The Pashtuns: As Afghanistan’s Taliban Rages On, Let’s Understand The Region

Pashtuns—the main drivers of Afghanistan's conflict who pose the biggest challenge to Pakistan, remain forgotten.

5 min read

As Afghanistan descends into a vortex of violence and blood-letting under a misogynistic and brutal Taliban that has retaken power in Kabul, a new book on the increasingly volatile region gives you a clear-eyed analysis of the dangers posed by the rise of the Pashtun nationalists who make up the core of the new regime in an Afghanistan that remains quintessentially tribal.

The Pashtuns: A Contested History is Tilak Devasher’s fourth book on a region seen as a nursery of terror that gave birth not just to the Taliban which has retaken power in Kabul, but also to the Islamic State-Khorasan(IS-K) or Daesh, and Al Qaeda.

With the exit of US and foreign forces from Afghanistan a little over a year ago and Russia’s war on Ukraine, the world has taken its eyes off the Pashtuns—the main drivers of the conflict that makes Afghanistan ungovernable, and poses the biggest challenge to its neighbour Pakistan which seeks to control the narrative, but fails.

A Detailed Primer on the Afghan History & Emergence of Talibans

Besides these previous books: Pakistan: Courting the Abyss(2016), Pakistan: At the Helm (2018) and Pakistan: The Balochistan Conundrum (2019), the author's latest not only gives you an insight into the Pashtuns and their origins but also couldn’t have been better-timed given how a group once nurtured by Pakistan’s armed forces—the Tehreek-i-Taliban, has ended a cease-fire and unleashed a string of bloody attacks unless their demand for the scrapping of Pakistan’s merger of its two frontier provinces: Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, is met. A precursor many believe to the creation of a 'Pashtunistan'.

The author’s tracing of the British era century of contact with the Pashtuns where he explains why the Durand Line remains contested, details the Soviet intervention and is useful for those unfamiliar with the Afghan history.

He describes how the Mujahideen drove the Soviets out of the country, the civil war that followed, and the rise to power of the Taliban in the 1990s. He details the US intervention, the Taliban’s resurgence and its ultimate victory, and significantly for today’s millennials, the incubation of Al Qaeda and Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) and the role of Pakistan in these events.

Analysing the strengths and weaknesses of the Pashtuns and the role of the US and of Pakistan, Devasher makes the point that the crux of the violence lies in the quest to create Pashtunistan— the land of the Pashtuns—an area of more than 100,000 square miles that historically stretches from the Indus to the Hindu Kush with its land and its people divided by the British era controversial Durand Line into Afghanistan and Pakistan. “The Pashtuns, despite being the largest Muslim tribal population in the world, are without a state of their own.”

The tragedy of the Pashtuns is that since December 1979, they have been subjected to constant warfare that has caused one of the largest displacements of people in recent times, turning hundreds and thousands into refugees who sought shelter in Pakistan and Iran, many continuing to remain as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) within Pakistan, the proverbial fifth column.

The Tragic Saga Of the Pashtuns 

Devasher notes that the Pashtuns suffered the most in the globalisation of Jihad explaining how traditional Pashtun leadership was brushed aside, at times violently, and replaced with Afghan and Pakistani radical Islamists.

“Those being killed were Pashtuns. Those who were doing the killing were also Pashtuns. Most of the Afghan mujahideen were Pashtuns; the Taliban are Pashtuns; the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is Pashtun; those whom they have killed in Afghanistan and in the erstwhile FATA are Pashtuns; Even Pashtun children have not been spared. And the story is not yet over," says the author, who also serves in the National Security Council in the Narendra Modi government..

It was the creation of Pakistan in 1947 which would prove the biggest impediment to the Pashtun dream of creating Pashtunistan. The newly created state of Pakistan inherited the British territories and with it, the issue of Afghan irredentism.

The efforts of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan to unite the Pashtuns into Pashtunistan at the time of the partition of the subcontinent came to naught but it sowed the seeds of doubt amongst the Pakistani leadership about the loyalty of his followers that continues to this day.

Post Partition, several Pashtun-led Afghan governments, intermittently raised the issue of Pashtunistan, about the validity of the Durand Line, and challenged Pakistan’s right to rule over its Pashtun areas.

For its part, Punjabi-dominated Pakistan has worked systematically to overwhelm Pashtun impulses for Pashtunistan and Afghan irredentism. This central thread has been one of the key drivers of Pakistan’s policy towards the Pashtuns.

Its efforts have been to snuff out Pashtun nationalism and install a friendly and dependent government in Kabul that has been mainly responsible for the current turmoil in Pashtunistan. To do so, Devasher concludes, Pakistan has manipulated the deeply held religious beliefs of the Pashtuns to encourage the growth of radicalism, terrorism and violence.

The Pashtun Identity & the Advent of Islam

Who are the Pashtuns? There has been a fair amount of confusion about the nomenclature with the use of Pashtun, Pakhtun, Pathan and Afghan, all taken to mean the same thing. The confusion stems from the fact that the Persians referred to Pashtuns interchangeably with Afghan.

The British tried to make a distinction between Afghan and Pathan: the Afghans were considered under Persian influence and spoke Dari (as spoken in Iran), while the Pashtuns or Pathans had greater interaction with India, and spoke Pashto. While tribes in the north of the region use the term 'Pakhtun', the southern tribes use the term 'Pashtun'. Similarly, 'Pakhto' is used to describe the language in the north and Pashto in the south.

The Pashtuns, interestingly, claim descent from a common ancestor—Qays bin Rashid or Qays Abdul Rashid who met the Prophet (PBUH)  at Medina around 622 CE and converted to Islam. On his return to Ghor, Qays is supposed to have successfully propagated the new faith.

This narrative is an article of faith amongst the Pashtuns, who determine the start of their lineage with the conversion to Islam, ignoring their whole history before Qays, who, alongside his four sons—three biological and one adopted—are accepted as the founders of the major tribes under the Pashtun lineage.

"Historically," says Devasher, "scholars document that Islam came to Afghanistan through the conquests of Arab generals in the service of the Rashidun Caliphs ( 632–61 CE) and the Umayyad dynasty ( 661–750 CE) based in Damascus. While Balkh became an important Islamic centre, Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain was such that it took another two to three centuries for Islam to spread to other regions. Buddhist rulers in Bamiyan and Hindu Shahi rulers in Kabul remained holdouts against Islam for many centuries."

(The writer is a Senior Journalist and an Author. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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