The Pashtuns: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan by Abubakar Siddique

By  Peter Gordon

Asian Review of Books

June 13, 2014 

Although it is convenient to refer to “Pakistanis” and “Afghans” as if the terms were functionally equivalent to “French” and “Germans”, it’s worth remembering that are not. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan are relatively new as unitary states, and are made up of a variety of groups which are at least as different from each other, linguistically, culturally and historically, as French and Italians. Several of these groups have had their own state, or something like it, at various points in the past.

One of the major groups, the Pashtuns, cross the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Pashtuns, writes Abubakar Siddique in his new book:  

"are estimated to constitute nearly half of Afghanistan’s population of 25.5 million. They are Pakistan’s largest minority, making up about 17-20 per cent of the country’s 174 million citizens in 2010."

They have had a rough time of it:  

"For at least the past six centuries, Pashtun history has been shaped by war, invasion and endemic local violence."

The Pashtuns, in short, have had the misfortune to live in a place over which superpowers trod, the consequences of which, Siddique argues, have resulted in them having been unfairly maligned:

Most contemporary journalistic and scholarly accounts of the instability gripping the Afghan and Pakistan borderlands have sought to demonstrate that violent Islamic extremism, including support for the Taliban and related groups, is either rooted in Pashtun history and culture, or finds willing hosts among Pashtun communities on either side of the Durand Line [the border drawn by British colonial authorities in 1893].

Siddique then sets out to tell their history, in particular that which interlocks with the history of the Taliban. This he does in considerable detail, region-by-region, group-by-group, leader-by-leader. Siddique, a Pashtun himself, seems to have extremely good access; his background in political science and anthropology—and opposed to history—is much in evidence. Although Siddique will occasionally drop into the first person, he generally eschews the travelogue style that seems to be much in vogue. This a matter-of-fact and, insofar as a non-expert can tell, deeply-researched account.

For those with a professional need to know about the ins-and-outs and who’s-who of the region,The Pashtuns is likely to prove a valuable if not invaluable resource. The rest of us, especially those who are not wont to demonize particular ethnic groups as being inherently one thing or another, may take more interest in Siddique’s conclusions and prescriptions in his final chapter, hopefully entitled “Crafting a Peaceful Pashtun Future”.

The basis of the problem is, he writes, "the failure of both Islamabad and Kabul to incorporate the Pashtuns into state structure and the economic and political fabric has compromised the security of both countries."

Siddique’s suggested solutions are multi-part. At the level of national politics, some some observations, such as references to the Arab Spring, already seem dated, e.g.

"... under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has emerged as a democratic-leaning role model... Arab Islamists, including Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood... have indicated they look to Turkey as a guide."

and other recommendations somewhat quaint:

"Moves should be made [in Afghanistan] towards gradually adopting English as an official language."

But the larger recommendation, in something of a circumlocution, relates to the Pashtuns’ lack of national status:

"The division of Pashtuns into two states remains an open wound... Declaring the Durand line to be a closed transaction has proved unacceptable to many Pashtuns, particularly among the Afghan political and intellectual elite."

That is, adjust the border. This sort of thing, especially when based on ethnic considerations, has in the recent past often proven problematic. One wishes the people and the region well, but the prognosis, Siddique’s best intentions notwithstanding, seems less than promising. But at least those who work on the issue from now on have no excuse not to be well-informed.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.