Chapter 5

The Pashtuns

By Dr Humayun Khan

A proper understanding of modern-day Afghanistan is not possible without adequate knowledge of the major tribal groups that comprise the Afghan race. The largest group is known throughout the world as the “Pathans”, a term which was coined in British India. They, however, and their kinsmen across the border in Pakistan, call themselves “Pashtuns” or “Pukhtuns”. The three terms can be used interchangeably, as they usually have the same meaning. As this chapter is primarily designed to analyse the role of these tribes in the current Afghan imbroglio, the term “Pashtun” will be used to include all three.


About 10 to 12 million Pashtuns live in Afghanistan, in a crescent extending south from the Oxus, through eastern Herat, Kandahar and then northward to Jalalabad and Kabul. They constitute between 45 and 50 percent of the population of that country, though in the last 40 years or so, because of the continuing turmoil in Afghanistan, many of them have moved out, either as refugees to Pakistan or to seek asylum or employment as far afield as the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Europe and America. These are the Afghan Pashtuns.

Another 20 to 25 million Pashtuns live across the border in Pakistan, with most of them settled in the province now called Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and in parts of Baluchistan. About four million belong to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Broadly speaking, those living in the northern areas call themselves Pukhtuns, while those living in the south use the softer nomenclature of Pashtun. Of these, a diaspora of roughly 10 million live in Karachi and other cities of Pakistan (the seven million in Karachi is the largest concentration of Pashtuns outside their homeland), and also in the Middle East and in the West. These are the Pakistan Pashtuns.


All Pashtuns belong to the same generic category of “Afghan”, whose origins go back 3000 to 4000 bc, though scholars of ancient history do not agree on any single ancestry. Probably, they are a mixture of Aryan, Turkic, Greek, Semitic and Indian ethnicity. Modern historians trace the Pashtun identity back to Qais Abdur Rashid who accompanied the legendary Muslim warrior, Khalid bin Waleed, on his forays east as far as Sind in India during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad. 

Islam was not to become the dominant religion, however, till the time of the Ghaznavids in the 10th and 11th centuries. Qais had three sons who were the progenitors of all the tribes that now inhabit the area between the Oxus and the Indus. The terms “Pathan”, “Pashtun” and “Pukhtun” are used interchangeably to denote those who can trace their origins to one or other of these tribes, although more precisely only those whose mother tongue is “Pashtu” are included. There were some who migrated early to other parts of India and established fiefdoms, like Bhopal and Rampur, or worked as labourers or mercenaries under Hindu rulers. Although they do not speak Pashtu, they still refer with pride to their Pashtun origins.

Brief History and Tribal Division

The central role of the Pashtuns in Afghanistan became evident after Ahmad Shah Abdali gave a clear and separate identity to the country in the mid 18th century. He threw off the Persian yoke and established the rule of the Durranis, extending from the boundary with Persia in the west, up to the Indus in the east. Prior to this, Afghanistan was little more than a route for invaders from the west and the north, in their quest to capture the riches of India.

The Turks and the Persians passed through, as did Alexander the Great, the Mongols, the Timurs, the Moghuls and, again, the Persians. Mauryas were the only ones coming from the east (329–190 bc), followed by the Kushans, and introduced the Buddhist faith in Afghanistan. The Afghans submitted to these transiting conquerors, although in fact strict administrative control was never exercised over the peripheral inhabitants of the country, the Pashtuns. Their relationship with the foreign rulers was always in the nature of a contract, whereby in return for good behaviour they were allowed to retain their autonomy in all internal matters and were paid allowances. After 1747 and the establishment of the Durrani dynasty, which lasted for nearly 300 years, the Pashtuns of Afghanistan became the dominant political force in the country. Despite occasional periods of uncertainty, mainly because of internal rivalries, they remain so to this day.

The history of their fellow tribesmen living in areas that were part of India was somewhat different. From the time of Ahmad Shah Abdali in the mid 18th until the early 19th century they remained under Durrani rule. Then briefly came the Sikhs and finally, in 1849, the British. Here, an interesting feature was that the British were immediately successful in establishing effective control over the lowland Pashtuns, living east of the mountain ranges separating Afghanistan and the Indian sub-continent.

 Their territories were incorporated as “settled” areas into the imperial structure of British India, with its elaborate paraphernalia of laws, taxation, police and magistracy. No attempt, however, was made to extend this full administrative control westward over the Pashtun tribes living in the hills of the Suleiman range and the lower Hindu Kush. There was a constant debate in the India Office about how far full control should be extended. 

Eventually it was decided to follow a system of indirect rule. In Baluchistan, Sandeman was able to create a semi-settled administration in cooperation with the powerful sardars. In the tribal areas bordering the former frontier province, a looser form of administration was adopted, through maliks and councils of elders (jirgas), and it was decided to use these tribes as a sort of “prickly hedge” to further buttress the buffer state of Afghanistan against incursions into India from the west. Thus, the tribesmen of these areas, few in number, poor, illiterate and backward, became pawns in the Great Game of the 19th century between the British and the Tsarist empires.

The compromise system called for the Viceroy to enter into agreements with each tribe, which allowed them to retain their internal autonomy and fixed allowances for them in return for guarantees of safety of the government roads and installations, and the stopping of raids into the settled areas. The distinction between the Afghanistan Pashtun and the Pakistan Pashtun, essentially members of the same Afghan family, was formalised by the Durand Agreement of 1893 between the British Indian government and the Emir, Abdur Rahman. A Joint Boundary Commission demarcated the division between the territories of the Emir and those of British India, governed by the Viceroy. Where possible boundary pillars were erected.

Unfortunately the Durand Line did not strictly follow topographic logic nor did it respect tribal patterns. In many places, members of the same tribe, indeed of the same sub-tribe or even the same family, found themselves as nationals of two different countries. It was obvious that this border would be seen as an artificial one by the inhabitants and would be honoured mostly in the breach. Despite Emir Abdur Rahman’s overt acceptance at the time, he and subsequent Afghan rulers were never happy about it.

With international acceptance of the laws of state succession, Pakistan assumed the rights and responsibilities of British India in 1947. As far as Afghanistan was concerned, it never fully accepted the Durand Line and the issue has been a constant source of discord between the two countries.

To the Pashtuns on either side, the border has little meaning. They come and go as they please and many of them are dwa kora, meaning that is they have two homes, one in each country.

Apart from this legalistic difference, broad tribal demarcations can be made between the Afghan Pashtun and the Pakistani. The major tribes on the Afghan side are the Durranis, with their sub-tribes such as the Nurzai, Mohammadzai, Barakzai and Popalzai, among others. Next are the Ghilzai, which include the Suleimankhel, Zadran and Kharoti. Somewhat smaller in number are the Gurgusht, descendants of the third son of Qais, consisting of the Kakar, Musakhel and Safi. Afghan Pashtuns occupy southern and eastern Afghanistan, but some members of the sub-tribes are also to be found, in small numbers, in Pakistan.

Administratively and constitutionally, all the Pashtuns of Afghanistan are treated no differently than any other ethnic group, nor is any distinction made between “settled” areas and “tribal“ areas. They were all gradually brought under the control of the state, largely due to the efforts of Emir Dost Mohammad, who died in 1863, and of Abdur Rahman the “Iron Emir” who laid the basis of a modern state with a regular army, and who moved away from traditional patterns where the norm was tribal administration with local power centres. His reign ended in 1901. In later years the Mohammadzai Kings Nadir Shah and Zahir Shah, and then their usurper cousin Mohammad Daud consolidated the state into a unified identity. Overall, however, Pashtun dominance remained throughout the country.

In Pakistan on the other hand, the Pashtuns are separated into those of the Sama or the plains, living in the “settled” areas mainly in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province (KPK) and in parts of Baluchistan. They are subject to all the laws of the country. The highlanders inhabit the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) where all the laws of Pakistan do not apply. The largest tribe among the lowlanders is the Yusufzai (literally meaning “sons of Joseph” and thus confirming, in the views of some, the descent of the Pashtuns from one of the lost tribes of Israel. They sometimes even refer to themselves as Bani Israel). They occupy the heartland of KPK from Dir, Swat, Mardan, Charsadda and down to the Peshawar valley. The Yusufzai of the plains include a number of sub-tribes, broadly divided into the Mandanr and the Karlanri. Moving southward we come to the Khattaks, who are located in Nowshera and Kohat, the Bangash in Hangu, Banosai in Bannu and Marwats in Lakki. In addition, there are smatterings of Durranis, Khalils, Chamkanis and other smaller tribes spread about the plains.

The highlanders are divided into seven political agencies and comprise:

1. The Yusufzai in Bajaur, mainly of the Salarzai and Ranizai branch and the Uthmankhel with their headquarters at Khar

2. The Mohmands of Mohmand Agency, with Ghalanai as the centre

3. The Afridis and Shinwaris of the Khyber, with Landikotal as the headquarters

4. The Orakzai and Bangash of Orakzai Agency, in the area around Hangu and the small town named Uthmankhel 

5. The Mangals and the Turis of Kurram, with their charming town of Parachinar 

6. The Wazirs and the Daurs of North Waziristan with Miranshah as headquarters 

7. The Ahmadzai Wazirs and Mahsuds of South Waziristan, whose main centre is Wana, but who come down to Tank for the winter.

At the southern borders of South Waziristan dwell two small but distinctive tribes, the Bhittani and the Sherani. Some tribesmen also live in tribal areas attached to the settled districts of KPK. In addition, there are the Pashtuns of Baluchistan, including Kakars, Tarins and Musakhels among others.

Common Characteristics of all Pashtuns

Pashtun tribes on both sides of the Durand Line share many characteristics. They are a hardy people, generally fair-skinned because of their Aryan origins. Among those living in Pakistan, some are dark-skinned due to the mixture of Indian blood. They all speak the same language in different dialects. All belong to the Hanafi faith of Sunni Islam, though in recent years there has developed a trend towards the more orthodox Wahabism that prevails in Saudi Arabia, encouraged by that country pumping large sums of money into the Pashtun areas.

There are some Shi’ites in the Kurram and Orakzai Agencies of Pakistan. Those living in the valleys and plains in both countries are agriculturists by tradition, while those in the hills eke out a living through grazing their sheep and goats. The arable lands, which are well watered, boast a soil as fertile as any in the world, yielding rich crops of wheat, maize, sugarcane and rice. Orchards produce the finest of fruits like peaches, pears, apples, plums, apricots, pomegranates, melons and grapes. The pastures in the hills, on the other hand, offer poor grazing and compel a nomadic lifestyle. The climate is harsh with extremes of heat and cold, though the higher, forested hills of Tirah, Kurram, Shawal and Birmal offer escape from the summer heat.

The most important commonalities lie in the codes of conduct that the tribes observe. There is, for example, the practice of Riwaj or custom, which often defies the dictates of the Muslim religion. This is particularly noticeable in the treatment of women. For example, whereas Islamic shari’a entitles a female heir to half the share due to a male, Riwaj denies any share to women. Islam does not permit the selling of daughters, but Riwaj allows it. The practice of forcing female relatives into marriage to end an enmity is common.

In addition to the Riwaj, a comprehensive code called pukhtunwali or pashtunwali is enjoined on all Pashtuns. Its basic tenets include melmastia, which makes it obligatory to offer hospitality, even to strangers; Nanawati which demands that if an enemy enters your house to ask forgiveness, it must be given; badragga which requires that if you agree to give passage through your territory, it is your responsibility to provide escort for safety; and hamsaya which means that if an outsider takes shelter with you, it is your obligation to give him asylum against his enemies. (This explains the refusal of the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden after the Twin Tower attacks of 9/11. However, they overlooked the fact that an essential requirement of hamsaya is that the refugee must not do anything which endangers his host).

Perhaps the most rigid obligation under pashtunwali is that of badal or revenge, and this explains the biggest curse of the Pashtun, which is the blood feud. There are mechanisms for ending blood feuds, like the jirga or council of elders that can award compensation in the form of blood money or the giving of a daughter in marriage. However some blood feuds still continue for generations. Most of them arise out of zar (money), zan (women) or zmaka (land). The Pashtun commitment to protect the honour of his women is legendary, though the practice among tribes to sell their daughters in marriage is a blatant contradiction. Often the woman is seen as violating the family honour, and is killed. Money and land disputes are habitually pursued within families. Brother may kill brother over inheritance. The cousin is referred to as tarboor, meaning adversary, because of differences over shares in family land. A common saying among Pashtuns is “I will fight with my brother, I will join my brother to fight against my cousin and I will support my brother and my cousin in fighting against an outsider.”

Over the years observance of pashtunwali has varied in strictness among different tribes. Those who have least contact with the outside world follow it most closely. The Yusufzai, living in the settled areas of Pakistan, and the Afghans now follow the official laws of the land in respect of inheritance and disputes, but aberrations continue and murders over land and women are not uncommon, as indeed are honour killings of women. As a general rule, however, the Pashtun sees himself as obliged to practise this code, which distinguishes him from others and of which he is proud. Outsiders tend to view him as different, but as a strange contradiction of vice and virtue, because every element of the code does not fall in the latter category in the eyes of the rest of the world.

Objectively speaking, the Pashtun is indeed a bundle of contradictions. He can be fiercely loyal and yet be capable of the most ruthless treachery. There are instances where he has laid down his life for his British officer and others where he has murdered him in cold blood. He may be seen as forthright and simple, yet can resort to the most complex intrigues. He is famed for his love of freedom and his refusal to submit to authority, but history is replete with instances where he has accepted outside rule and indeed has rendered valuable service to a foreigner.

Despite this, his reputation as someone who has never accepted any intrusion on his independence persists. One thing, however, remains true. He has never been submissive to the point of grovelling. He has a strong sense of egalitarianism. He will offer a salute but he will never cringe. He expects to be treated with dignity, even though he may have accepted the overlordship of an outsider or one of his own kind. Unlike his neighbour the Baloch, he recognises no sardar as an absolute despot, but sees his malik as a first among equals, so accepted by the entire tribe. It is this trait of pride that has always earned him the respect of his rulers, especially the British, who developed a special affection for him and whose literature has romanticised his image.

In reality, the tribal Pashtun’s life is a hard one. His land does not offer adequate means of livelihood, forcing him into predatory ways. He has little share in modern social progress. Education has reached barely 20 percent of men and less than 5 percent of women. Health facilities are beyond his reach and few employment opportunities exist. More than 40 percent of Pakistan tribals have had to leave their homes for far-off places, seeking work. Despite everything, this disadvantaged and generally backward race and its barren homeland have been at the heart of global events with amazing regularity.

From time immemorial, invaders have traversed its hills and valleys in the search for global conquest. It was at the heart of the Great Game in the 19th century. It again became the focus of world attention when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Today it occupies centre stage in a world living under the dark cloud of terrorism and its future will have a major influence on the stability of the entire region, if not the world. The Pashtuns of Afghanistan and Pakistan, as the major force in this vital region, play a critical part in this whole drama and, if durable solutions are to be found, a proper understanding is essential of this race, its aspirations and its potential for both good and evil. Some myths have to be exploded and some harsh realities have to be recognised.

There have been a number of watersheds in the history of the Pashtuns of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. As a whole they saw the coming of Islam as the major religion at the same time. Once they enjoyed control of territories extending as far east as Delhi. By the end of the 19th century, after the boundary between Afghanistan and British India had been drawn under the Durand Agreement of 1893, the history of Pashtuns on each side of the line began to differ. Those living east of the Khyber Pass up to the Indus came under the control of the British until 1947, when they became part of Pakistan. Those inhabiting the area west of the Khyber up to the border with Iran, became nationals of Afghanistan.

The system of tribal administration introduced by the British remained the same on the Indian side for nearly a hundred years. The Political Agent, a member of the elite Indian Political Service, which consisted of an equal number of officers of the British Indian Army and members of the renowned Indian Civil Service, was the sole and fully empowered representative of the government. This was the era of the great mandarins of the frontier, men like the Lawrence brothers, Edwardes, Nicholson, Mackeson, Warburton, Roos-Keppel and Cunningham. From 1849 to 1901 the Pashtun areas were part of the Punjab. The Viceroy, Lord Curzon, created a separate Pashtun province called the North-West Frontier Province in 1901 and placed it under the administrative control of a Chief Commissioner, later a full-fledged Governor.

Curzon reformed the Frontier Crimes Regulation, which was the only statute embodying the agreements with the various tribes. Under this an entire tribe bore responsibility for crimes and misdemeanours committed by a member and a range of reprisals by the government were defined, from fines right up to military action. This law also provided for settlement of disputes by jirga. In addition, a major innovation by Curzon was the creation of paramilitary forces, recruited solely from among tribesmen and officered by the Indian Army to aid the Political Agents. These still constitute the only fully organised tribal force, now known as the Frontier Corps, comprising among others legendary units like the Khyber Rifles, the Tochi Scouts and the South Waziristan Scouts. They are presently in the forefront of the fight against terrorism in FATA. 

The system of indirect administration devised by the British never fully pacified the tribes, but was a masterful example of how to manage a turbulent people. Military operations had to be resorted to from time to time. For example, there was a general revolt across the entire tribal belt in 1897, leading to a major campaign, which Subaltern Winston Churchill immortalised in his despatches to the Daily Telegraph and in his book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force. There were other, more localised insurrections, particularly in Waziristan, the latest of which was led by the Faqir of Ipi in the mid 1930s and early 1940s. In various operations on the frontier, renowned military figures like Roberts, Wavell, Auchinleck and Alexander played a part.

After the creation of Pakistan, the same system was continued but there was only one major military operation that took place: in Bajaur in 1960. Apart from that, calm prevailed until 2001, when it was badly shaken up by events in neighbouring Afghanistan, following the horrors of 11 September in far-off America. The resulting instability in FATA, which is increasing daily, is intrinsically linked to the turmoil in Afghanistan. The future of the Pakistani Pashtuns depends a great deal on how the end game of the current crisis is played out.

The history of the Afghan Pashtuns followed a somewhat different course after 1893 and the Durand Agreement. Two disastrous Afghan wars were fought by the British in the 19th century and from them emerged a semi-independent state, with the ruling Durrani Pashtun dynasty remaining as Emirs but receiving a subsidy from the British, in return for some surrender of sovereignty. A third Afghan war in 1919, instigated by Kabul, saw the Afghan Pashtun forces advance into British India as far as Thal at the foot of the Kurram valley, but the arrival of the aeroplane and a few bombs on Kabul soon forced the Emir to sue for peace.

Following this the Treaty of Rawalpindi in 1921 recognised Afghanistan as a fully independent state, and Amanullah continued Durrani rule with the title of King. After his forced abdication, due to his excessive modernising zeal, there was a brief period of about nine months when a Tajik water-carrier, widely known as Bacha-i-Saqao, laid claim to the throne of Kabul. He was overthrown by a force of Pashtun tribesmen hailing from Khost in south-east Afghanistan and their kinsmen from across the border in Waziristan. General Nadir Shah, who had led the campaign in the Kurram valley, was installed as King. He and his son Zahir Shah ruled Afghanistan for the next 45 years, a period that saw both stability and progress and in retrospect can be described as a golden era for the nation.

Measured political reforms were introduced, a new constitution was adopted, foreign assistance poured in, and Kabul society acquired a markedly cosmopolitan nature. The rulers, being from the Mohammadzai branch of the Durrani dynasty, were fully acceptable to the majority Pashtun population. Moreover their tolerant policies endeared them to the minority ethnic groups and there was remarkable harmony. If anything, the Pashtuns were somewhat unhappy that the ruling family and the Kabul elites did not give predominance to their language and traditions. Instead, they preferred to speak the Darri (Persian) language and adopt a Westernised lifestyle. Control over the Pashtuns in the south and east of the country was effectively exercised by delegation of authority to organised state institutions with basic loyalty to Kabul. During this period, administrative control of the tribes was much more effective in Afghanistan than on the Pakistan side of the Durand Line.

Forty-five years of peace and tranquillity ended when Sardar Mohammad Daud, a former Prime Minister and cousin of Zahir Shah, staged a palace coup while the King was holidaying in Italy. He remained in exile in Rome for 30 years. Sardar Daud abolished the monarchy and established a republic with himself as President. Pashtun rule over Afghanistan continued, and it was grudgingly accepted by the minorities. The new political order allowed younger Pashtun elements, members of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) with leftist leanings, to enter the political arena.

Sardar Daud was a hardliner as far as Pakistan was concerned. He intensified contacts with dissident elements among the Pashtuns of FATA and even turned to Moscow for support of his irredentist stand on the Durand Line. It was at this stage that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had come to power after the break up of Pakistan in 1971, decided to support anti-Daud elements among the Afghans. These included men like Hikmatyar, Ahmad Shah Massoud, Maulvi Khalis and others who were later to become leaders of the mujahedin. Bhutto tasked General Naseerullah Babar, Inspector General of the Frontier Corps and later Governor of the Frontier Province, to provide military training to their followers. This was the beginning of Pakistani interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan even though, towards the end of his rule, Daud appeared willing to settle the boundary dispute.

Soviet Military Intervention

Within five years, in April 1978, Daud was assassinated together with his family and a PDPA regime took over under a Pashtun, Noor Mohammad Tarakki. The new power-brokers were soon deeply divided among themselves, and this led to differences in policy and a sharp polarisation between the Parcham and the Khalq, all of whom were Pashtuns. Seeing the new revolution in danger, the Soviet Union decided to intervene militarily. On a cold morning in the Christmas season of 1979, young Soviet soldiers emerged from the turrets of their tanks having driven all night from Uzbekistan to find themselves in a strange land, occupied by a strange people, speaking a strange language.

For the next nine years, 150,000 Soviet troops would stay in this inhospitable country defending their newly installed puppet Babrak Karmal, also a Pashtun, from the Parcham faction of the PDPA. This time, however, the Pashtuns as a body refused to accept the regime or the Soviet presence, and a full-scale Jihad (Holy War) ensued. This was to prove a major watershed in the history of Afghanistan and of the Pashtuns in particular. It ended with a negotiated withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989, though the PDPA maintained a tenuous hold on power for a couple of years.

It remains disputed among historians whether the decision on the part of the Western powers, led by the US, to convert the Afghan Jihad into a central Cold War issue just to humiliate the Soviet Union, eventually worked in favour of the Afghan people or not. At the time, however, 104 countries in the UN condemned the Soviet intervention and the so-called free world rallied to the support of the mujahedin. Over three million Afghan Pashtuns fled their homeland and took refuge in Pakistan. Over a million from other communities fled westward to Iran. Support for the Afghan Jihad became a noble, humanitarian cause in the eyes of people across the globe, from the US, Europe, the Arab world and China. The Pashtun mujahedin became the heroes of the world.

Unfortunately the US judged that the best way to promote their cause was a call to rally to the banner of Islam, and religious consciousness among the Pashtuns was encouraged. In addition, fanatical jihadis from many Muslim countries as far away as Egypt, Yemen and Chechnya, were transported by the US CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) to the Pashtun tribal areas, to be trained in warfare by the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) of Pakistan. Their own countries were glad to be rid of them, and many of the 30,000 or so that came stayed on in the Pashtun areas after the Soviets withdrew in 1989, often joining ISI-sponsored groups in FATA, which later used Kashmir in the ongoing proxy war against India. 

The President of Pakistan, General Zia-ul-Haq, assumed the role of leader of a frontline state opposing the Soviet armed intervention and overnight became the darling of important countries of the West. Hitherto they had treated Zia as a pariah, because he had overthrown a civilian regime in Pakistan. He was now given virtually sole authority in the allocation of funds and arms for the Jihad, and billions of dollars came from the CIA and Saudi Arabia. He in turn handed over all functions on the ground to the ISI, which developed close links with the jihadi elements in both Afghanistan and FATA, and helped organise them as effective fighting forces. In this process, the Pashtuns of FATA were sharply radicalised and many joined these newly created extremist groups, patronised by the ISI. By the beginning of the 21st century, they were to become the biggest threat to Pakistan’s own stability, while the conduct of the country’s Afghan policy fell totally into the hands of the army and the ISI.

It is important to recognise the massive change the Afghan Jihad brought about in the character and the condition of the Pashtuns. In the matter of religion the individual Pashtun is deeply religious, but Pashtun custom does not ascribe a high status to the mullah. He is seen only as a functionary to administer rituals at the time of birth or marriage or death. Although he leads the Friday congregational prayers, this does not enhance his status and he lives on the charity of the community. In the context of the Jihad, however, President Zia, encouraged by the CIA, enhanced his status, first by ordering that every unit of the army must have its mullah and then encouraging the establishment of madrassas (religious schools) all over the country, particularly in the Pashtun areas. These institutions imparted only religious instruction and drummed into students the glories of Jihad. They were especially effective among the tribes of FATA where normal educational facilities were sadly lacking, and where extreme poverty made parents grateful that they could send their sons to madrassas, which provided everything free, including board and lodging.

So within Pakistan proper and in the tribal areas whole generations of religiously trained young Pashtuns have now grown up, ever ready to answer the call of religious agitators. This development has critically affected Pashtun society and explains the dangerous trend towards extremism now so dominant in FATA, symbolised by the creation of a new terrorist organization, which calls itself the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and which vows, somewhat unrealistically, to overthrow the state. It also explains the heavy participation of Pashtuns from Pakistan’s tribal areas both in the revolts against the Soviets in the 1980s and against the US and NATO today. Therefore it would not be entirely incorrect to say that the US and Pakistan are today reaping the harvest of what they sowed in the 1980s. Perhaps, had the Saar revolution of 1978 been allowed to run its course, its communist philosophy, which was never very dogmatic, would have died with the Soviet Union, and a moderate, progressive and tolerant Afghanistan would have emerged.

Rise of the Taliban

Another direct consequence of the Afghan Jihad against the Soviets was that, having enabled the mujahedin to force a Soviet withdrawal, the Americans virtually turned their backs on the country and did nothing to help reconstruct it. This left the people at the mercy of armed mujahedin, whose leaders soon fell out with each other and became engaged in bloody internecine strife for power. The situation was further aggravated by neighbouring countries, particularly Pakistan and Iran fishing in troubled waters. Pakistan’s ISI, committed to the theory of strategic depth against its old adversary India, was bent on manipulating this struggle to favour diehards like its protégé, Gulbuddin Hikmatyar. 

Iran supported an alliance of minorities led by Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Massoud. More distantly the Saudis favoured Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, while India opted for the Northern Alliance. It was in the midst of this chaos that a single reformist force emerged and was able, by 1996, to gain control of three-quarters of the country. This new force, the Taliban, meaning “students” (clearly religious), was entirely Pashtun and originated in Kandahar. Miraculously it captured Kabul in a matter of months. Many attributed its success to the support given by Pakistan. This is debatable, but there is no denying the fact that thousands of Pashtuns from FATA, trained in Pakistan’s madrassas and perhaps even by the ISI, joined the Taliban in their bid for power.

 The Taliban regime was successful in restoring a semblance of order in the areas it controlled, but its tussle with the non-Pashtun Northern Alliance continued. More importantly, the peace that it restored was the peace of the grave. A harsh religious order, which forbade women to work or seek education led to the closure of hospitals and girls’ schools. Beards for men were made compulsory, strict dress regulations were enforced, and all forms of entertainment were prohibited, including cinema, television, music, dancing and even football.

The outside world deplored this, and anger was further aroused by the destruction of the giant statues of Buddha in Bamian, ignoring pleas from many countries and the UN. The only countries to recognise the Taliban regime were Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, though none actually challenged it. Mullah Omar, the acknowledged leader of the Taliban, allowed the firebrand al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, a protégé of the CIA during the anti-Soviet Jihad of the 1980s, to return to Afghanistan, set up his network of terrorist training camps and to plan his deadly attack on American soil on 11 September 2001. 

The coming to power of the Pashtun Taliban exacerbated differences between the majority Pashtuns and the various ethnic minorities in Afghanistan. This had always been a factor that stood in the way of national unity and only Zahir Shah among the Pashtun rulers was able to gain the trust of the non-Pashtun elements. The Taliban emphasised the right of the Pashtuns to rule. Efforts by Pakistan to bring about a rapprochement between the two may have succeeded in the late 1990s had 9/11 not taken place.

Consequences of 9/11 for the Pashtuns

Immediately after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack on American soil, President Bush demanded and easily got the support of Pakistan’s military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, in his “war on terror”. Like General Zia, Musharraf was treated as an outcast by the international community after he carried out a military coup in 1999. Again like Zia, he now overnight became a “tight friend” of the US President. The first priority for President Bush was to seek Pakistan’s help in getting Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, to hand over Osama bin Laden to the Americans. Pakistan made a half-hearted effort but the Taliban leader refused, ostensibly on the basis of pashtunwali.

The Taliban thus came to be regarded as an enemy of the US, which then launched an all-out military attack from the air on their territory and helped the Northern Alliance to capture Kabul in October 2001. The defeat of the Taliban was swift, but many Taliban leaders went underground or fled to the tribal areas of Pakistan. They remained quiescent for a couple of years, but re-emerged as a guerrilla force in 2003 to fight the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

The original American idea of going after bin Laden and al Qaeda was soon relegated in importance by the decision to invade Iraq. A major operation to catch bin Laden was launched at Tora Bora, near the Pakistan border in the winter of 2001 but was abandoned halfway and he escaped, supposedly to the Pashtun tribal areas of Pakistan. After the Iraq war, when attention was again turned to Afghanistan, the main enemy had become the Pashtun Taliban. Ironically, there seemed little reason for this as no Afghan Pashtun or member of the Taliban had been involved in any terrorist attack against the US until their troops entered his country. 

Pakistan now faced a dilemma. It had signed up with the Americans for the so-called “war on terror”, not to fight the Taliban, but to fight al Qaeda. Indeed its own tribesmen had fought alongside the Taliban in the struggle for power in Afghanistan and there were strong ties of kinship. Musharraf tried to play a balancing game. He gave full cooperation to the Americans in tracking down al Qaeda operatives, but he did not touch the Afghan Taliban. He even overlooked the fact that many of their leaders had sought refuge in FATA. For some years he was successful in warding off American concerns over this, so much so that Ryan Crocker, the American ambassador in Islamabad, was quoted as saying that during his two-year term he was never once asked by Washington to raise the question of safe havens in FATA for the Afghan Taliban. Today this is the main complaint that the Americans have against Pakistan.

Pakistan’s Military Action in FATA

Pakistan was driven to military action against its own tribes when extremist elements rose in revolt against the government, first in Swat and then in South Waziristan. After a number of attempts to negotiate with the rebels, full-scale military operations were launched in 2009, first in Swat, Dir and Bajaur in the north and subsequently in South Waziristan. The rebels in the north were defeated but their leader, Mullah Fazlullah, escaped to Afghanistan. In southern Waziristan the rebels were driven out of the areas that they had occupied by force, but the army was unable to establish its unchallenged writ.

The Pashtun rebels of FATA coalesced in 2007 into a body calling itself the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which established links with al Qaeda. It did not see itself as playing any role inside Afghanistan, though it sought good relations with the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan now had its own indigenous Taliban problem. The TTP openly sought revenge for the army action in FATA through acts of terror, including suicide bombings and attacks on non-combatant elements of the armed forces. Pakistan has since had to commit more than 100,000 troops in FATA and nearly 4,000 have been killed. In addition, terrorist attacks by the TTP have caused the death of nearly 35,000 innocent Pakistanis, including many women and children.

Military operations have been only partially successful. The insurgent Pakistani Taliban may have been worsted in battle, but the army has been unable to consolidate its hold and the civil administration is ill-equipped to resume normal responsibilities. Nor has the appeal of the TTP to young tribesmen diminished. In fact there is intense resentment over indiscriminate use of force by the Pakistan Army, further aggravated by CIA drone attacks that cause considerable collateral damage. Within Pakistan itself, the use of the army against its own people is by no means popular, and there is a growing demand to move away from the use of force and to handle the situation politically, through negotiation. Experience has shown that the more army action and drone attacks are used, the more young tribesmen join the TTP.

The Pashtuns and the Endgame in AfPak

The Afghan problem arising out of the 9/11 terrorist attacks has metamorphosed and become extremely complicated in the last 11 years. It started purely as a fight against terrorism, as symbolised by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. It must be remembered that all those involved in the horrors of 9/11 were Arabs. The Afghan Pashtuns in the shape of the Taliban were in no way involved. However the American reaction, understandably perhaps, was sharp and President Bush vigorously asserted that not only the perpetrators but anyone who had supported them would be punished. When the Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden, even though they suggested alternative ways of bringing him to justice, they then became the enemy as much as al Qaeda. The Arab nations to which the terrorists belonged were not touched. Furthermore, the massive air assault was directed solely against the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance, which was also a part of the Afghan nation, was actually supported by the Americans.

The entry into Afghanistan of US and NATO forces was legitimised by the UN, but the vast damage and loss of innocent lives it brought has caused deep resentment among the Pashtuns, both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. Military operations were concentrated in areas like Helmand and Kandahar, strongholds of the Pashtuns. There is a saying that, while all Taliban are Pashtuns, all Pashtuns are not Taliban. The US and NATO armed action has affected all Pashtuns. One result has been a resurgence of Taliban resistance, directed both from within the country and by leaders like Jalaluddin Haqqani and members of the so-called Quetta Shura, headed by Mullah Omar, who have taken refuge in Pakistan.

The effect on the Pashtuns of Pakistan has also been negative. In the general election after foreign troops started operations in neighbouring Afghanistan, for the first time religious parties won in the border provinces of KPK and Baluchistan. FATA tribesmen rallied to the cause of their Afghan kinsmen and rebelled against their own government, which was allied to the Americans. Pakistan soon had to take military action against its own nationals, who had coalesced into the TTP indigenous movement and launched a deadly terrorist campaign throughout the country.

So now, there were three enemies facing the US–Pakistan alliance – al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban. The problem was that Pakistan did not consider the Afghan Taliban as an enemy and differences began to emerge between the allies. Then a dramatic event occurred on 2 May 2011. A team of American special forces entered Pakistan by helicopter at night and carried out a daring operation on the outskirts of the city of Abbottabad, killing Osama bin Laden. Pakistani authorities were not informed in advance and were deeply embarrassed that the man who had made the whole world a dangerous place and who had been the main cause of turmoil in the region, should be found in the heart of their country, in what was almost a military station.

The embarrassment further increased when it became known that he had been living there for six years. Suspicion of Pakistan’s duplicity began to be voiced in the US media and Congress, though officially Washington said it had no evidence. The reaction within Pakistan was also sharp, but was directed more at the military for not being able to protect the country’s borders against an armed incursion. The Pakistan Army decided to deflect this criticism by diverting attention to the issue of violation of sovereignty. The simmering distrust between the two allies was rapidly coming to the boil.

A few months later, NATO aircraft attacked a Pakistan army post in Salala Mohmand Agency, killing 24 soldiers. The post was located 16 miles inside Pakistan territory and military authorities claimed they had warned the NATO pilots, thus they were targeting Pakistanis. NATO claimed it was an error and expressed regret at the loss of life. The damage, however, was done and US–Pakistan relations plummeted to an all-time low. Pakistan blocked the transit of NATO supplies overland to Kabul from the port of Karachi, Parliament called for a thorough review of the whole bilateral relationship, and anti-Americanism reached a high pitch. In Washington, Congress and the media adopted a highly critical tone about Pakistan and the flow of funds for the war on terror was interrupted. The bilateral relationship remains unstable, though NATO supplies are now allowed through and some funds have been released. Efforts to fashion a coordinated policy for the transition in Afghanistan have been affected, with foreign forces due to withdraw in 2014. 

In actual fact such coordination was lacking from the start, despite the creation of special mechanisms. Neither the Americans nor the Pakistanis were ever absolutely certain about the best way to tackle the Afghan problem. President Bush started with the basic idea of destroying al Qaeda. With the killing of Osama bin Laden, it might be thought that this objective has been largely achieved. But the aim had since been widened to oust the Taliban regime and put in place a pliable leader. Hamid Karzai was accordingly installed and even twice elected. But he was never able to deliver good governance. Inefficiency and corruption thrived. Though Karzai himself was a Pashtun from the Popalzai branch of the Durranis, he was never accepted by the Pashtuns and the minority Northern Alliance wielded great power in his government. For a successful transition in 2014, the objective now is to achieve a government of national reconciliation, acceptable to all Afghans.

At the beginning, it was envisaged that military force alone would be enough to destroy the Pashtun insurgency, but by the time Obama entered office the thinking had changed. Now there was growing talk of a negotiated settlement. The new President brought what many thought was a more sophisticated approach to the problem and he ordered a complete review of Afghan policy. Soon, however, he was faced with sharp differences among his advisers. Some wished to lay emphasis on a political solution, others wanted to maintain the military pressure.

In a way, his NATO allies took the initiative away from him by declaring at Lisbon that armed forces would be withdrawn by 2014. Early negotiations, it would appear, were now called for but even on this opinion was divided. The CIA and the Pentagon wanted more intense anti-insurgency operations and more troops. Obama reached a somewhat half-hearted compromise that virtually said “fight and decimate”, and then negotiate. He accordingly agreed to a 30,000 surge in troops. On the ground this was not a success, and instead the Pashtun insurgents gained strength. Then began exploratory efforts at negotiations, sometimes with the help of the Germans, sometimes Saudis or Qataris and sometimes directly in secret, with so-called reconcilable elements among the Pashtuns. These continue to this day, but little progress has been made.

A significant change in approach to the Afghan problem was signalled by Obama during his presidential campaign in 2008, when he said that the real problem and its solution lay not just in Afghanistan, but in the tribal areas of Pakistan – in other words with the Pashtuns as a whole. Accordingly the term “AfPak” was coined, and Richard Holbrooke was appointed as the Special Envoy on Afghanistan with wide powers. What exactly Obama intended by his remarks was not entirely clear. He could have meant that Pakistan had become a major centre of operations and planning for al Qaeda, and that it was providing safe havens for the Afghan Taliban in its tribal areas.

In a sense, this would involve casting Pakistan in an adversarial light. On the other hand, he could have meant that peace in the region depended on the stability of Pakistan above Afghanistan, and that the US should help both to achieve a durable stability. Holbrooke adopted the latter, positive interpretation and called for greater efforts to help Pakistan solve its myriad problems. Unfortunately he died and strong lobbies emerged in America, particularly in Congress, after the bin Laden incident and the temporary stoppage of NATO supplies in 2011. These lobbies call for firm action against Pakistan unless it moves against the Haqqani network in northern Waziristan. Despite overt efforts by both Washington and Islamabad to show that relations are on the mend, it appears that the hard-line lobbies remain strong and a rocky road lies ahead.

This is unfortunate, because the objectives of America and of Pakistan are really not that far apart. Both would like a transition that ensures a peaceful and stable Afghanistan. Both support an Afghan-led reconciliation process that brings in a broad-based government in Kabul. Both agree that the Pashtun majority must have a due share in governance and cannot be kept totally out. Neither of them would like to see the old Taliban hold full power. This is particularly true for Pakistan, because its own Pashtuns have greatly intensified their links with the Afghan Taliban and the last thing Pakistan wants is a backlash of extremist ideologies. However, if the Afghan Taliban is not brought into the reconciliation process, there will be a civil war that would have major reverberations among the Pashtuns of Pakistan. This could destabilise the entire country.

All stakeholders need to clearly identify their interests and their responsibilities. The US, having intervened militarily and caused much misery to the Afghan Pashtuns, has a responsibility to help rebuild their country. Some say that 90 percent of the Afghan economy depends on the foreign presence and up to $8 billion per year will be required to sustain it.

The stated aim of the NATO alliance is to bring about an Afghan reconciliation and then withdraw, leaving behind a widely accepted government supported by a strong Afghan Army and police. The debate now is whether progress can be made towards achieving these aims. Clearly some pitfalls have to be avoided. The effort to promote national reconciliation has to be better coordinated. In this, the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan have to work together. At the moment they are often at cross purposes. Secondly, the Afghan security forces being trained by NATO must have an ethnic balance. Currently the officer class is heavily weighted in favour of the Northern Alliance, and the Pashtuns have a disproportionately small representation among the troops. It is for NATO and Karzai to correct this.

Pakistan can play a positive and important role. It can encourage the Afghan Taliban leaders living on its soil to take the path of negotiation. Both Mullah Omar and Haqqani have indirectly indicated in statements that they are not entirely opposed to the idea. It is vital for Pakistan that a durable solution to the Afghan problem be found. Pakistan has myriad crises of its own to face. It is suffering economic meltdown, law and order is threatened, sectarian strife is spreading, it has an acute energy crisis, and corruption is at an all-time high. Most pressing of the problems is the militant extremism and terrorism centred around its Pashtun areas. This places extra obligations towards the region, and indeed the world, to ensure that Pashtuns do not allow their area to become a hotbed of terrorism. The world no longer accepts the argument that a nation can have large tracts of territory over which control is not exercised. Pakistan is responsible for the actions of all citizens, including its Pashtuns, and to discharge this responsibility its system of tribal administration has to be geared up to neutralise extremist and terrorist elements. Otherwise, it will be the next target of the war on terror.

The Pashtuns of FATA have changed considerably over the past 30 years. The image of a reliable friend and a worthy foe with a sacred code of honour has worn somewhat thin. Respect for traditional tribal elders has been largely lost, and new power centres have emerged with drug dealers, smugglers and violent religious fanatics in the forefront. 

Meanwhile the quality of Pakistan’s tribal administration has been steadily deteriorating. The British system of selecting special individuals has been abandoned and the civil services are now judged on the basis of their loyalty to the party in power. The Political Agent position has been considerably debased by the army moving in and taking over authority. Corruption in the Pashtun areas, both settled and tribal, is as bad, if not worse, than other parts of the country. The Awami National Party, heirs to the legacy of the great Pashtun leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar who preached non-violence, honesty and public service as the essence of politics, is today indistinguishable from any other political party in Pakistan in its corruption and pursuit of self-interest. So the task will be an uphill one.

The eventual aim must be to make all Pashtuns equal citizens of the country, with the same rights and responsibilities. But this has to be approached with caution. The Pashtun has become accustomed to a certain way of life. Though his hills offer little scope for enrichment, he has acquired considerable assets in real estate and in Pakistan’s transport sector. The educated Pashtun has risen to high positions. Three individuals of Pashtun descent have become President, and many have become cabinet ministers, governors, generals and business tycoons. At the same time, the tribals among them have enjoyed privileges like exemption from taxes and other laws. Obviously they would like to continue having the best of both worlds. The change may take time, but the world will not wait and Pakistan must immediately ensure that it maintains control in FATA, at least to the extent that the area does not become the centre of terrorism. 


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