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Pashtuns – Caught between Mullah, Militants and the Military – M Zafar Khan Safdar


M Zafar Khan Safdar |

With over 50 million people out of 207 million, Pashtuns are the second largest ethnic group covering 25 percent of the total population of Pakistan. Through their rich cultural tradition and literature, varied political and economic contexts, and diverse national and Islamic identities, Pashtuns carry and adopt a culture that reflects familiar notions of personal and family honor, gender hierarchies, hospitality, and pride. They value landed property, a local language, martial skills, cuisine, clothing, and the warmth to serve the motherland.  With nearly four decades of continuous war in our neighboring Afghanistan (1979-till date), Pashtuns on both sides have developed a reputation for violence, partly based on fact, but mostly fictitious.

The US funding to Pakistan to fight his proxy war in Afghanistan against the former Soviet Union resulted in the mushroom growth of seminaries that produced a bevy of students-cum-jihadists who actually were refugees and were deceitfully persuaded to fight the holy war. It’s none of a secret that the intelligence agencies of Pakistan, the USA, and Saudi Arabia had promoted the establishment of these seminaries by using the ethnic-religio card and designed special curricula for ideological indoctrination of Afghan refugee children, mindful of the Jihad raging in Afghanistan.

A study by a team from Princeton, Georgetown and Stanford universities shows that Pashtun areas in Pakistan are the least supportive of terrorist groups such as

al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

It is of no use to remind the chronicles of religious parties who enjoyed prime patronage under Gen Zia-ul-Haq regime and mobilized support for the Jihad. Once the Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban came to power, our intelligence agencies failed in their attempt to bring all groups together and Afghanistan was plagued by internecine feuds until the rise of the Taliban in 1994. As the Taliban gained popularity, it attracted material and moral help from the Pakistani establishment, enabling them to bring the entire state under their control.

A whole generation grew up in the violent shadows of the first Afghan jihad. The tragic political fallout is a generation brought up to see violence as the only meaningful political approach. Despite all stereotyping about the Pashtuns, empirical facts seem to speak against any general cultural trend that may explain some of the Pashtuns’ support for religious violence. A study by a team from Princeton, Georgetown and Stanford universities shows that Pashtun areas in Pakistan are the least supportive of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Read more: PTM: A Pashtun Spring..?

This is because it’s the Pashtuns who have paid the heaviest human, social and economic cost at the hands of terrorist violence during the past decades. Al Qaeda supported the Taliban with regiments of imported fighters from Arab countries and Central Asia. In the late period of the war, of an estimated 45,000 force fighting on the side of the Taliban, only 11,000 were Pashtuns and most of them were Afghans. Hitherto the damage to Pashtun nationalism was done, by none other than the state itself and its powerful institutions.

Stereotyping Pashtuns as terrorists, violent, and rigid, is itself a great injustice to the people who sacrificed their everything for this country. Pakistan lost over 50,000 civilians in the war against terrorism since 2003. The Global Terrorism Index, which profiles data on terrorism from across the world, had ranked Pakistan second among the countries most affected by terrorism. A recent research conducted by Pakistan Political Science Association (PPSA) claimed an estimated 37,211 Pashtun deaths out of 50,000.

Pashtuns are famous for being very romantic, patriotic and follow a code of conduct that includes courage, revenge, hospitality, generosity, self-respect, independence, justice, forgiveness, and tolerance toward strangers or guests.

Another research study conducted in 2014 by Prof Luqman Saeed who gathered profiles of 329 terrorists from the Counter Terrorism Wing of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of regional police offices in Pakistan and the data described detailed demographic and socio-economic background of the terrorists. The results showed that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa including Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) contributed only 16% of the terrorists in the sample.

That implies that Pashtuns are not over-represented in the terrorists living in the Pashtun-dominated province. The introduction of an alien Islamist ideology coupled with the subsequent four decades of war waged mostly from their territories, not only has affected the Pashtun worldview but has systematically deprived them of their traditional leadership in both secular and religious realms. This more complex understanding is absent in most contemporary discussions of Pashtuns.

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The Pashtuns have long been treated as illiterate, conservative, medieval and rustic ruffians. After decades of neglect and disenfranchisement by the state, which has kept the province and adjacent tribal areas underdeveloped and poor, the War on Terror gave the state institutions another chance to enter, control, humiliate and devastate the Pashtuns even further. Under the guise of fighting the militants through numerous military operations like Raah-e-Nijaat, Zarb-e-Azb, and Raad-ul-Fasaad, thousands have died and hundreds of thousands displaced as the Pashtuns are struggling to regain their glorious identity while caught between Mullah, Militants and the Military.

With Pashtun becoming synonymous to the ‘bad’ Taliban, it is little wonder why US drones are able to operate with impunity, killing hundreds of innocent people with state’s backing. Mocking them in-jokes, presenting them as the terrorist in ISPR released videos and sponsored films, and a federal minister calling every Pashtun emblematic to Taliban is an inordinate disgrace to a community who are more loyal to their homeland than anyone else.

There is a need to update the intellectual architecture and stop labelling the Pashtuns as radical Islamists, jihadists and brainless creatures.

There are many other good things about Pashtuns but the national and mainstream media do not highlight it. Pashtuns are famous for being very romantic, patriotic and follow a code of conduct that includes courage, revenge, hospitality, generosity, self-respect, independence, justice, forgiveness, and tolerance toward strangers or guests. Pashtuns are very social, valiant, hard-working people who are proud of their culture and heritage. The 19th Century statesman and historian Mountstuart Elphinstone of Scotland have well written on the character of Pashtun that “they are fond of liberty, faithful to their friends, kind to their dependents, hospitable, brave, hardy, frugal, laborious and prudent”.

The culture of the Pashtun people is highlighted since at least the time of Herodotus (484-425 BC) or Alexander the Great, who explored Afghanistan and Pakistan region in 330 BC. A nation that is as old as the antiquity itself, their systematic profiling and stereotyping of terrorism and the gun-toting Taliban is an absolute offense and insult to their sacrifices. Today a young and growing Pashtun generation is deeply concerned aiming nationalism, believing to be under suppression and blame the state as a threat to its identity.

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Shah Mahmoud Hanifi, a scholar of Afghan history, has well written that the ‘blended’ narrative of Pashtun tribalism, ethnicity, and nationalism has ‘retained currency’ among academics, without ‘substantive ethnographic, historical, or theoretical engagement of Pashtuns’. This is important because the majority of work done by academia around the world in recent years on Pashtuns, Afghanistan, and Pakistan has been produced to respond to specific military or policy requirements and thus has a significant impact on the effectiveness of the resulting plans and policies.

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Misunderstandings, therefore, have costly repercussions. The challenges and failures of the international community in Afghanistan evident today are in no small measure founded on the fragile intellectual architecture of nineteenth-century British colonial constructions of knowledge about Pashtuns. There is a need to update the intellectual architecture and stop labelling the Pashtuns as radical Islamists, jihadists and brainless creatures. A useful early step in that agenda is to map out the dominant scheme of thought about Pashtuns and to systematically identify the most common misunderstandings or misperceptions about this great ethnic group.

M Zafar Khan Safdar is Ph.D. in Political Science. His area of specialization is political development and social change. He can be reached at zafarkhansafdar@yahoo.com and tweet@zafarkhansafdar.The Views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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