The Pashtun Question, And Answer

By Daniel Serwer

I’ve been anxious not to let the summer go by without reading Abubakar Siddique’s The Pashtun Question:  The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Abubakar is a journalist at Radio Free Europe born in Waziristan, the heart of the “Afpak” border area.

Why would anyone want to know more about a question whose predicate is an ethnic group few of us know the least thing about?

That’s why. While we may not know anything about the Pashtuns, the territory they inhabit on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan has been an important stage for many of the protagonists Americans have had to worry about over the last twenty years. The predominantly Pashtun but explicitly anti-ethnic and Islamist Taliban, who governed in most of Afghanistan 1996-2001, originated in part there. It is there that Al Qaeda and other extremist groups have enjoyed safe haven and operational freedom, including recruitment among the Pashtuns. The Pakistani Taliban, who continue to wreck havoc in much of Pakistan, also originate there.  If you want to make the world safe from terrorism, there are few more important parts of the world than Pashtunistan.

Abubakar’s wide-ranging assessment of what is going on there is likely to be the definitive work on the subject for a long time to come. This is the book he was born to write. Who can match his knowledge of the territory, the people, their customs, their history and their ambitions? Plus, he has reported on the main events and interviewed the protagonists of the last two decades, with admirable allegiance to the best standards of contemporary international journalism. His Gandhara blog, named for an ancient kingdom that corresponded more or less to Pashtunistan, is must reading for those interested in what is going on there.

The picture Abubakar paints is up close and personal. He sees the Pashtuns in all their complexity:  there are Islamists and nationalists, tribesmen and city dwellers, traditionalists and modernizers, extremists and moderates, democrats and authoritarians, Sunnis and some Shia. The one thing he claims they have in common is that the two countries whose border their homeland straddles–Afghanistan and Pakistan–have both marginalized them.

The rise of Islamist extremism among Pashtuns is a reaction to this marginalization. The consequences for Pashtuns have included horrendous atrocities, widespread physical destruction, displacement, social disruption and drastically lowered living and educational standards. Caught on a battlefield where the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan array their forces to fight one or another enemy, or in Pakistan’s case  to pretend to fight them while actually helping them, many ordinary Pashtuns find nowhere to run, nowhere to hide in their devastated homeland, where extremists now rule the roost. So they move, carrying their hopes and resentments to Karachi and beyond.

Given this gloomy assessment, it would not be surprising if Abubakar concluded with pessimism or a clarion call for Pashtuns to unite and throw off their chains, seceding from both Pakistan and Afghanistan. He doesn’t. Instead he takes a cautious look at the ingredients for a peaceful Pashtun future. These include a stronger Afghan state able to reconcile with at least some Taliban, a democratic Pakistan that stops providing safe haven to Islamic extremists and trying to control the government in Kabul, and an America that sustains its nation-building engagement in Afghanistan “for many more years.” Then he adds something as welcome as it is unanticipated:

Sooner or later, the two countries will have to come to terms over the question of the Durand Line, which has vexed relations for seventy years. A Pashto language proverb says: “You cannot separate water with a stick.”

The Durand Line is the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan in Pashtun-populated areas. Pakistan recognizes it. Afghanistan does not. Abubakar’s view is that it will have to be recognized, then opened to cross-border movement and trade, which have grown enormously since 2001 and have much greater potential, not least because of the youth bulge in both countries’ populations.

So Abubakar not only asks the Pashtun question, he also answers it, not only for the Pashtuns but also for Kabul and Islamabad. The odds aren’t good for the peaceful future he envisages, but he has more than earned the right to imagine it.