For Peace in Afghanistan, Consider the Pashtuns


By Ayaz Khan Achakzai '09
Illustrations by Robert P. Hernandez

These days even casual followers of world news see Pakistan regularly making international headlines. Suicide bombings, fundamentalist safe-havens, unsecured nuclear weapons— these are some of the issues that have been brought into focus as a result of the international community’s war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

Much also has been written, often by visiting journalists and Google scholars, about the Pashtun ethnic group in whose territory this war is concentrated. Pashtuns are the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan and the contiguous areas of Pakistan. Their land has become the center of world terrorism not for inherent cultural, religious, or socioeconomic reasons; this state of affairs has geopolitical origins. In fact, the key to the resolution of the imbroglio we face today lies in an understanding of the plight of the Pashtuns.
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The roots of the current conflict go back to the 19th century, when imperial Britain, wanting to secure its Indian dominion from a Czarist threat, realized the strategic importance of this area and tried to occupy Afghanistan. Its attempts met with disaster; in 1842 an 18,000-strong British force retreating from Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, was cut down to the last man. The war of liberation was led by my great-grandfather.

As a compromise, a chunk of Pashtun territory was separated from Afghanistan and amalgamated into British India. A border known as the Durand Line was created that is currently the boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The separated territory now forms the Pashtun areas of Pakistan, divided over the provinces of North West Frontier Province (renamed Pashtunkhwa), Balochistan, Punjab, and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Since the Durand Line cuts through the Pashtun heartland—dividing tribes, clans, and even households—it is crossed with impunity by Pashtuns who live on either side.

While the British were repelled from Afghanistan proper on the strength of arms, secular Pashtun political opposition formed an equally potent threat to British rule in areas it directly governed. I am sure that most people would be surprised to know that the Pashtun region of Pakistan, the breeding ground of the Taliban and the safe haven of Al-Qaeda, an area mired these days in fundamentalist militancy, was once a bastion of Gandhian nonviolence. In the first half of the 20th century Abdul Ghaffar Khan, also known as Frontier Gandhi, raised a nonviolent army of 100,000 individuals called the Khudai Khidmatgars (KK) that played an instrumental role in the freedom of the Indian subcontinent.

To counter the influence of the KK and other secular Pashtun parties, Britain played the religious card, a process that continued after the creation of Pakistan and resulted in the strengthening of mullahs (clerics, the Muslim equivalent of priests) who had previously been marginal political players in Pashtun society. This process culminated in the creation of the Taliban, proxies used in Afghanistan.

The best example of the repressive system instituted by the British and maintained by the government of Pakistan can be found in FATA. Located between the Pakistani province of Pashtunkhwa and Afghanistan, this area has consistently been cited as the sanctuary of Osama bin Laden. FATA was very successful in resisting British imperialism; in 1946 a piece of it the size of Connecticut, called Waziristan, could not be subdued by 40,000 British troops. As a reward for their intransigence and refusal to accept foreign domination, the people of FATA were subjected to an inhuman set of laws called the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), rules which they must abide by to this day. The most callous clauses of FCR are those that relate to collective responsibility in which an absconder’s kin are held responsible for the individual’s crimes. Entire families, children included, have been imprisoned under this clause.

FATA is emblematic of how certain regions of Pakistan were transformed into fundamentalist havens. Since its inception, the FCR precluded political parties from functioning in the area, while religious parties were given cartes blanches. The lack of political activity, the manipulation and weakening of traditional tribal power structures by the state, and their replacement with clerical fiat allowed the transformation of FATA into Al-Qaeda central. The removal of tribal leaders, who were historically the bulwark against the British, meant that the population was devoid of any poles around which to coalesce, now making the population hostage to foreign mercenaries. The legal right of the residents of FATA to cross the Durand Line and their strong transnational ethnic links, coupled with the fact that some parts of FATA are less than 100 kilometers from Kabul, mean that these people are stakeholders in both countries.

The creation of the Taliban in Kandahar, the royal and cultural capital of all Pashtuns, seems to have been another effort to decimate Pashtun identity. The Taliban, a movement native in composition but proxy in nature, should not be clumped with Al-Qaeda and other foreign mercenaries. Most of the Taliban rank and file are not hardened ideologues. They fight due to a complex combination of tribal, ethnic, religious, political, economic, and social reasons. For example, the symbolism of fighting international forces in southern Afghanistan is not lost upon the Taliban. The front lines of this area, particularly the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, are often the very sites where Afghans battled and defeated imperial Britain in the 19th century.

Instead of taking absolutist positions, one must look at the Taliban in their regional context. If the clerical parties of Pakistan, the parent organizations of the Taliban, can be part of Pakistan’s electoral process, then the Taliban should be allowed the same in Afghanistan. The religious right garners a minute percentage of the vote in Pakistan; let us see how much they manage in Afghanistan. The vast majority of insurgents are rational players who can be convinced to make peace, but only if the United States makes a credible commitment to the region. A valuable window of opportunity was lost early on when the focus, and resources, shifted to Iraq. In all the tragedies that Afghanistan has had to endure, perhaps the greatest has been the coming to power of a village cleric.

Pashtuns on either side of the Durand Line are one. The sensitivity of either segment of Pashtuns to the conditions of the other means that there can be no peace in Afghanistan until the Pashtun population of Pakistan is politically emancipated. Thus the Pashtuns in Pakistan need to be collected in a single province in which secular political parties are provided a level playing field vis-à-vis religious elements, their language and culture celebrated, and their economy improved. It is important to celebrate the transnational nature of the Pashtun population instead of trying to subsume their ethnic identity into a larger religious framework through the propagation of militant Islam. Efforts in this regard in the past have had disastrous consequences for the world.

Three million Afghans, including Pashtuns from Pakistan, died in the war against the Soviet Union, a conflict that helped bring down the Berlin Wall and liberate Eastern Europe. It seems that the United States was willing to wage that war until the last Afghan. However, the current conflict is not being fought as a reward for those services. It is being waged for the security of the United States, indeed the world (as exemplified by the United Nations mandate for the effort), whose interests align with the interests of ordinary Afghans, since a stable Afghanistan is a prerequisite to denying Al-Qaeda a foothold in the region. If the United States were to leave before Afghanistan establishes its institutions of state (and in a country wracked by three decades of war this might take some time), then the American public should also not rule out the recurrence of a calamity on a scale that was witnessed in New York on the second Tuesday of September, nine years ago.

Ayaz Khan Achakzai ’09 was a double major in mathematical sciences and economics at Colby and spent a year studying at Oxford University. He grew up in Pakistan, where he now resides. Achakzai belongs to Qilla Abdullah Khan, a district of Pakistan that borders Afghanistan.
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  • On January 18, 2010, Sarah Ruef-Lindquist wrote:
    Those interested in this topic and these issues may wish to participate in this year's Camden Conference on World Affairs: Afghanistan, Pakistan, India: Crossroads of Conflict, held live in Camden, Maine February 19 - 21, 2010. FMI
  • On January 18, 2010, Amin wrote:
    Ayaz Khan u r right. I really appreciate your efforts. Do you know about a web based Pashtun's Magazine 'SAHAR'? If not, let me know I will send you one.
  • On January 19, 2010, Bangash wrote:
    Anyone who considers the Taliban as "rational" and capable of negotating and sticking to agreements knows nothing about the Taliban.
  • On January 19, 2010, Historyscoper wrote:
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