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Default Building the House of the Pakhtuns - 08-11-2010, 06:52 PM

By Michael Shank

"O Pathans! Your house has fallen into ruin. Arise and rebuild it, and remember to what race you belong," uttered by one of Islam's exemplary non-violent leaders. This quote is relevant now more than ever before, one-hundred years after Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan pleaded with his people. Estimated at 40 million, the 'house' to which Khan refers to is the world's largest patriarchal lineage tribal group, stationed within Afghanistan and Pakistan's border regions. Ethnically homogenous, the house split in two in 1893 by the Durand Line, the two countries' 1610-mile border, resulting in geographically specific identities, Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pathans in Pakistan.

Ironically, Khan's analysis remains relevant; the house is indeed falling into ruin. But the ruination is not resulting from recent Pashtun or Pathan malfeasance. Rather, the responsibility lies with governments near and far -- specifically Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States -- who have used this region as a political dumping ground. Now it is time for Pashtuns and Pathans to throw off the yolk of their assigned nation-statehood. The war on terrorism has awarded Pashtuns/Pathans unwelcome notoriety. Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States all consider this mountainous region the home of Taliban and Al Qaeda's infamous leadership and consequently, innocent tribesmen are frequently caught in the crossfire, killed or jailed without legal access.

Ironically the blame for this assumed Taliban-and-Al-Qaeda harbouring is accorded only when politically expedient. Afghanistan blames Pakistan. Pakistan blames Afghanistan. The US blames Pakistan. Washington would blame Afghanistan if it could, but because of the Bush invasion it would simultaneously reflect badly on the US. So US finger-pointing remains Pakistan-specific. And the sad irony facing Pashtuns and Pathans: none of these governments seem to care remotely for their welfare.

Afghanistan's disregard for the Pashtun perspective is perhaps the most egregious. Kabul's governance fails to aptly reflect the voice of the Pashtun ethnic majority. The Pashtun people remain deprived of a representative voice within President Karzai's administration and harbour deep resentment towards Karzai and the US government for its role in establishing a near Pashtun-free government. Thusly, the motivation among Pashtuns to remain law-abiding citizens within an Afghanistan that perpetually disregards the needs of its ethnic majority is, not surprisingly, minimal. That is why the Pashtun-heavy southern Afghanistan continues to be characterised by violence. Kabul's refusal to bring Pashtun leaders to the political table concurrently undermines Karzai's ability to achieve security. As long as Pashtuns are excluded from the government, violence will be their loudest voice.

Pakistan is no better neighbour. At one point in history, Pakistan was aiding and abetting the US by arming tribesmen to fight the Russians. And now the present government is bombing the same tribes to convince US patrons that the Islamic Republic is active in the war on terror. At one point in history, Pakistan was cavorting with Pashtuns to ensure a strong ethnic presence in Kabul. Not long after, the officials of a successive government were cavorting with the Americans to shell tribal villages. Undoubtedly, Pakistan's president is in a delicate situation since the alignment with the US secures financial security for his country and substantial weapons' deliveries.

Though geographically very distant, the United States is ever-present, pitting Pashtuns and/or Pathans in Afghanistan and Pakistan against each other within the rubric of the war on terror. The near entirety of Washington's policymaking community believes that the indisputable source of all Talibanism and Al Qaeda is the border region. Since US efforts to locate the Taliban and Al Qaeda have been largely unsuccessful, consensus on a Pashtun/Pathan source is not only critical but also convenient for several reasons.

Firstly, the border regions are vast, impassable and remote, making it difficult for international observers to repudiate or corroborate US claims. Secondly, Pashtuns/Pathans are a notoriously proud people with a history of increasing resistance when pushed by external forces (visible in resistance to Britain's colonialist agenda in South Asia). The US knows that by vociferously backing them into a corner, much like what is happening with Iran, the cornered victim will eventually strike back, thus providing justification for a response attack by the US. Thirdly, the Pashtuns offer the US a necessary scapegoat to justify Afghanistan's near failed-state status. Without Pashtuns to blame, the US is solely accountable and responsible for the tenuous, post-invasion status of Karzai's country.

In short, neighbours appear untrustworthy. Consequently, Pashtuns/Pathans should consider rebuilding their house to withstand outside pressures. There is a strong likelihood they would be better off by doing so. Such a move, of course, would be loudly boycotted by Karzai and Musharraf and would invariably disrupt the century-long dispute over the Durand Line. The boundary, of which a 99-year old treaty expired in 1993, demarcated borders between Afghanistan and then-British India and afforded Pakistan the eventual right to rule over Pathans. This is why Pakistan supported a Pashtun presence in Kabul, to win favour with the Pashtuns and eventual acquiescence perhaps for a Pakistan-controlled Pathan homeland. Now with the treaty defunct, Pashtuns/Pathans remain vulnerable against a possible remapping of the borders or a fencing of existing borders -- either of which would have adverse impacts.

In order to pre-empt that vulnerability and possible remapping, Pashtuns/Pathans should consider local, sovereign systems of governance. Tribes demanding autonomy is not a new phenomenon. It mirrors a global trend by unrepresented voices who, feeling disenfranchised by their ruling capitals, go it alone. What happened to East Timor and what may happen in southern Sudan or west Papua, is perhaps what is needed in and around the Durand Line. The Pashtuns are under-represented in Kabul, many Pathans are perpetually under attack from Islamabad, and Washington vilifies both. Pashtuns/Pathans need to find their own voice.

The writer is a PhD student at George Mason University's Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.
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