hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Monday, 7 October 2013

Pashtun: The Unanswerable Question?

Alphen, Netherlands. 7 October.  Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “We have forty million reasons for failure but not one single excuse”.  A year ago this week the inspirational Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Pakistani Taliban for championing the right of girls to an education in North-West Pakistan.  Next month Abubakar Siddique will publish an important book entitled “The Pashtun Question” (London: Hurst and Company).  Both Ms Yousafzai and Abubakar imply and address a question that has haunted Western strategy since 2001; can the proud Pashtun take their rightful place at the heart of government in both Islamabad and Kabul? 

The West’s post-2001 vision (such as it was) saw Afghanistan and Pakistan sufficiently strong to deny AQ the use of their respective territories for the launching of attacks against the West.  The strategy was dependent on a compliant Pashtun.  Indeed, since Western forces deployed to Afghanistan in November 2001 the Pashtun have been at the epicentre of efforts to help Afghans build an Afghanistan that is no longer a threat to itself or its neighbours. 

The value of Siddique’s book is to demonstrate that the relationship between the Pashtun, the Taliban and AQ is much more complex than many outsiders understand.  Whilst all Pashtuns are not Taliban, it is certainly true that the Pashtun and the Taliban are intrinsically linked.  However, the relationship with AQ and the foreign fighters is and always has been complex.  In other words, a counter-radicalisation strategy should have been possible if built on the subtle clan, tribe and faith networks, .loyalties and distinctions that pass for politics in the region. 

As ever, the Pashtun Question can be traced back to history and an 1893 line the British drew on an imperial map to divide and rule the ‘Pathans’.  During the ‘fuzziness’ of the British Raj Pashtun autonomy was tolerated because there was little else the British could do and the Pashtun were useful in countering Russian ambitions in the region.  However, since Pakistan’s 1947 independence from Britain the Pashtun have been both parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan and yet autonomous from both Islamabad and Kabul - self-governing people in an ungoverned space.

Some have suggested the creation of an independent Pashtunistan.  However, such a state would effectively dismember both Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Moreover, the creation of a third weak state based simply on ethnicity would only deepen tensions between the Balochi, Hazzara, Punjabi, Sindhi, Tajik, Uzbek and the Pashto peoples who have populated these lands long before the British imported the idea of the ‘state’.

Ironically, by casting the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan as a first step in a Global War on Terror (GWOT) Washington and its allies forgot the most essential lesson for dealing successfully in Afghanistan and Pakistan; all politics are intensely local.   Today Afghan state-building is essentially failing not least because the West has not dealt with the chronic and endemic poppy-driven corruption of the Kabul government.  Too often the West has been seen to support people the Pashtun despise, a reality brought home to me during a meeting with the elders of a Pashtun village.

The US is also changing strategy.  With the May 2, 2011 killing of Osama Bin Laden the exclusive identification of AQ with North-West Pakistan and Southern Afghanistan has weakened.  Instead, AQ affiliates have appeared in Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia and Syria with sympathisers now well-embedded in Western societies such as America and Britain.  The consequences of AQ’s brand outreach were all too apparent in the September 2013 attack on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi, Kenya.  Indeed, the attacks this weekend by US Special Forces in Libya and Somalia mark the beginning of a new intelligence-led strategy aimed at decapitating AQ wherever, whenever…

The West’s failure in both Afghanistan and Pakistan also reflects the ever-widening gap between American and European strategic culture.  Today, most Europeans have either pulled out or tuned out.  Indeed, whilst the US is perfectly content to employ drones and Special Forces in a coercive strike and punish strategy for many Europeans coercion has become a dirty word.  Such a split not only undercuts Western strategy in the region but has brought NATO close to the edge of dysfunction.

Consequently, the West is about to join the long list of those who came, who saw and failed to answer the Pashtun Question.  By suggesting the Pashtun people can identify with both the Afghan and Pakistani states Abubakar suggests there is an answer to be found.  I wonder.  Equally, it is a crying shame this book is appearing only as the sun sets on the West’s intervention rather than at its dawn.  Indeed, if no answer can be found to the Pashtun Question it will doom both Afghanistan and Pakistan to the outer margins of stability and that is only in the interest of the fanatics that shot Ms Yousafzai.  

Pashtun: the unanswerable question?

Julian Lindley-French

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