The Problem of Pashtun alienation


Adding to internal security concerns 

Historically, Pakistan’s foreign policy has been of a tactical nature, invariably looking for any opportunity in order to deal with threats that it perceives. Wild assumptions of imminent threats, irrespective of their merits, have led Pakistan to pursue a militaristic approach rather than a comprehensive strategic plan to deal with those threats. Similarly, the same militaristic approach has been used to deal with the internal threats which have gradually worsened Pakistan’s security and have become diversified.

Throughout the country’s history, Pakistan has tried to counter ethno nationalist threats with appeals to Islamic solidarity, the only so called ideological bond holding the multiethnic Pakistani state together. In this regard, the Islam over tribe approach became the mainstay of Pakistan’s policies.

Particularly, in the frontier region of the country where three decades ago, the war in Afghanistan handed Pakistan a golden opportunity to weaken the Afghan claims of Pashtun nationalism. Taking advantage of the ensuing instability in the region, Pakistan supported Pan-Islamism among the Afghan refugees while bankrolling Islamist parties in the border region. Even though this decades-long policy of Pashtun Islamism became a formidable force and mitigated the nationalist threat, it also engendered its own trans-border ethnic realities, which are now backfiring against Pakistan.

It is equally important to reflect on how these ideological measures have come back to haunt Pakistan and arguably could be a new source of Pashtunistan nationalism, stemming from very radical Pashtun Islamist groups rather than Afghanistan. The ongoing Pashtun movement which is being spearheaded by young Pashtuns who have suffered at the hands of militants and the state alike, points towards a crossroads moment in the country’s history where decades old alienation of the community has become open again.

Moreover in a contemporary situation, the older simplistic versions of Pashtun ethnicity and its resistance to foreign intervention have been generalized to understand Pashtun character, while the missing variable is the ethnic connotation of this Islamic militancy

During the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan essentially vanished, with Pashtun tribes on both sides steadily slipping towards Islamic militancy, criminalization, drug trafficking, and radicalization. In effect, the backlash has led to the Talibanization of Pakistan, and, apparently, it is Pakistan that has come to provide ‘strategic depth’ to the Taliban rather than vice versa.

Critics and observers alike believe that this new phenomenon of Talibanization in Pakistan is a manifestation of Pashtun nationalism albeit of an Islamic nature. Moreover in a contemporary situation, the older simplistic versions of Pashtun ethnicity and its resistance to foreign intervention have been generalized to understand Pashtun character, while the missing variable is the ethnic connotation of this Islamic militancy. Pashtuns, by looking at a heavy presence of the military in their areas, which is composed primarily of ethnic Punjabis, see a rival ethnicity, clashing with them. If the current policy on the part of Islamabad continued, this could very well transpire into a triumph for an ‘Islamic Pashtunistan’, a term coined by Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States, Hussain Haqqani. Recently, a Pakistani defence analyst, General Mahmud Ali Durrani, said, “I hope the Taliban and Pashtun nationalism don’t merge. If that happens, we’ve had it and we are on the verge of it.”

‘In the absence of a return to peace and stability in their lives and lands, the Pashtun sense of common desperation and victimization has the potential to provide a powerful and dangerous incentive for them to brush aside their historical diversions and rally behind the Taliban leadership in pursuit of their historical goal of a united and independent “Pashtunistan,”’ argues Amin Saikal in his new book Zone of Crisis: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq.

This whole phenomenon also shows how the nexus of this multitude of factors have added more problems to Pakistan’s security apprehensions by giving it closely knitted internal and external dimensions. Generally, the use of asymmetrical warfare by Pakistan for several decades to compensate for its fundamental insecurity cannot be changed solely by increasing pressure. This means ensuring that Pakistan’s interests are heard and protected in Afghanistan and in reaction it might encourage Pakistan to play a more positive role. More precisely, Afghanistan will also have to recognize Pakistan’s legitimate concerns regarding the Indian presence. Currently, Pakistan feels sidelined because Afghanistan is following a historical pattern of turning to India, particularly in the context of the drawdown of US forces. As discussed in the study, Pakistan has doubts about future US engagement which worsens its threat paranoia.

Pakistan has far too much vulnerability, most of which are self-created. There is no disputing the fact that Pakistan has been confronted by acute domestic and regional challenges, and that a system incorporating capable leadership, balance between the institutions, and an equitable economy backed by an all-encompassing foreign policy is long overdue. All in all, in this entire uncertainty one thing is certain: given Pakistan’s historical proactive behavior and military’s central role in it, unless Pakistan is content with its security concerns, it is unlikely to give up on its asymmetrical instruments of policy and thus instability and hostility is likely to follow.



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