For decades, works on the Pashtuns of Afghanistan and Pakistan were limited to an aging generation of Western academicians tucked away in ivory towers. These scholars carried out their field research in the region prior to the 1979 Soviet invasion. Few of this generation of deskbound researchers took the time to learn an Afghan language, nor did they bother to renew their links to Afghanistan due to the perceived risks of traveling to this country.
Against this tradition stands The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan by Abubakar Siddique. Siddique is a Pashtun who grew up in the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands speaking Pashto and personally experiencing the conflicts that convulsed his homeland from the 1980s through to today’s wars against the Taliban. As a Westernized Pashtun journalist who has worked for Radio Free Europe, Siddique is uniquely positioned to straddle the tribal world he grew up in and the modern Western world. The fact that he is able to critically analyze his own society using the skilled prose of a journalist (as opposed to the impenetrable “academese” of a scholar) makes his volume all the more useful. In fact the Pashtun Question is probably the most important work on the Pashtuns since Sir Olaf Caroe’s classic 1958 field study on the subject, The Pathans.
Among the issues Siddique carefully addresses is the question of what makes the Pashtuns so inclined toward militant Islamism (the Taliban are almost exclusively ethnic Pashtuns). In my own time among the Pashtuns in both Afghanistan’s southeast and the tribal zones of Pakistan’s northwest, I found this people quick to blame external sources for this tendency. Most Pashtuns (especially those in Afghanistan) blamed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency for their propensity to wage costly holy wars.
Before reading Siddique’s analysis of this topic, I found this typical Pashtun response to be a reflexive dodge by a people that refused to take responsibility for a trait that was seemingly intrinsic to their society. Their deflective responses failed to address what it was about the Pashtuns (as opposed to the neighboring Turkmen, Aimaqs, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Chitralis, Punjabis, Sindhis, etc.) that uniquely made them fight bloody holy wars against local “infidels.” The Pashtuns, it will be recalled, waged jihads against such peoples as the pagan mountain Kafirs (i.e. the Nuristanis who were forced at sword point to convert to Islam in the late 19th century by the Pashtuns), the Hazaras (Shi’ite Mongols whose homeland was devastated in by the Sunni Pashtuns in a 19th century “jihad”) and the British from 1839 to 1947. I felt that the Pashtuns I talked with were not honestly looking themselves in the mirror and addressing the endogenous, uniquely Pashtun roots of the Islamist militancy that has plagued their people since a young Winston Churchill wrote of this people, “Their superstition exposes them to the rapacity and tyranny of a numerous priesthood – ‘Mullahs,’ ‘Sahibzadas,’ ‘Akhundzadas,’ ‘Fakirs,’ – and a host of wandering Talib-ul-ilms.” 
To a degree, Siddique overcomes this issue by delving into the past of his people’s militancy. While acknowledging on page 15 that “jihadist ideology is now entrenched in the [Pashtun] region,” Siddique sets out to explore how such a sizeable portion of his people became followers of this ideology. Going back in history he shows that much (but not all!) of the fault for the Pashtun jihadist militancy on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border does in fact lie with external actors, most notably the manipulative policies of Islamabad. As Siddique eloquently demonstrates, going back to the 15th century there were strains of Islamic thinking among the Pashtuns that were inspired by “spirituality and moderation” on one hand (e.g. the movement led by the Pashtun religious leader Pir Roshan) and those inspired by a harsher brand of Islam (e.g. the movement led by “the Rigid Mullah” Akhund Derweza). It was the latter strain which led to what Siddique calls “frontier jihads” against the British once these “infidel” outsiders divided the Pashtun lands between Afghanistan and British India in the 1890s. It was also this strain of Islam that the newly created Pakistani government was to tap into after their 1947 independence in order to undermine the concept of “Pashtunistan” (i.e. the Afghan government’s irredentist efforts to reunite under Kabul’s rule the lost Pashtun lands of Pakistan with those in Afghanistan).
As it transpires, consecutive nationalist Afghan-Pashtun governments rejected the 1879 Treaty of Gandamack that led to the British annexation of the Pashtun lands of what would become Pakistan and continued to foment secessionist rebellions among restless Pashtuns living in Pakistan’s tribal regions. To counteract this policy, Islamabad responded by sponsoring domestic Islamist rebellions against Kabul led by Afghan Pashtuns. This tit-for-tat policy culminated in Pakistan’s support for Islamist mujahideen rebels (as opposed to ethnic-nationalist Pashtun rebels who had irredentist tendencies) during the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad. The Pakistanis hoped that Islamist Pashtun rebels, rather than nationalist rebel factions, would seize Kabul from the Communists and create a government based on pan-Islamic principles instead of cross-border Pashtun nationalism. Muslim (as opposed to Pashtun nationalist) Afghanistan could then serve as a key Islamic ally and fallback zone should Muslim Pakistan get into an existential war with Hindu-dominated India.
Siddique sums up the results of Islamabad’s policy of pumping millions of U.S. dollars in to support radical Islamist Pashtun elements among the mujahideen rebels by stating on page 41: “Pashtuns were major victims of this policy, as it radicalized and militarized their homeland.” The Pashtuns were not, however, the only ones to suffer from the ISI’s sponsorship of fanatical Islamist elements among the Pashtun mujahideen to the detriment of more moderate nationalist elements. This policy would ultimately come back to haunt the Pakistanis when they sponsored a new Islamist Pashtun movement known as the Taliban that sought to conquer Afghanistan and impose a strict interpretation of Shari’a.
While the Pakistani-sponsored Taliban initially supported Islamabad’s goals by creating an Islamic theocracy as opposed to a Pashtun nationalist state, the Pakistanis were clearly playing with fire. Siddique sums up the negative results of Pakistan’s policy of cynically meddling in Pashtun militancy as a means for undermining Pashtunistan-ism on page 43 by noting that decades of Pakistani investment transformed Pashtun Islamism into a formidable political force and reduced the Pashtun nationalist threat. However, several built-in contradictions in the policy backfired on Islamabad and its goal of enhancing Pakistani security and prestige. Indeed, these contradictions became so onerous they now threaten Pakistan’s survival. The country’s existence as a nation-state directly clashes with the pan-Islamism of al-Qaeda and the radical elements of the Taliban.
Having tasted power in Afghanistan from 1995 to 2001, Siddique quotes a Taliban mullah he interviewed in 2001, who warned: “Having taken care of [Ahmad Shah] Massoud [the head of the Northern Alliance opposition to the Taliban who was killed on September 9, 2001] we will soon come to Pakistan to implement true Islam there.” By 2002, a Pakistani Taliban rebellion had emerged in the Pashtun tribal regions of Pakistan that aimed to do nothing less than overthrow the secular government and replace it with a Shari’a regime like the one the ISI had cynically sponsored in neighboring Afghanistan. Just like the Arab-Afghan mujahideen who turned on the United States after the communist regime fell in Afghanistan in 1992, the Taliban had turned on their Pakistani masters. Now it was the Pashtuns, in the form of a local Pakistan Taliban movement, that were carving out space in Pakistan for their own purposes.
Today, up to 3,000 Pakistanis per year are lost to suicide bombers in a deadly Pakistani Taliban insurgency that has cost the Pakistani Army more soldiers’ lives than the United States lost in Afghanistan. Islamabad appears to be incapable of suppressing the jihad it created among the Pashtuns and now faces a threat that is far greater than that of secular Pashtun nationalism of the sort that once called for the creation of a Pashtun nation.
At the end of the day, the ultimate victims are Siddique’s people, the Pashtuns who have been squeezed between 300,000 NATO and Pakistani troops and tormented by fanatical elements among their own people. This ethnic group has lost more than one million people since 1979 according to Siddique’s estimate and their future does not look bright as the United States and NATO prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan. Siddique ends his masterful account with a word of caution for those in Islamabad who may seek to exploit the Pashtuns for their own purposes once again now that Washington has begun its withdrawal. On page 220, he states:
The continued exploitation of the Pashtuns, aimed at keeping them weak and tormented, may serve the short-term interests of powerful governments. But such policies will only prevent the region from rising to its potential and may yet again prove self-defeating.
The tragic history covered in Siddique’s account of decades of exploitation of Pashtuns by Islamabad that ultimately came back to haunt Islamabad would seem to support his cautionary prognostication.
Abubakar Siddique: The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan (London; Hurst. 2013), 271 pages.
Brian Glyn Williams is author of Afghanistan Declassified: A Guide to America’s Longest War (U. Penn Press 2012), Predators: The CIA’s Drone War on Al Qaeda (Washington DC, 2013) and The Last Warlord: The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior who Led U.S. Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime (Chicago, 2013) which are based on his fieldwork in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
1. Winston Churchill, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, Thomas Nelson and Sons, London, 1915, p.7.
- Twenty-First Century Pashtuns: Continuity Amid Catastrophe (randomhouseindia.wordpress.com)
- Should Afghanistan Be Partitioned? (consortiumnews.com)
- Afghanistan: De-Pashtunization of Pashtuns by Taliban (veteranstoday.com)
- In Pakistan’s Pashtun tribal belt, Taliban reject peace talks – Reuters (reuters.com)
- The Genesis of Pakistan’s “Strategic Depth” in Afghanistan (fairobserver.com)
- Afghanistan elections and Pakistan (pakistantoday.com.pk)
- Pakistani jets bomb militant hideouts after airport attack – Reuters (reuters.com)