The Great Game

By Abhijit Battacharyya


The Telegraph


June 27, 2014


The book, The Pashtun Question, is a narrative on the Pashtuns by an author who is one of them; and who “desires to see lasting peace finally come to our valleys and mountains”. As the Pashtuns stride the two countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the author painstakingly tries to trace the contours of war and peace, trials and tribulations, agony and ecstasy of the millions of his brethren in an area which has earned notoriety owing to the prolonged absence of peace there.


The story starts with the author’s own boyhood memories from 1981, when the “shambling appearance” and “ordeal” of his Pashtun refugee brethren stung his “naive eyes”. The calamity that had brought the Afghan Pashtuns to Pakistani soil as refugees was a war which was neither visible nor audible; nor was it the making of the Pashtuns. Yet, it was talked about and felt everywhere. The author introspects: “one question haunted me then, and it continues to disturb me now: why was this happening?” Abubakar Siddique says that the “failure of both Islamabad and Kabul to incorporate the Pashtuns into state structures and the economic and political fabric has compromised the security of both countries”.


What initially was a peaceful borderland encompassing the gates of, and link between, the great Indian peninsula, the Persian landmass and the steppe lands of Russia, turned into an “incubator of extremist movements mobilised in the name of Islam” as a result of the “foreign invasions and internal fragmentation” that have, for centuries, stymied the development of these people. And by 1000 AD, the population of most Pashtun regions had largely become Muslim.


After 800 years of resistance, rivalries and great empire building enterprise, the political and legal structures continue in the present-day Pashtun regions. But the weakness of the Durrani empire and the ambitions of European imperialism set the stage for the “Great Game”. The British invaded Afghanistan in 1839. Although the defeat of the British in the Anglo-Afghan war put an end to their ill-conceived “forward policy”, it subsequently resulted in the Durand Line being drawn in 1893, thereby artificially, but permanently, demarcating the home and hearth of the Pashtuns between future Pakistan and the Afghan territory, the main inhabitants of which continue to be the Pashtuns.


Came 1947, and Pakistan withdrew its army units from the “tribal areas” only to rely on the Pashtun “lashkars” from both sides of the Durand Line to fight as Islamabad’s “surrogate army”, against the Indian army in the prolonged battle for the control of “Muslim Kashmir”. Although the Pashtuns solely do not constitute either Afghanistan or Pakistan, any action on or from them historically created ripples in an area which stands virtually landlocked. Thus, when the Soviets arrived in the Pashtun heartland of Afghanistan in 1978-1979, the seeds of future “international jihad” were sown. What began thereafter was the manipulation and control of the Pashtuns by the Pakistani State (funded by America, Saudi Arabia and other friendly countries of the Islamic world) to fight a jihad against Moscow in Pashtun land.



As thousands of “Islamic radicals from across the Arab world, and a lesser number from Southeast Asia, came to Pakistan to fight and assist the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan”, the Soviets succumbed after 10 years of war on foreign soil, paving the way for the Talibanization of the Pashtun culture. According to the author, however, “The Taliban were never correctly understood after their appearance on the Afghan stage” owing to the coloured views of various observers. Be that as it may, the author does concede that “for at least the past six centuries, Pashtun history has been shaped by war, invasion and endemic local violence”. While the Pashtuns have often been stereotyped as being “culturally disposed to violence and disorder” owing to “some Pashtun leaders” taking an active part in a variety of conflicts, the author emphatically urges the readers to believe and explore the fact that “a vocal — and sometimes politically dominant — peace camp exists”. Whether one agrees or not with this contention, the fact remains that this enjoyable and readable book fills a vacuum on the understanding of the Pashtuns by non-Pashtuns.