Answering the Pashtun Question

December 29, 2014

Abubakar Siddique, The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan (C. Hurst & Co. 2014)


The “mujahideen” reached Peshawar in the early 19th century, bringing with them a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam and the readiness of zealots to use violence – then against the Sikhs. Their leader, Sayyid Ahmed from Rae Bareilly in northern India, who was inspired by the reformist preacher Shah Waliullah, is still celebrated today in the officially sanctioned ideology of Pakistan as a forefather of modern jihad. But local Pashtuns, who disliked his severe interpretation of Islam, rejected him and the Sikhs killed him in 1831. The story is significant in showing how in the history of the region, extremism and religiously sanctioned violence was just as likely to move from east to west, from the heartland of undivided British India to Pashtun lands, as it was to move from west to east. It has all the more resonance following this month’s attack by Taliban militants on a school in Peshawar, in which more than 140 people – most of them children – were killed. It is an attack that Pakistan would desperately prefer to blame on an external enemy hiding among the Pashtuns to the northwest than on influences radiating outwards from its heartland.

The narrative that the dangers of extremism would come from predominantly Pashtun lands to the northwest of British India – including large parts of modern-day Afghanistan, and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) adjacent to Peshawar – is of British origin. It was a convenient way for colonial functionaries to explain to London their poor judgment, which led to the massacre of a British army on its retreat from Kabul in 1842. That retreat took place more than a decade after Sayyid Ahmed died, and yet it is far more frequently cited as a foundational moment for the development of jihad in the region than his arrival in Peshawar from the east. Later, the British would relegate the Pashtun lands to the periphery of the British Raj, happy to avoid the burden of governance provided that Afghanistan accepted British tutelage on foreign policy. The British colonial spotlight on the Indian subcontinent meant that the history of Afghanistan was often consigned to the shadows. If there were a grammar of Raj thinking, the Pashtuns would always be the objects of a sentence, never its subjects.

The Pakistani state, the direct inheritor of British colonial power in the lands bordering Afghanistan, has preserved many elements of the Raj view of Pashtuns. Its military continues to see Afghanistan as a country over which it has rightful influence – as it has proved with its enduring support for the Afghan Taliban and other Pashtun groups opposed to the government in Kabul. It still governs the Pashtun tribes living in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) through the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulation. Since the United States overthrew the Taliban in Kabul in 2001, Pakistan has also been able to rely on an orientalist description of “untameable” Pashtuns to explain resistance to the American presence in Afghanistan. This explanation also allows Pakistan to avoid its own active role in Afghanistan’s instability. Some years back, Pakistan’s military establishment, which runs foreign and security policy, even managed to convince many at home and in the West that the Pakistani Taliban were essentially wild tribals riled up by U.S. drone strikes in FATA. After the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack on the school in Peshawar this month, Pakistan’s attention has again been primarily focused on the northwest. The day after the attack, Pakistan Army chief General Raheel Sharif travelled to Kabul to demand its help in hunting down Pakistani Taliban leaders that Pakistan says are based in Afghanistan. The Pakistan Air Force stepped up its attacks on militant targets in FATA – the days of worrying about civilian casualties from air strikes seem to be long gone. Just as the British view had relocated violent Islamist extremism to the northwest from the heartland of undivided India where it found its intellectual roots, Pakistan did the same in its response to the Peshawar attack. It is not that there are no Pakistani Taliban in Afghanistan or FATA. There are. The point is that the roots of Islamist militancy come from deep within Pakistan; the use of religiously sanctioned violence is integral to its history and ideology. Its heartland in Punjab province is home to violent militant groups nurtured for decades by the military to impose its will domestically and to fight India. But this problem in the heartland is all the more easily ignored if attention is focused on what the Raj called its “Northwest Frontier” – on the wild tribal Pashtun of the colonial imagination. The enemy becomes external.

In his book, The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan, journalist Abubakar Siddique – who is from Waziristan in FATA – sets out to show that violent extremism is neither rooted in Pashtun history nor finds willing hosts among its tribes. He highlights how Pashtuns comprised not only “ungoverned” tribes but also conquerors and rulers, like the Lodi dynasty, which ruled in northern India from 1451 to 1526. Rather than celebrating bearded, religious extremists, the heroes of Pashtun history are poets, proponents of non-violence, and Sufis. The Pashtun leader Ahmad Shah Abdali of the Durrani tribal confederation fought and won what was one of the world’s most important battles in the 18th century when his forces defeated the Marathas in The Third Battle of Panipat north of Delhi in 1761. Tellingly, Pakistan has appropriated this victory in its official histories as one of Muslims over Hindus rather than one of Pashtuns over Marathas; it suppresses Pashtun ethnicity and replaces it with Islamic ideology. This effort to stress Islam over ethnic identity is one that has defined Pakistan’s attitude to its own Pashtuns, and to Afghanistan, for decades.

Since its creation in 1947, Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan have been troubled. Afghanistan refused initially even to recognise Pakistan at the United Nations. To this day, it refuses to recognise the colonial-era Durand Line as the official border, instead harbouring claims to Pashtun lands on the Pakistani side as far as the Indus River. Pakistan has also fretted about the Pashtuns on its side of the Durand Line hankering after a separate Pashtunistan, an idea floated in the mid-20th century. The Soviet invasion in 1979, and the American and Saudi money provided to fund the Afghan resistance, gave Pakistan the perfect opportunity to exert its influence on Afghanistan while undermining Pashtun nationalism. With its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency running the resistance, Pakistan made sure to encourage distinctly Islamist fighters whose commitment to the “jihad” against the Soviets would override any attachment to the ethnic Pashtun cause. Pakistan’s subsequent support for the Afghan Taliban who took power in 1996, Siddique notes, created a form of “Pashtun Islamism” that bitterly divided Pashtuns in Pakistan between those who supported the Pakistani establishment and secular nationalists, while also alienating many Afghan Pashtuns.

Siddique’s history is followed by detailed accounts of the war in key parts of Afghanistan and FATA after 2001, when Pakistan formally promised to work with the United States against the Taliban. Instead, he writes, Islamabad followed “a classic game of doubletalk, in which it sent out different messages to different audiences in hopes of capitalising on the ignorance of both, and gambling that its deception would not be noticed by anyone in a position to do anything about it.” The Pashtuns, who would become the main tools and victims of the conflict, of course, noticed it.

The book is at its best when Siddique brings his own first-hand knowledge to bear, particularly in a region so hard for foreigners to visit. On a trip to Quetta, capital of the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, he notes for example that, “it was not difficult to find Afghan Taliban fighters in Quetta. There were hundreds of them, perhaps thousands…” To outsiders they might have seemed indistinguishable from Pakistani Pashtuns, but to Siddique “the way they fastened their turbans, the slight variations of their Pashto dialect, their unkempt long beards and hair, and the way they walked around in packs, distinguished the Afghan Taliban from ordinary residents.”

Given the richness of the material he has collated, the book is, however, surprisingly tame in its conclusions. What Siddique describes as “the unresolved key to the future of Pakistan and Afghanistan” essentially echoes the arguments of the Pakistani military establishment: that violence cannot be ended unless Pakistan’s security concerns are assuaged. Thus, he writes that Washington should encourage “Afghanistan and India to effectively address, respectively, Pakistani security concerns related to the Pashtun and Baloch border regions and Kashmir.” He also argues that “true stability will not be possible without a comprehensive settlement between Afghanistan and Pakistan,” which would include an agreement on the Durand Line while also keeping the border open for the movement of people and goods. These are arguments which have been made by other analysts groping for a solution to the Afghan war. Yet Pakistan’s problems with Islamist militancy run far deeper than the insecurity of its borders. If its nuclear tests in 1998 could not make it feel secure, Afghanistan’s recognition of the Durand Line is unlikely to make much difference. Moreover, having attempted to establish that violent extremism does not have its roots in Pashtun history or culture, Siddique falls into the trap of seeking solutions from within Pashtun lands rather than at the core of the Pakistani state.

It would have been great to see a much bolder conclusion, one which, rather than continuing the British colonial pattern of trying to impose a settlement on the periphery, looks instead at the problems inherent in the Pakistani heartland and its inability to accommodate ethnic diversity. He might have found a need to upend a system that depends on preserving many of the repressive structures of the British security state while stressing the unifying role of Islam to suppress the different ethnic identities of its people. After all, Pakistan already lost more than half its population in 1971, when ethnic Bengalis in East Pakistan broke away, with Indian help, to form Bangladesh. Siddique’s book might have opened the way for a leap of imagination that would have addressed the centre far more clearly from the perspective of the Pashtun periphery. Instead, in what appears to be an effort at balance, he ends up repeating the standard security paradigm that Pakistan has somehow imposed on the vast majority of writers and analysts at home and abroad. His book, however, with its wealth of richly footnoted analysis and history, is an essential volume for anyone studying the region or the U.S. war in Afghanistan.


Myra MacDonald is a former Reuters journalist who has reported on Pakistan and India since 2000. She is the author of “Heights of Madness”, a book on the Siachen war fought in the mountains beyond Kashmir on the world’s highest battlefield. She is now working on a book about the relationship between India and Pakistan following their nuclear tests in 1998. She lives in Scotland and can be found on Twitter @myraemacdonald.


Photo credit: Afghanistan Matters