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Book Review: Abubakar Siddique’s ‘The Pashtuns’

By Zaboor Ahmad 

The Pashtuns: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan
Abubakar Siddique
Random House India, 2014

Afghanistan has been the global epicenter of violence as well as the “graveyard for Empires”. There has been considerable literature on the issue, but Abubakar Siddique’s The Pashtuns: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan is a detailed study in which he reflects on the issues from an insider’s perspective. The fascinating aspect of the book is that it not only fixes spotlight on cultural values of Afghanistan but also dilates on the political affairs of Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand line. The book meticulously argues and challenges the myth that Pashtuns are genetically violent. The real cause of violence has been the attempt by several players to mould the Taliban according to their likings. If regional states have utterly failed to use Pashtun homeland as a bridge for transnational cooperation, so has been their inability to incorporate the Pashtuns into state apparatus, and the fallout of these myopic policies has led to escalation of violence. Pashtuns live in two seemingly hostile states, under two different political arrangements. Most of them are Sunni Muslims following Hanafi school of thought; however, there are some Bangash and Orakzia tribes who are Shias. But the worrisome factor is that the region has become home to radical Islamic ideologies, often preaching global jihad, which, of course, is not endorsed by all Pashtuns. All this has been possible only with sustained bankrolling and guidance from outside. The result has been the decimation of traditional religious orders. What began as insidious nationalist resistance to communist takeover was exploited by Washington and Islamabad by not only providing military wherewithal but also financed it by providing it a religious camouflage declaring it as jihad. America used jihad to drub the evil empire, while Pakistan used them to blunt the ethnic nationalism of Pashtuns living in Pakistan.

Siddique hbk hurst rhi Demy Hard size.inddMass violence has gained legitimacy as rival ideologies and political systems struggled for control of territory. The author, being an insider, delineates the fallout of decades of violence on socio-economic and political structures of tribal society. It has engendered new puritan Sunni cleric leadership, replacing traditional secular leadership. It resulted in metamorphosis of Islam as a spiritual process to becoming a political ideology. Without the Pashtun sanctuary, the rise of jihad as a global jihadist movement would not have been possible. The investment on war in Afghanistan has been massive in comparison with investment on social and economic infrastructure. War which undermined the state has enabled the development of huge criminal economy based on arms, drugs and hostage takings. The stature of criminal elements has risen along side with mushrooming of shopping malls which cater to ill-gotten wealth. Assassination of clerics and traditional political and tribal leadership has virtually deprived the communities of wisdom and guidance which could have helped them to navigate the uncertainty.

It was during Timor Shah of Durrani Empire that Europeans came in contact with the Pashtuns. Its weakening engendered the Sikh Empire, which, in turn, felt prey to British colonists, setting the stage for the onset of the Great Game between Britain and Russia for the control of Afghanistan. Following second Anglo-Afghan war, British called Abdul Rehman, nephew of Amir Sher Ali, living in exile to assume throne. Rehman agreed to delineate the Durand line, thereby dividing the Pashtuns between two states which for Afghanistan is an unresolved issue, while a settled one for Pakistan. Pashtuns were placed under different administrative arrangements, some directly under Delhi, forming the first ring, while others were placed between Afghanistan and North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) in middle and Nepal and Afghanistan as outer rings. Thus Afghanistan served as a buffer state between British India and Russia. Successive Pakistani leaders have attempted to suppress Pashtun nationalism by bank-rolling loyalist alternative leadership. Its position on Pashtunistan issue made Afghanistan to land in the lap of USSR. While Pakistan hosted afghan mujahedeens (holy warriors), Afghanistan was a safe haven for Pakistani dissenters engendering mistrust. The then President of Pakistan, General Zia ul Haq used jihad as a ploy to legitimize his rule, but Pashtuns became the major causality of conflict. He militarized and radicalized the Pashtun homeland. Pakistan has sought to contain the growing influence of India in Afghanistan as to end consistent security threat to Pakistan by preventing the destabilization of the western borders. During the 1980s, a rainbow coalition of Islamic radicals fought against the USSR, establishing networks in NWFP and along the Durand line. Outsiders changed orientation of jihad by setting objective of harming the “far enemies” who prop up “near ones”. Being established in Pakistan, al-Qaida never had a Pashtun leader. In what the author calls globalization of jihad, Pashtuns were its victims. As the American rollback began after drubbing of the USSR, civil war ensued with benchmarks of social parameters falling. It all changed only with September 11 attacks.

Religious clerics living on edges of economic and social deprivation went through a transformation due to rise of global jihad. The author traces the genesis of Taliban movement into the atrocities committed by former gunmen who has set up checkpoints and indulged in extortion, kidnapping and corruption. Untold atrocities were committed by all in the name of god. The systematic elimination of royalist supporters, communist bureaucrats and military defeat of gunmen, its rustic lifestyle, association with Islam provided the leeway to Taliban to gain power. It however retained certain former officials. The Taliban cadres always received preference over the non-Taliban. Clerics were empowered and received one third of tithe on agricultural produce. Taliban supported the UN, NAM and human rights instruments of the UN. Of the significant aspect of Taliban movement has been the promotion of Pashtu language; it should be viewed in the backdrop of needs of southern clerics who only understood it. The Pakistani establishment believes the organized nationalist Pashtuns in both states represents the significant threat to Pakistan’s national unity. Many anti-Shia criminal religious elements wanted in Pakistan found refuge in Taliban, who, in turn, succeeded in carving out their catchment area for themselves. The author quotes former Taliban Abdul Salam Zayeef who is reported to have said that Taliban never claimed they were a national government but a transitional affair. Most of Arab Afghans who came from different countries never played a significant role in the fight, so was the role of Osama bin Laden, a Yemini migrant to Saudi Arabia. They never had an appreciative view of afghan culture and bridging the differences between different ethnicities never appealed to be work worth doing. Al-Qaida operatives are followers of Salafism. The author quotes mullah Zayeef, former diplomat of Taliban, that it never knew the aims of Osama bin Laden. He promised development finances but provided nothing. Taliban refused to hand over Osama, as they had no agreement on criminal exchange. The clubbing of Taliban and al-Qaida by America proved a costly mistake, having horrendous human, social and cultural consequences. The UN sought to solve the Afghan problem by asking non-Pashtuns to form a national government excluding the largest ethnic group.

Taliban eliminated the tribal leadership, including clerics, government officials, which served as a bridge between people and government that in turn enabled them to gain an upper hand. Opposition from Pashtuns is still the biggest stumbling block for the return of the Taliban. The primary aim of Taliban has been to overthrow the government and drive the international forces out. The author shows considerable mettle and acumen highlighting the inner working of the Taliban. He asserts that the Taliban rulebook has banned torture and severing of body parts, filming of execution, unlike al-Qaida that relishes such enterprises. The Taliban has forbidden the collection of taxes by force and also carrying out kidnapping for ransom. It carries out suicide attacks only on important targets. Some of the Taliban cadres are motivated by religious zeal, for others it is career path, others join to settle scores. Incompetence and corruption has induced many to take up arms. Taliban is responsible for one third of problem in Afghanistan while the rest is due to the government. The number of foreign militants in Afghanistan has nosedived due to drone attacks as well as opening of other battle-fronts in the Middle East. Taliban, as it is usually believed, is not a monolithic force, but an amalgamation of different interests, all working in tandem to drive away the occupation forces. The author believes that the Taliban is not exclusively sectarian; it is tolerant of various sects within Islam. However, it has exhibited considerable anti-Shia dispensation. The Taliban network has huge economic interests in Paksitan. In south Afghanistan, it relies exclusively on Zakat and Ushur, a tithe on agricultural produce including poppy. Foreign contractors have resorted to direct payment to field commanders in return for protection to their operations. Taliban and al-Qaida were separate, but the USA committed blunder by viewing them as the same which in turn cemented their ties. The Taliban still does not share the same perception of al-Qaida on global jihad.

Some key Taliban leaders like Mullah Obaidullah and Baradar wrote to Hamid Karzai in late 2001 offering to accept the legitimacy of his administration in return for amnesty, but it was put in cold storage by the Bush administration. Reconciliation was never part of war on terror. Some of the Taliban operatives participated in elections, while others were appointed to high posts. The so-called reconciliation was not only tedious but also hedged with numerous riders that it has been impossible to expect any outcome.

According to the author, the durable peace process must entail the peace ‘among Afghans’ and then between ‘Afghanistan and USA’ and at last a settlement among the ‘regional states’. While providing the policy prescription, he argues, there is a need to create an inclusive government coupled with need to have unified national institutions. A strong centralized state is an anathema to peace; hence devolution of power to provinces and down to districts is necessary. Since there has not been any major violent secessionist Pashtun movement, Pakistan must give up its paranoid behavior. All Pashtuns have preferred ballots over bullets. There is reason for Pakistan to give up its policy. The fighting since 2003 and economic stagnation have forced many to migrate to Pakistan with most of the Pashtuns living in Karachi, which has become the phantom place of violence. The antidote to it is integration of Pashtuns in political and economic institutions.

Pakistan’s policy makers must realize that they can’t achieve their interests by befriending a particular group. Continuation of policies would balloon the ethnic tensions and undermine national unity in both states. The book is not only inclusive in terms of coverage but it is highly readable for both academic and non-academic readers as it is filled with valuable wisdom and policy prescriptions.

Bio:
Zaboor Ahmad is lecturer in political science in Kashmir.

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