the U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan?

Journalist Abubakar Siddique presents a timely portrait of the situation and its ground realities and attempts to present a solution in his 270-page book, The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Divided into four parts, the first part of the book introduces Pashtun as a nation, their land and their historical background. The second part focuses on the spread of extremist trends and the rise of the Taliban in the Pakistani tribal areas, and the impact of Pakistan's military operations and the U.S. drone strikes. The third part covers the three major Pashtun-dominated regions in Afghanistan with various Islamist currents and their impact on contemporary Afghanistan. And the fourth and concluding part is discussing the ways to achieve lasting peace.

In his attempt to challenge the stereotypes about Pashtuns, which according to Siddique, are often rooted in the British colonial ethnography, the writer goes deep into Pashtun history, culture, and traditions to prove how the Pashtun region turned from a peaceful borderland into an incubator of extremism.

"Years of external patronage and billions of dollars of covert and overt funding for armed factions culminated in the rise of radical political Islam. The Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan are one manifestation of this process," he writes.

Siddique, who himself was born and raised in the Waziristan tribal region, believes that the Pashtuns and the tribal areas of the 21st century are different than what they were five or six decades ago -- particularly in their ability to access information digitally and their desire to become connected to mainstream political, social, and economic movements.

However, their marginalization is quite visible in the discriminatory laws, such as the British-era Frontier Crimes Regulations, also known as the FCR, still in place and the backwardness visible at every step despite the billions of dollars in foreign funding over the past 12 years, a vast chunk of which was meant for development and mainstreaming of the so-called no-man's land of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) where the Pashtuns reside.

"In many ways, it [FATA] is an administrative, political and economic anomaly within Pakistan," writes Siddique, adding that "effective governance in FATA has long been stymied by labyrinthine diarchal arrangements, keeping the region isolated and marginalized."

The marginalization also leads to an increasing sense of alienation among FATA residents, which was exploited by the anti-Soviet mujahedeen, the radical clerics, the fleeing al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives, and the Pakistani security establishment.

On the Afghanistan side, Siddique does not subscribe to the oft-repeated ideas of ethnic division among Afghans and the common notion in Western media that the Taliban is a nationalist movement. Instead, he goes to great lengths to demystify the Taliban and presents one of the most comprehensive accounts of the Taliban movements in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Dispelling the oft-repeated notion of Talibanization as a purely Pashtun nationalist movement, Siddique thoroughly goes into the roots of jihadism, salafism, and the birth of the Taliban. His findings suggest Talibanization is the bi-product of poor governance, local grievances, poverty, international mishandling, foreign patronage and an inability on the part of the Afghan government to understand and properly address these issues.

"We are like orphans. Anybody who is kind, uses us for their benefits," Siddique quotes former Afghan mujahideen leader Mawlavi Younas Khalis, who was heading the Khalis faction of Hizb-e-Islami party during the anti-communist struggle.


The other key factor behind the rise of jihadism was the Soviets' internal bickering and their sheer failure to take the Pashtun tribes on board while making decisions affecting the local culture and traditions. He claims: "The communists' antipathy towards religion and traditions also played a key role in pushing away the tribal leadership."

Just like the anti-communist jihadist of the 1980s, the Taliban of the 1990s cashed in on the failure of the Afghan government to adopt a proper tribal policy and the international forces to understand the tribal dynamics. Siddique says: "[The] Taliban has successfully capitalized on the failure of international forces to develop a sophisticated understanding of the tribal dynamics."

Besides the rise of Taliban in Loy Kandahar, as greater Kandahar used to be called and represented the provinces of the present day Kandahar, Helmand and Zabul before the Taliban era was also the result of a vacuum created by the killing of tribal and community elders  by the Taliban, who were struggling to re-organize their forces after 2001. "By killing the leaders, the Taliban sought to wound Pashtun tribal solidarity," writes Siddique, adding that "the killing undermined trust and co-operation between residents and the government and foreign forces."

Siddique's concluding section, where he looks at ‘Crafting a Peaceful Pashtun Future,' gives a detailed and pragmatic blue print for building peace in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Although he is not sure of a certain peaceful future for the Pashtun homeland, Siddique, as a native of the land, bases his optimism on a full-of-hope Pashtun proverb "Ka Ghar Jag De, Pa Sar Ye Lar Da" (no matter how high a mountain, there is always a way over its top).

Mentioning in full detail the failures of the Afghan government to ensure good governance, that of the United States to understand the tribal dynamics and to address the issues in a timely and proper manner, and a continued interference from Pakistan, the author rests his future optimism on his findings that the Taliban are amenable and their broader motives are limited to Afghanistan.

Also, there must be a comprehensive settlement between Afghanistan and Pakistan over the issue of the British-era border called the Durand Line. Strongly optimistic about a final solution of the border dispute, Siddique calls the issue an "open wound severely affecting economic growth and social development" on the two sides.

So far Afghan authorities have never hinted at recognizing the border -- nor did the pro-Pakistani mujahedeen or the Taliban despite Pakistan earnest wish to do so. Still, Siddique sees a solution to the complex issue; although, he stops short of openly saying that the two sides will come to terms on the existing arrangements as the permanent border.

Siddique believes Pakistan need not worry about Pashtun secession as all the major Pashtun nationalist parties demands never went beyond calling for provincial autonomy within federal Pakistan. "The full integration of Pashtuns into economic and political life would help stabilize the troubled megalopolis [of Karachi] and prevent it from turning into another Beirut and Baghdad," he predicts.

Integration of Pashtuns in the mainstream on the Pakistani side and greater cooperation between the two countries with cross border trade and economic activity will help prevent past problems from becoming future conflicts.

Daud Khattak is a Pakistani journalist currently working as a senior editor of Radio Mashaal for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. He has worked with Pakistan's English dailies The News and Daily Times, Afghanistan's Pajhwok Afghan News, and has written for the Christian Science Monitor and London Sunday Times. The views expressed here are the author's own and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.