The Pashtun Conundrum

Part ethnographic account, part historical narrative, this work analyses the problems that have consistently plagued this ethnic group


By Pranay Kotasthane


Business Standard


July 19, 2014


The Pashtun people are at the crossroads, once again. On one hand, the Pakistan army's ongoing Operation Zarb-e-Azbin the country's Pashtun regions will have far-reaching consequences. On the other hand, as Afghanistan seeks to transfer power democratically for the first time in its history, there is a likelihood of renewed clashes between the Pashtun and Tajik ethnic groups. Given that these two events will have a tremendous ripple effect on the future of South Asia, understanding this region and its people is imperative for foreign policy watchers across the world. This scholarly work by journalist Abubaker Siddique, a trained anthropologist, provides an insider's perspective to a body of literature otherwise dominated by a handful of British colonial accounts.

The author, himself a Pashtun from the South Waziristan Agency in Pakistan, argues that violent Islamist extremism amongst Pashtuns is a result of the failure of Afghanistan and Pakistan in making Pashtuns a part of their state structures and national identities. Being an indigenous account, the reader should be aware of cognitive biases that can make such insider writings ignore internal issues and resort to external causes for all problems. Siddique, however, largely avoids such biases and gives an honest assessment of problems in Pashtun society.

The book follows a non-linear narrative and is divided into three parts. Part One is an ethnographic account in which the writer explores the umbrella term 'Pashtuns' - also identified as Afghans, Pathans or Pakhtuns. This group, the world's largest tribally organised society, is divided into four tribal groupings and several clans like the Afridis, Wazirs and Durranis. Tracing a thousand-year history, Siddique describes how a vast majority of Pashtuns became mere adjuncts to a contest between the two supranational concepts of communism and pan-Islamism. The author goes on to lament that the archetypical Pashtun nation has never been integrated into a single empire, state or political system.

The second part deals with the Pashtuns of Pakistan who constitute the country's largest minority, making up 15 to 20 per cent of the population. All chapters in this part will be of special interest to Indian readers in understanding Pakistan's historical doctrine of 'strategic depth' to counter India. The Pashtun Question describes how the Pakistani state made the Pashtun regions a tinderbox of pan-Islamism that simultaneously counters the forces of Communism in Afghanistan and Pashtun nationalism in its western half. The remnants of the dangerous game that Pakistan started are visible even today. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) continue to be centrally mis-administered under an oppressive set of laws called Frontier Crimes Regulations adopted by the British during the Great Game. These areas never saw any semblance of the rule of law and the 'political agents' who represented the central governments remained marginal players. Such was the lawlessness in the region that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda legitimised their presence as doing a favour to the local population by briefly ending rampant thievery, murder and the drug trade in the name of jihad. This section also discusses the origins of the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) after the Nato crackdown in Afghanistan. What Pakistan ignored then, and has probably realised now, is that with each inch of Pakistan's strategic depth in Afghanistan, the TTP in turn gained strategic depth in Pakistan itself.

The chapter on Balochistan is interesting. While the region below Quetta is simmering with currents of Baloch secession, northern Balochistan remains the seat of the Afghan Taliban.

The third part deals with Afghanistan's Pashtuns who constitute over 60 per cent of the country's population, concentrated in the southern and south-eastern parts adjoining Pakistan. This section traces the alliance of the Taliban with Al-Qaeda as a bittersweet marriage of convenience arranged to overthrow communist rule. The section describes how, as a result, there was a decline in the authority of the clan leader or Khan and the rise of the cleric or Maulawi in Pashtun society. Imported Arab terrorism was completely against the notion of Afghaniyat, favouring a radical Salafi Islamiyat instead. A complex power struggle ensued between the foreign Mujahideen and the largely Pashtun Taliban after the collapse of the communist government. The author traces all the political events, including the Mujahideen and Taliban rule up to the current state of affairs in the country. The inter-group dynamics between the various warring factions are complex and inconsistent as a result of which the reader may feel lost in this section.

The book also seeks to project the Afghan Taliban as having a Pashtun nationalist core, differentiating it from the Al-Qaeda and TTP which, like the The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIS, disregard diversity in ethnicity, language and culture. In reality, despite its religious fanaticism, the Afghan Taliban's popular image as a non-corrupt, simple and easily accessible organisation makes it a viable alternative for Pashtuns troubled by decades of lawlessness and neglect.

The fourth part of the book tries to propose a way forward for peace and reconciliation in the troubled region. Siddique expresses fear that the state of Afghanistan will find it difficult to assert its monopoly over the legitimate use of physical force in the days to come. The country faces the dual challenge of reconstructing an inclusive national identity along with a powerful, protective state. On the Pakistani side, the book calls for structural changes in Washington's approach to push Pakistan to permanently end the use of Pashtun borderlands as terrorist havens. There is a glimmer of hope in the Pakistan military's changing outlook towards the selective application of Islamic radicalism. The author urges Afghanistan to accept the Durand Line as the international border while advocating open access for people to regions on both sides.

This last part of the book could have been bolder in presenting concrete proposals for a political resolution. As is apparent, the situation looks grim with no immediate solution on the horizon. The Pashtun Question however serves the purpose of informing readers of the complex political landscape of the Pashtun regions and explores the various hues of political players in an objective and insightful manner. This perhaps is the book's greatest contribution.


Pranay Kotasthane is a geopolitical analyst with the Takshashila Institution, an independent policy thinktank.