April 15, 2012

Running scared of Pashtuns

Author: G Parthasarathy


To check the tide of rising Pashtun nationalism, Pakistan’s ISI is promoting the non-Pashtun Taliban who may soon be in control of southern Afghanistan.

Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan’s military strategists and ISI justified their efforts to instal a radical Islamic Government in Kabul on the grounds that a client Islamist Government in Afghanistan provided ‘strategic depth’ against India. While the concept of ‘strategic depth’ was initially said to mean that Pakistan’s Armed Forces would have additional territory available to them in the event of an Indian attack, the reality turned out to be different once the ISI, with the acquiescence of the Clinton Administration, installed its protégé, the one eyed ‘Ghilzai’ Pashtun leader Mullah Omar, in Kandahar, with a so-called Taliban ‘President’ Mullah Rabbani in Kabul. Mullah Omar, incidentally, does not belong to the traditional Pashtun leadership from the Durrani clan. Kandahar, in the eyes of Pashtuns, has historically been their spiritual capital since 1747.

With ISI backing and American acquiescence in these developments, Afghanistan soon became the hub of global terrorism, once Mullah Omar was installed in Kandahar. Osama bin Laden was welcomed as an honoured guest by the Taliban, with the Al Qaeda and militant groups ranging from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Chechens, to the Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, establishing their presence there. ISI backed anti-Indian militant groups like the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen trained their cadres for jihad against India in Jammu & Kashmir, in towns like Khost. The collusion between the Taliban and their ISI handlers was blatant during the hijacking of IC 814 to Kandahar. The Lashkar-e-Tayyeba joined these groups with the slogan that “Hindus, Jews and Christians are enemies of Islam” and that its aim was to “unfurl the green flag of Islam in Washington, Tel Aviv and New Delhi”. Given that the Taliban was made up exclusively of Pashtuns, who constitute just around 40 per cent of Afghanistan’s population, the ISI had to provide massive military backing for the Taliban to take over the entire north of the country, where non-Pashtuns reside.

When the Americans moved into Afghanistan in October 2001, it was the non-Pashtun Northern Alliance backed by India, Russia and Iran which routed the Taliban, who fled across the Durand Line into Pakistan and were welcomed there by the ISI. Even though the new Government in Kabul was headed by a blue blooded Durrani Pashtun Hamid Karzai, Pakistan calculated that its best bet was to act as the champion of Pashtun rights in Afghanistan. A sustained effort has been made by Pakistan to persuade the Pashtuns in Afghanistan that Pakistan alone is their well wisher. Dislike bordering on animosity towards Pakistan, is, however, a widespread feature of Afghan thinking across the political spectrum, transcending ethnic considerations. But a significant, though diminishing section of the Taliban realises that they are regarded as international pariahs and have no choice but to seek power through the barrel of a gun, with Pakistani support.

Pakistan’s professions of being genuine supporters of Pashtun rights are, however, not altruistic. A Pashtun dominated, but internationally ostracised regime in Afghanistan, suits Pakistan, because such a regime would be so politically and economically weak that it would be in no position to resurrect sentiments of Pashtun nationalism. No Pashtun worth his salt has ever recognised the Durand Line, imposed by the British in 1893, as the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The legendary Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan symbolised Pashtun disdain for the Durand Line by insisting he should be buried in Jalalabad. Most Pashtuns believe that their traditional homeland extends from Kandahar to the town of Attock on the banks of the Indus River in Pakistan. Using religious extremism as a tool to subsume Pashtun nationalism is the centrepiece of Pakistan’s strategy in Afghanistan

In her book Taliban and anti-Taliban, the Oslo-based Pakistani writer Farhat Taj details how the Pakistani Army used the Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas as a tool to influence events in Afghanistan. She also outlines the heroic resistance of tribal Pashtun leaders to defend their traditional, consensual tribal structures, against Taliban depredations. This was a struggle in which hundreds of Pashtun tribals in FATA laid down their lives, resisting ISI machinations to promote the alien culture of the Taliban. In her recent writings Farhat Taj notes: “The Taliban in both Pakistan and Afghanistan are mere proxies of the Pakistan state, to wipe out forces of ethno-nationalism among the Pashtun cultural identity, on both sides of the Durand Line, in the pursuit of foreign and domestic objectives set and controlled by military establishment of Pakistan”. Recalling how efforts were made by Mughal Emperors like Babur and Aurangzeb to crush Pashtun nationalism, she alludes to a statement of a Pashtun leader who suffered Aurangzeb’s depredations: “Aurangzeb derives pleasure from the massacre of Pashtuns. Such is Aurangzeb’s Islam”. Aurangzeb is the role model of Pakistan’s historians and military, because he was the first Mughal emperor to levy Jazia tax on non-Muslims.

As the Americans commence their drawdown of forces in Afghanistan, they are tying themselves in knots in their negotiations with the Taliban. Pakistan is demanding a high price for restoring transit facilities for American supplies to Afghanistan. These include an end to nuclear sanctions, a public apology for the action in which 26 Pakistani soldiers were killed and an end to drone strikes. In the meantime, the Taliban are showing no inclination to meet American conditions for talks and are even talking about discontinuing dialogue with the Americans. Both the Pakistani military and their Taliban allies now appear to believe that with the Americans set to end combat operations by mid 2013, they would be able to seize control of southern Afghanistan soon. Relief has come for the Americans from an unexpected source. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov not only agreed to make the Ulyanovsk airbase available for American logistical supplies, but also stated that “it was premature to set deadlines for withdrawal from Afghanistan, even before Afghan security forces were ready to take over responsibilities”.

Pakistan could well be miscalculating its perceived opportunities in Afghanistan, as the drawdown of American forces commences. But, the international community and President Karzai will have to devise political strategies to expose Pakistan’s pro-Pashtun pretensions, if they are to politically counter moves for a Taliban takeover of Southern Afghanistan, bearing in mind that self-respecting Pashtuns have never recognised the Durand Line as an international border, cutting across, what they regard as their homeland.

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