An insight into the history of Pashtuns
Most contemporary accounts of the instability gripping Afghanistan and Pakistan have argued 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 their communities on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
In “The Pashtuns: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan”, journalist Abubakar Siddique sets out to demonstrate that the failure, or even unwillingness, of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to absorb the Pashtuns into their state structures and to incorporate them into economic and political fabric is central to these dynamics, and a critical failure of nation-and state-building in both states.
He argues that religious extremism is the product of these critical failures and that responsibility for the situation lies to some degree with the elites of both countries.
The author, a Pashtun himself, says that some 50 million Pashtuns have paid a steep price over the past 30 years due to such flawed analyses.
“The Taliban and allied extremist movements, as well as regional states and Western powers, have used violence in a bid to mould the Pashtun lands to their liking. Their attempts have left behind a legacy of misery and mistrust, and contributed to the creation of a resourceful and committed enemy, the Taliban. The West’s political goals for the region, meanwhile have remained unfulfilled,” he writes in the book, published by Random House India.
“I have sought to show that the often extraordinary great power intervention in the Pashtun borderlands – and their focus on the Taliban as primarily a militant threat – have only prolonged the crisis. I have tried to show how regional states have fallen short in making the Pashtun homeland a bridge for transnational cooperation.
“And I have sought to demonstrate that regional extremism, mainly manifested in the Taliban and allied movements, is to a large degree a product of all these critical failures. Above all, however, I have tried to show that the main factor behind the rise of Islamic radicals such as the Taliban is the lack of development and stability in the Pashtun homeland,” Siddique says.
The book attempts to explain the rise of Taliban, their contemporary behaviour, strategic vision and potential future.
Siddique says that after the departure of NATO-led forces, Afghans face a stark choice: either they will find a way to resolve their differences or the country is likely to descend once more into civil war.
True stability wont be possible without a comprehensive settlement between Afghanistan and Pakistan, he says.
“The division of Pashtuns into two states remains an open wound, severely affecting economic growth and social development. Without a resolution to this question, the region will never rise to its potential as a land bridge between South Asia and Central Asia on the one hand, and the Middle east and China on the other,” the author says.
According to him, a permanent Afghan-Pakistan settlement would deliver profound political and economic benefits.
“It would reduce ethnic tensions and strengthen national unity in both states. It would resolve the fraught question of Pashtun citizenship rights. A new deal between Kabul and Islamabad could enable some Pashtuns in the borderlands to legitimately seek dual citizenship,” Sidiqque writes.
He says such measures would go a long way towards ending the historic isolation of some borderland communities.
“They would open a new horizon for Pashtuns and other ethnic groups, encouraging communicate and develop economic and cultural links in a spirit of cooperation,” he says.
Pashtuns are estimated to constitute nearly half of Afghanistan’s population of 25.5 million. They are Pakistan’s largest minority, making up about 15-20 per cent of the country’s 174 million citizens in 2010. The original Pashtun homeland was situated between the Hindu Kush mountains in central Afghanistan and the Indus River that bisects Pakistan, but Pashtun communities are now scattered over a vast territory.
Pashtuns are identified by several related names. ‘Afghan’, which denotes a citizen of Afghanistan in the juridical sense, is interchangeable with ‘Pashtun’.
Many Pashtuns in northwestern Pakistan are conscious of their ethnic identity and still identify themselves in official documents as ‘Afghan’ – a practice that originated in the raj. ‘Pathan’, a corruption of the native ‘Pakhtun’ used in the subcontinent, identified the Pashtuns in British colonial ethnography. This term of usage has been declining.
Many Pashtun leaders and intellectuals view their people as among the most maligned of the 21st century. This is because their lands have been transformed into a staging ground for a global conflict that has entangled some of the world’s most powerful regular and private armies. But little attention is paid to understanding the modern Pashtun, in his own environment.
Since September 11, 2001 terrorist strikes in US, Pashtun communities in both Afghanistan and Pakistan have paid a heavy price for such erroneous descriptions. A vast majority of them have almost become mere adjuncts, watching from the sidelines as local and foreign Islamist extremists and outsiders who came to fight them fundamentally alter existing order through violence.