Pakistan's Pashtun 'problem'
By Haroun Mir Jul 26, 2007; Asia Times
At least since September 11, 2001, most of the perpetrators of terrorist actions in the West have been Arabs or Pakistanis, yet the victims of the West's military reactions have been Afghans and the Pashtun tribes living in Pakistan.
The majority of Pashtuns have fallen prey to Arab and Pakistani propaganda against the West. The continued insurgency in Afghanistan and the sudden deterioration of the situation in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province make the Pashtun tribes the prime target in the "war against terror".
They have lived in poverty and become the proxy soldiers in the confrontation between the West and the Islamic extremists. The radicalization of young Pashtuns in madrassas (seminaries), generously financed by Saudi Arabia, menaces the cohesion of Pashtun tribal structure.
About 30 million to 35 million Pashtuns live in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, but they are divided and engaged in internal feuds. Only once - and for a short period - have they stood united. This was under the rule of Ahmad Shah Durani (1747-73), who created modern Afghanistan and conquered significant territories in India and Iran. Ever since British rule in India, Pashtun tribes have been in conflict either against foreign intruders or among themselves.
They have deliberately been kept away from modern education and economic development. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, they were tools in the hands of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. And today they are the direct victims of the "war on terror".
In the years of conflict in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and other major Persian Gulf countries have financed thousands of madrassas for Afghan refugees in Pakistan, which resulted in a massive radicalization of young Pashtuns. In addition, the influx of Wahhabi Arab fighters and madrassa teachers transformed the dominant moderate Hanafi school of jurisprudence into a new breed of religious extremism, which resulted in the creation of the Taliban-type movement.
For instance, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, not a single act of suicide bombing was committed against the Soviet military or their family members in Kabul. The first suicide bombing in Afghanistan was committed by two Arabs against the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, Afghanistan's former defense minister, on September 9, 2001. At least since 2003, young Pashtuns have become involved in suicide bombings, which go against their tribal and religious values.
A new breed of extremist Islamic sect is taking shape in the Pashtun heartland. Only a limited number of the 15 million to 20 million Pashtuns who live in Pakistan enjoy modern education. Sadly, secular and modern schools are being burned down by the Taliban in Afghanistan's Pashtun-dominated provinces. Each year, thousands of young Pashtuns are trained in the madrassas, and only a limited number of them have access to secular education.
Pakistan's military rulers have an interest in keeping the masses of Pashtun people ignorant. They need the support of Pashtuns to dominate other minority groups. Until now the Pakistani authorities have used the old British system of divide-and-rule to play off local Pashtun leaders and in exchange require their loyalty.
This colonial system has kept the masses of Pashtuns illiterate and uneducated, and only selected families have received quality education to fill senior positions in the military. The presence of Pashtuns in the Pakistani military is used to dominate Balochs, who have been struggling to gain their autonomy since the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Without the support of the Pashtun tribes, the Pakistan Army would be unable to control a widespread Baloch insurgency.
President General Pervez Musharraf is keen to keep the truce with Pashtun tribes and save his tacit alliance with extremist religious parties. He knows well that the expansion of conflict with Pashtun tribes in Pakistan not only forces them to unite against Pakistani authorities, but also could incite Balochs to side with the Pashtuns.
Pakistani military authorities want to keep the status quo in the tribal regions. They are more interested in the integrity of their territory than in the global fight on terror. Musharraf has always sought the cooperation of radical religious leaders instead of the main secular leaders because only the religious leaders are capable of reaching out to the radicalized Pashtuns tribes.
Pakistan's military interests are in the interests neither of the West nor of Pashtuns. Keeping Pashtun tribes divided and backward might serve the short-term militaristic interests of Pakistan. But it is already backfiring against the long-term interests of the West.
The Pashtun-dominated territories have become a de facto sanctuary for international terrorism. North Atlantic Treaty Organization and US forces are fighting and bombing those who have nothing to do with terrorist acts in the West. Al-Qaeda and other international terrorists are taking advantage of the religiously devoted and fiercely independent Pashtun tribes.
Indeed, extremist religious groups and local Taliban have become an alibi for Musharraf to continue his military rule in Pakistan, despite the contempt shown by the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis. Pakistan's military authorities have been able to persuade the West to accept their ill-conceived tribal policies of promoting radical extremist leaders to the detriment of more traditional moderate Pashtun leaders.
The West, instead of alienating and pushing Pashtun tribes further into the camp of extremists, could reach out and assist moderate Pashtun leaders. But young Pashtuns have undergone almost three decades of radicalization, and it will require much time to reverse the trend.
Haroun Mir was an aide to the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, Afghanistan's former defense minister. He works as a consultant and policy analyst in Kabul.