Pashtuns Amid Power Strife

By G Parthasarathy 

The Pioneer

July 20, 2014


The Pakistan army is currently conducting a massive military operation in the country’s tribal areas, along its borders with Afghanistan, using fighter jets, artillery and tanks. The operation is to quell Pashtun tribesmen of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, seeking to enforce Sharia Law in the country. At the same time, the Pakistan army is arming Pashtuns in Afghanistan, who are backing the Taliban under Mullah Omar, to seize power in Afghanistan and make it, yet again, a client State of Pakistan.


According to Pashtun folklore, their 17th century Pashtun warlord Khushal Khattak took to arms against Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, with whom he fell out, proclaiming: “The whole of the other Afghans from Kandahar unto Attak, (Attock); in honour’s cause, both secretly and openly are one.”


When speaking of the “whole” of other Afghans, Khattak was speaking not for the multi-ethnic Afghanistan of today, but for the people of the historical Pashtun homeland, extending from Kandahar to Attock (now in Pakistan), on the banks of River Indus. It was the British who redrew the boundaries between British India and Afghanistan in 1893. They forced a weak Afghan State to accept the Durand Line, incorporating areas south of the Khyber Pass into British India as the border between Afghanistan and British India. Pakistan inherited these territories and borders in 1947. But this was a border no Afghan Pashtun, including Mullah Omar has ever recognised. Faced with this dilemma and challenge to their territorial integrity, Pakistanis have adopted the strategy from the days of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of providing haven to disgruntled Pashtun leaders from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to Mullah Omar to destabilise and weaken the Pashtun dominated Afghan Government in Kabul.


The book, The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan, by Pakistani writer Abubakar Siddique provides an interesting insight into the history of Pashtuns. Those in India, given to focussing attention on the rule of the Mughals and their contemporaries like Pashtun Ibrahim Lodhi and Sher Shah Suri, will get a better insight into how the Mughal rulers from Babur and Humayun to Akbar and Aurangzeb, faced opposition not only from the Rajputs, Marathas, Jats and others, but also from Pashtun warlords like Ibrahim Lodi, Sher Shah Suri and Khushal Khan Khattak.


After dwelling briefly on the tensions in Pakistan-Afghanistan relations over the disputed Durand Line, Siddique deals at length on the differences between secular parties like Wali Khan’s National Awami Party on one hand and the religious Right led by the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam on the other.


The book describes the impact of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the role played by external actors ranging from the CIA and ISI to Saudi Arabia and Iran in exploiting the sectarian and ethnic fault lines in Afghanistan for partisan, regional and geopolitical gains. The chaos that followed the exit of the Soviets and the emergence of the Taliban is described in detail, though mention seems to have been avoided of the pernicious role of Benazir Bhutto’s Interior Minister Major General Naseerullah Khan Babar in nurturing and letting loose the Taliban in Afghanistan. The narrative would have been better if the author had focussed more on how the Taliban rule in Afghanistan led to the country becoming the epicentre of global terrorism because of the mutually reinforcing links between Mullah Omar, Osama bin Laden, the ISI, its assets like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Islamist terror groups from across the world. The Taliban rule was certainly not one of the glowing periods of Pashtun history.


Siddique gives a detailed account of how the American intervention in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist strikes changed not just the lives of Pashtuns, but also the entire regional security scenario. The author realistically acknowledges: “Reorienting Pakistan’s foreign policies, particularly with its neighbours, is a major task. But (Nawaz) Sharif has yet to sell the idea of a grand rapprochement with India to his Generals. More significantly, he will also have to rein in those who would again like to “conquer” Kabul or have untrammelled influence over events in Afghanistan, as Islamabad did after the fall of (the Soviet backed) Najibullah in 1992.”


Siddique does allude to a vision of greater economic integration between Pakistan and Afghanistan being the basis for regional cooperation and peace. For this, he advocates a road map akin to what his friend Ahmed Rashid has repeatedly suggested for over two decades now. But can this be achieved by eliminating the Pakistani Taliban while nurturing the Afghan Taliban as the Pakistan army is even now attempting to do? As Hillary Clinton recently noted Pakistan cannot nurture venomous snakes and vipers in its backyard and expect that only its neighbours will get bitten.