The Pashtun Question and Pakistan’s Fears

Pakistan is a country, which has its own peculiar characteristics. It has very serious security sensitivities, which since its inception in 1947 have been determining its policies towards its neighbors, specifically toward Afghanistan and India. The country is inhabited by different nationalities with having very distinct languages, cultures, historical backgrounds and temperaments. Therefore, the leaders in Pakistan have been trying to show some modicum of federalism.

The country has 4 provinces inhabited by several different peoples. Here we are not supposed to go into the details of all the different peoples in Pakistan, rather we will look into the character of the North Western Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan and inhabited by the Pashtun ethnic group. This region is one of the major theatres in the ongoing international war on terror.

It is more than 60 years since Pakistan was created in 1947 at the time of the British liquidation of its Indian dominions. The British divided India into two parts, India and Pakistan. They made religion as the basis of this division, though many argue that even today there are more Muslims in India than in Pakistan. Many doubt British intentions in this division by saying that more important than its interest in giving the Muslims a separate state was the fact that it wanted a smaller and weaker country separate from India from where it could fight a war against the soviet communist expansionism in the region.

Whatever the reasons for the creation of Pakistan, the fact on the ground is that this state was never governed properly, or as some say, it was never governable. The country has been under military dictatorships for more than half of its total age. The reason for the frequent military interventions has been the thinking among the military generals that if they did not do that, the country could plunge into crisis and eventually disintegrate. (the fact of the matter is that the generals and the feudal lords are the beneficiary of the state of Pakistan. They pass lives of unprecedented luxury. A common man does not care if Pakistan stays or not because half of the population live on less than a dollar a day and the remaining half on less than 2 dollars a day. Only a handful of military generals, some feudal lords cum politicians and some bureaucrats control the bulk of the wealth of the country which they make sure that it is safe in foreign banks). It once actually disintegrated in 1971 as a result of which the nation of Bangladesh came into being.

The North West Frontier Province (NWFP) is inhabited by the ethnic Pashtuns. Pashtun is also the majority ethnic group of Afghanistan (42% of its total population). The Pashtuns were divided by the British Empire into the ones living in Afghanistan and the rest becoming part of the then British Indian empire. The dividing line between the Pashtuns is called the Durand Line, which was enacted at that time (1893) by a British bureaucrat sir Mortimer Durand and the king of Afghanistan. The king of Afghanistan himself was an ethnic Pashtun, who according to experts on the region, agreed to this division of his people under duress and under pressure from the mighty British empire. At the time of partition of India in 1947, the British government gave the Pashtuns the right to decide through a plebiscite to either join India or Pakistan. The legendary Pashtun leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan who was also known as the “Frontier’s Gandhi”, and his associates demanded that apart from giving the Pashtuns the right of choice to join either India or Pakistan, they should also be given a third option whereby the Pashtuns could opt for a merger in their original country Afghanistan or form an independent country to be called Pashtunistan. The Pashtun leadership was of the view that they shared nothing either with India or Pakistan (language, culture, history). They shared all these things with the Pashtuns across the Durand Line in Afghanistan. However the British declined their request upon which he appealed to the Pashtuns to boycott the referendum. At that time a very small percentage had the right to vote. Most of the Pashtuns stayed away from the referendum upon the call of their leader. Thus, the begining of the resentment of Pashtuns in relation to Pakistan started in a pre-carious way.

The government of Afghanistan at the time of the partition of India declared its non-recognition of the Durand Line arguing that the line was cutting Pashtun families apart and that Afghanistan in 1893 had signed the border treaty under duress. Afghanistan also argued that the Durand Line was a temporary agreement determining only spheres of influence rather than meant to be an international boundary. Moreover it argued that the Afghan government had signed the agreement with the British empire in some specific circumstances, therefore with the liquidation of the empire, the agreement also ceased to exist. From 1947 till 1979 when the soviet army entered Afghanistan, relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan remained tense including several times even cutting diplomatic relations over the Pashtun question.

From 1979 till 1989 Afghanistan remained a battleground between the west and the then USSR. The strategy of the West included convincing the Pashtun population in the NWFP to fight the war against the “godless communists” in Afghanistan. It bribed local mosque prayer leaders to spread Jehadist ideas against communism. Through the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence, money and weapons were supplied to those of the Pashtuns of the NWFP who answererd to the call of their prayer leaders. And this kind of people were in abundance, thanks to Pakistan’s policy of not giving educational opportunities nor establishing industries which could provide jobs to the youth and they wont have been prone to be drawn into the jehadi trap.

In this way, the Pashtun society, who had till then elected to governments’ only secular leaders, was deliberately extremised on religious basis. As a result of that, today the NWFP is controlled by the second generation of those jehadists. Now the enemy and the alliances have changed. Instead of the USSR, the USA and NATO forces in Afghanistan are the enemies. It is generally believed that the government of Pakistan is providing training, weapons and money to the fighters and send them to Afghanistan to destabilize the government of president Karzai who himself is a Pashtun nationalist. Analysts argue that Pakistan provides support to terrorists because it thinks that Afghanistan if developed into a modern state will renew its claims over the Pashtun lands of NWFP and Baluchistan which are currently controlled by Pakistan as a legacy of the 1893 Durand Line agreement.

But the world is drastically changed after the collapse of communism. The USSR is no longer. USA is the sole super power. It is a post 9/11 world in which the international community has zero tolerance for using violence against innocents in order to get some policy objectives. The world has reached a consensus over the necessity of defeating terrorist elements in Afghanistan and Pakistan or anywhere in the world for that matter. Jehadist propaganda is not tolerated in today’s world. Those suspected to be supporting terrorists are under tight international scrutiny. Therefore they cannot afford to use terrorism in order to promote their objectives.

Pakistan is widely believed and criticized for its alleged support to Taliban. It is believed that Pakistan’s Afghan policy is still guided by its fears about the Pashtun Question. But if it is so, using terrorism will hardly do. The two countries need to resolve the issue through negotiations. The USA needs to pay attention to the issue. Afghanistan and Pakistan can involve some other friendly countries who should resolve the issue keeping in view international law, precedents of state formation and other appropriate yardsticks. The two countries cannot afford to be enemies, nor can they avoid forever to push the Pashtun question under the carpet. They have to face the issue head on, resolve it and live in peace like good neighbors. Otherwise the two will be great roadblocks in each other’s economic progress and will be prone to social and economic chaos and state failure with devastating consequences for their neighbors and fort he world at large.