Graveyard of Ignorance

By Neil Padukone 

Open Magazine

July 4, 2014

A first-hand study of Pashtuns offers a native’s perspective often lost on world capitals

 “I like Americans!” an Afghan once declared to me. “To Americans it does not matter whether I am an ethnic Hazara, Pashtun, Tajik or Uzbek.” There’s an old joke that the only way Americans learn about a country is by invading it. But 13 years after the war in Afghanistan began and just months before the purported drawdown of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), has the world moved beyond its sense of Afghanistan as a graveyard of empires? Journalist Abubakar Siddique’s The Pashtuns says it hasn’t, despite decades of intermittent involvement in the region. Few truly understand Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, he insists; a plurality—40 per cent—of that country and more than 15 per cent of Pakistan. Attempting to dispel myths that the area’s instability is caused by an inherently ‘martial’ people governed by a fundamentalist code, Siddique, a Pashtun himself, mines modern Pashtun history.

Through Pashto treatises of Sufi philosophers and debates between the ideas of Pashtun nationalists like the pro- democracy Afrasiab Khattak, leftist activists such as Faiz Mohammad and Islamist thinkers like the late Mawlawi Younas Khalis, we learn Pashtun identity has been forged by integrating the religious with the cultural, political imperatives with geographic ones. Siddique offers an encyclopaedic yet accessible description of Pashtun majority districts. While their lands are the crossroads of the Silk Road, the last half century of globalisation, state building and external influence has brought Pashtuns to their current chaotic state, he explains. For, Afghans have been casualties of American and Soviet manoeuvres in the 1980s, of Saudi Arabia and Iran in their quest for hegemony over the Islamic world, and most profoundly, of Indian and Pakistani jockeying.

Pakistan has repeatedly used Pashtuns for its own purposes, Siddique says, to gain strategic depth in Afghan land; clamp down on ethnic nationalism within its borders, enforced by draconian, imperial- era legal systems like the Frontier Crimes Regulations of north-western Pakistan; and create a hardline Islamic identity to strengthen Pakistani cohesion and distinguish Pakistanis from Indians. For this last goal, Saudi money and religious doctrine as well as American weaponry, have become game-changers, he asserts. Thus, Pashtuns have become synonymous with the Taliban, and because of the region’s complicated dynamics, Washington and Islamabad have gone back and forth between supporting and attacking bands of militants and the civilians amongst whom they reside. ‘Washington’s failure to persuade Pakistan’s security establishment to dismantle extremist networks threatened progress in Afghanistan’, says Siddique.

The autonomy of Pashtuns in these struggles has been compromised by the fact that they straddle the Durand Line, the 2,460 km-long Afghanistan-Pakistan border deemed illegitimate by countless Afghan governments; practically ignored by the Pashtun tribes. A Pashtun proverb says, ‘You cannot separate water with a stick.’ The Durand Line attempts just this, and Siddique advises Kabul and Islamabad to open the border permanently as a solution. At the outset, Siddique tells us the world will fall short in Pashtunistan ‘so long as [the] focus remains on short-term security goals and not… development and cooperation’. A step in this direction, we are reminded, is the presence of millions of Afghans in Pakistan with strong links across South Asia—including Karachi, with the world’s highest concentration of Pashtuns.

Yet, the book only casually mentions the Chabahar road in eastern Iran. This new India-constructed road passes from the Arabian Sea to Afghanistan’s western Herat, and is shorter and more stable than the two other land routes connecting Afghanistan to the sea through Pakistan—ending Pakistan’s monopoly on Afghanistan’s maritime trade, which had enabled Islamabad’s pernicious influence in Kabul. Moreover, pivotal strategic changes, including shared energy infrastructure in north-west India and eastern Pakistan and transit trade between Kabul, Lahore and Amritsar, could be explored more fully.

At once history, analysis and policy prescription, The Pashtuns reminds us of its subjects’ often forgotten humanity. As Operation Enduring Freedom ends, NATO looks for a graceful exit. Hopefully this time they will care to find out more. n

Neil Padukone is the author of Beyond South Asia: India’s Strategic Evolution and the Reintegration of the Subcontinent.