TALIBANISATION AND PASHTUNS - MYTH AND REALITY
By Fatima Ahmed and Batoor Khanfatimakhan7699@gmail.com
(From Khyber Watch-- 5-9-2007)
In the backdrop of the Taleban resurgence in Afghanistan which has claimed more than 5000 lives so far and threatens to challenge the whole NATO/US mission in that country with obvious consequences for the world peace and security; there has been a renewed interest in the Taleban phenomena and the role of Pakistan therein worldwide.
The popular myth now a day being promoted by a number of players in the Pakistan-Afghanistan blame game is that the Taleban with roots in the Pashtun ethnic group, are in fact a manifestation of the ethnic and nationalist feelings and political aspirations of the Pashtun nation at large, living on both sides of the Durand Line. This is substantiated by a number of assertions by the Pakistani leadership in the recent past and media commentary. For example, while addressing the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament in Brussels in September last year, President Pervaiz Musharraf said that "the real danger...lies in the emergence and further strengthening of the Taliban, because they have the seeds of converting and drawing the population to them and converting this into a national war by the Pashtuns against maybe all foreign forces."
This shift in characterisation of the Taleban movement from a religious force to one representing the Pashtun nation may be taken as an attempt to give an entirely different outlook to the current insurgency in Afghanistan as well as the tribal areas of Pakistan.A peek at the events in the not so distant past will tell us that 'Religion' and the ‘Doctrine of Jihad’ and not 'Afghan or Pashtun Nationalism' was preferred to be used as slogan to fight and perpetuate the long drawn war against the ‘foreign forces’ of Soviet Union supporting the then Afghan government in the eighties and even afterwards during the brutal civil war of the nineties.
The question that arises is; what has changed in the equation now which suggests terming the current insurgency spearheaded by the Taleban against the Karzai led government and the NATO/US forces as a ‘national struggle of the Pashtuns’ against foreign forces. The answer to this question is simple: while internationally a lot has changed since 9/11, in Pakistan domestically nothing has changed. And this answer easily explains the current shift of language and the attempts to publicize the Talebans as representative of the Pashtun majority aspirations in Afghanistan and even in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
While the Afghan side spearheaded by President Karzai, himself a Pashtun, blames the upsurge in Taleban activities on continuous support by Pakistan and its intelligence agencies, the Pakistani side points to a number of issues inside Afghanistan which fuels the insurgency and sustain it. Chief among these, they argue is the inability of Karzai government to establish its writ beyond Kabul. Some amongst the intelligentsia have even termed President Karzai as the ‘Mayor of Kabul’ to scorn his lack of control over most of Afghanistan.
The failure of the Karzai government and the international community in sustaining the reconstruction process of the country, particularly in the Pashtun majority areas of the South and south- eastern Afghanistan is also quoted as the cause for the alienation of the local population and their increasing support for the Taleban. There are also muted pointers to the lack of proportionate representation of Pashtuns, who make up the majority ethnic group in Afghanistan, in the government institutions, decision making bodies and particularly the security forces.
Together all these factors seem to contribute to the ‘myth’ that Taleban’s struggle against the foreign forces is actually fuelled by Pashtun nationalism. Seen in conjunction with the current emphasis to include the Taleban in the political process in Afghanistan on the lines of the ‘peace deals’ signed by Pakistan with the militants in its own troubled tribal areas of Waziristan (FATA), this could mean a deliberate effort to empower the Taleban on both side of the Durand Line. Simply put, this strategy aims to drive home the point that the Taleban are not an aberration in the Afghan calculus but represent the political aspirations of the majority Pashtun ethnic group and have thus to be accommodated in any political dispensation in Afghanistan.
When analysed in the historical context, it is obvious that this strategy is the same in substance; only the form has been changed to suit the post 9/11 geo-political environment - in nutshell ‘old wine in new bottle’. During the Afghan War, for the USA and the west, the objective was simple: defeat of communism; however for Pakistan the question was much more fundamental and related to its own domestic problems.
Beside the defeat of Communism, there were three main objectives of the Afghan war strategy.
• Counterbalance the majority traditionally liberal and secular minded Pashtun nationalists with in Pakistan demanding greater share in resources and political rights in the backdrop of the 1971 debacle leading to the creation of Bangla-Desh and the bloody insurgency in Balochistan in 1974/75.
• Simultaneously, neutralize the nationalist elements in Afghanistan represented by the Soviet supported communist regime, which were likely to gain strength and thus exert more pressure on Pakistan with regard to the Pushtunistan issue if left untouched, leading to trouble in the Pashtun belt on Pakistan side.
• In the long term, use Islam to influence events in Afghanistan, which beside other benefits, will ensure that her western borders will be well protected. This was deemed vital to the survival and defence of Pakistan against the arch enemy India in the backdrop of the 1971 War and explosion by India of its first nuclear device in 1974. This notion was widely propagated and found expression in terminologies like ensuring ‘strategic depth’ and having a ‘friendly political dispensation’ in Afghanistan.
To pursue this strategy, General Zia-ul-Haq, the military dictator thus supported, funded and empowered the fringe religious 'clergy' in the Pashtun areas within Pakistan against the majority, largely liberal nationalists, while across the Durand Line in Afghanistan, it shaped the struggle against the Soviet supported Afghan government as ‘Afghan Islamic Jihad’.
This strategy ensured a degree of local support to the Afghan Resistance by the politico-religious groups on the one hand, while on the other it wrested the political power away from the traditionally liberal, secular and nationalist elements in the Pashtun dominated areas and empowered the politico- religious parties which have always been far more supportive of the establishment.
Another reason and a more fundamental one which explains why the Afghan Resistance was fought on the basis of religion and not Afghan or Pashtun nationalism was that the use of religion as a political instrument is central to the survival of the Pakistani state itself. In the absence of a vision based on collective well being of all its citizens, democratic traditions which ensure equal share for all segments of the multi-ethnic society, and a system which ensures centralisation and perpetuation of power in the hands of the elite to the detriment of all the various ethnic groups; the only glue that binds the country together is Islam. Recourse to religion is therefore critical to hold the reins of power in this country.
In the absence of such an alternative, the various nationalities which have been kept on the periphery of political and economic power for more than half a century are bound to question the legitimacy of the state and demand greater autonomy and political rights for themselves, thus threatening the status quo and the interests of the dominant elite.
Much has changed in the world in the aftermath of 9/11; however, unfortunately, little has altered in Pakistan’s domestic situation which would allow some space to bring a shift in this strategy. In Pakistan, the use of religion to control the domestic problems as well as retain/regain a degree of influence across the Durand Line remains a compulsion and not a matter of choice. In fact, projecting the Taleban as representing the political aspirations of the Pashtuns, while still retaining their religious leanings, is an attempt to reassure the international community of their legitimacy as a group having popular support of the Pashtuns.
At the same time it aims to dilute the negative effects of the stigma of religious extremism and fanaticism attached to Taleban in view of their links with Al-Qaeeda and the brutalities they committed while they were in power in Kabul. And as before, simultaneously it aims to strengthen the politico-religious elements in the North West Frontier Province, tribal areas and Balochistan to neutralise the nationalist elements which are again gaining popular support due to the media explosion and unhealthy economic policies of the past.
The situation is further made explosive by the senseless killing of their Pashtun brethren in the name of the war against terrorism on both sides of the Durand Line. It was in this context that a grand Pashtun Peace Jirga was held in Peshawar on 20 Nov last year, organised by the nationalist parties and attended by a large majority of the liberal/secular leadership of the Pashtun ethnic group. This Jirga or ‘meeting of elders’ unanimously demanded an end to the bloodshed in the Pashtun lands on both sides of the Durand Line in the name of religion and the war on terrorism.
This situation is further exasperated by the simmering nationalist/separatist movement across the Balochistan province.This new characterisation of Talebanisation as Pashtun nationalism and terming the Taleban led insurgency as a demand for political empowerment of the Pashtun ethnic group in Afghanistan must therefore be viewed with a pinch of salt.
The Taleban was never a nationalist movement nor did they enlist support from the Pakistani or Afghan Pashtuns in the name of their ethnic identity. They were a natural outcome of the decade’s old policy of support to the politico-religious right, then were nourished and aided according to a strategy. That strategy still remains the same - political manoeuvring by the powerful elite in Pakistan to use religion to divide the Pashtuns, denying their political rights and at the same time to regain and maintain some degree of influence in Afghanistan.
Obviously this can not be achieved by siding with and supporting the largely liberal, secular and democratic minded majority of the Pashtuns; for the fear that the elite will have to relinquish the powers they hold over all ethnic minorities and give them their political rights and control over their resources.
The powers that be would therefore continue drumming the spectre of Islamic extremism in Pashtuns and frightening the world on the one hand and continue supporting the fringe clergy on the other, to continue reaping the benefits that such a strategy entails. The tragedy is that the religious extremism symbolised by the Taleban has no roots in Pashtun society or culture which may be culturally conservative but is predominantly liberal, non-violent and democratic in nature. The ultimate losers in all this are the poor Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand Line.