Afghanistan the Pashtun Factor

Afghanistan guarded the northwestern gates of the Indian subcontinent for more than two centuries of the British occupation of India. Yet when the British left and India attained its independence in 1947, Afghanistan was left with a defunct document prepared by the British during the reign of Abdul Rahman Khan dividing the tribal belt south and east of the country that gave away its legitimate soil to an artificially created country called Pakistan. The newly created country, itself was divided in two parts of East and West Pakistan that were thousands of miles apart with a somewhat hostile Indian territory in between. The artificial nation building exercise did not work and in a matter of a few decades, Pakistan broke into two separate countries namely Bangla Desh in the northeast of India and Pakistan in the northwest. It takes a lot of history reading on the part of ardent students of politics and sociology, to recognize the causes of the creation and of the dissolution.

West Pakistan, now called by the name of Pakistan, remained as a multinational country with Sindhis and Balochis in the south, the Pashtuns in the north and the Punjabis in the center. The four provinces of Pakistan have failed to truly integrate as a single nation and its population clearly identify themselves with their ethnicity first.

Afghan politicians during and after the partition of India remained passively silent in claiming the rights of Afghanistan to the land taken away from it by the British colonial power and given away to other states. A lukewarm dissatisfaction with the arrangements shown by it did not make any headway, as the Afghan voice was not raised with the relevant international bodies of the time. Nor was it raised loud enough. The reasons for this passivity could be sought in the politics of the Afghan monarchy that was in the hands of the Nadir Shah brothers and family. Thus, the so-called, defunct Durand Line continued to divide not only Afghan land, but also mostly its Pashtun tribes.

The issue during Mohammad Daoud’s first time as prime minister erupted into a serious political conflict with Pakistan, in late 1950s. During that time, a veteran Pashtun leader, Bacha Khan (Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan) got close to the Afghan court and government and the issue of Pashtunistan was created. This issue, as far as Afghanistan was concerned, wanted the Pashtuns on the other side of the Durand Line to decide in a vote whether they preferred joining Afghanistan or an independent state.

For reasons that have not been elaborated yet by historians thoroughly, Mohammad Daoud’s boiling blood cooled down somewhat and instead of choosing the path of war he became content with carrying the issue as one of the main political goals of his rule. During this time, lots of money, efforts and propaganda went into the issue. Afghanistan spent huge amounts of money to appease tribal leaders along and on the other side of the imaginary line and they took full advantage of the opportunity trading their loyalties between the two sides namely Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Later, enormous political upheavals disturbed the course of Afghan history and the question remained unsolved even during Mohammad Daoud’s republican era and afterwards and as an issue of contention between the two otherwise fraternal and neighboring countries.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the installing of a communist regime by the Soviets in Afghanistan further affected the geopolitics of the region. Pakistan aware of the significance of the events in Afghanistan, weighed its options and decided it would side with the West to support Afghan freedom fighters. Some five million Afghans who took refuge in Pakistan and settled mainly in border towns of Peshawar and Quetta and some even in the interior of Pakistan also affected the Afghan-Pak relations.

Pakistani politics and so-called democratic civilian governments came and went under the hawkish eyes of the Pakistani military and during the course of the decade of the hold of the Soviet occupation forces on Afghanistan the military- turned democratic- government of General Zia-ul-Haq rose and fell and two civilian administrations of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif also failed to take hold and the latter was toppled by a military coup at the hands of General Parvez Musharraf, who as predicted stuck to power and proclaimed himself president and later got himself elected as the head of the Pakistani state.

Throughout, Pakistan had to be interested in the affairs of Afghanistan as they were and are linked to its own survival. Pakistani foreign policy dictated and dictates that an unstable administration in Afghanistan that is friendly with the government of Pakistan will benefit Pakistani interests in the area and the region. Pakistan itself has been worrisome of the so-called artificially drawn Durand Line, never ratified by any Afghan legislature and now expired for more than twelve years. A stable, unified and prosperous Afghanistan might seriously consider its borders lines and that is not what Pakistan wants to see. That is why, Pakistan at first nourished Afghan parties in exile such as the Hizb-e-Islami and later agreed to house a multiple of parties established by a variety of Mujahiddin groupings on its soil. All of this was when probably a unified approach to Afghanistan’s war against the Soviet invasion would have worked better with reduced expenditures and even casualties in human life.

And finally Pakistan played a huge role in the creation and coming to power of the Taleban regime in Afghanistan. Pakistan hoped that the Taleban mostly trained in Pakistani Madressas, religious schools, would remain loyal to her, recognize the Durand Line, help in expansion of Pakistani trade with Afghanistan, help Pakistan with easy access to Afghanistan’s natural resources, serve as a reliable trade path between Pakistan and Central Asian republics, would remain her ally against Indian domination of the Islamic state of Kashmir and would keep Pakistani extremist parties happy and content with the Pakistani government’s policies regarding extremism at least on the other side of their borders. However, world intervention under the leadership of the United States of America toppled the Taleban regime and thus foiled all their and their supporters’ plans for Afghanistan.

It is in this background that the nucleus of Pashtun nationality drew strength. The word Pashtunistan found a rival word namely Pashtunkhwa with the same meaning but a different perspective. The word gained perpetual life in Pashto language and tradition when the great Afghan King, founder of contemporary Afghanistan and conqueror of Delhi, Ahmad Shah Durany said in a poem that he forgets all the splendor of the throne of Delhi when he remembers the mountain peaks of his beautiful Pashtunkhwa.

On the other hand, a brand new democracy in Afghanistan boosted the hopes of all its nationalities including the Pashtuns for a strong and united country. The Pashtuns and the Balochis on the other side of the so-called border could not remain unaffected. The failure of the Pakistani regimes to cater to the needs of the Pashtuns and the domination of the government by the Punjabis have helped create descent among not only the Pashtuns, but also the Balochis. There is now powerful voices questioning even the name of the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan as such and not Pakhtunkhwa. People ask questions about the intent of the nomenclature. They ask whether this province is inside or outside the country named Pakistan and why should any country call one of its provinces by the name of frontier that denotes alien territory. Local parties and party leaders see a lot of merit in reunification of sorts with their brethren in a new and expanding democratic Afghanistan. The artificial borders can no more confine brothers to living, thinking and planning for their future separately on the two sides of an imaginary line. Daily news carry reports of Pashtun leaders in Pakistan encouraging their followers to even acquire Afghan Identification Cards and documents. There is an increased desire to see Pashtun youth go to institutions of higher learning on the Afghan side and of the sick to seek treatment in Afghan hospitals located near the border. This is not because these health facilities are better equipped but because of their location within the Pashtun areas.

But of political significance is a decision by a major Pashtun party in Pakistan namely the Awami National Party, ANP, to consider seriously their relations with Afghanistan. This party was founded on the remains of the National Awami Party, NAP, by Khan Abdul Wali Khan, originally a Pashtun nationalist and like his father the great Khan Abdul Ghafar Khan, the veteran Pashtun leader against the establishment of Pakistan. Khan Abdul Wali Khan however became a pro-Moscow politician and did not oppose Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Now the party he established has come up with a policy statement that analyzes in depth the relations with Afghanistan, the official Pakistani government policies as well as the ANP solutions to some of the problems and issues.

Some of these bear great political, social and economic significance. The statement signed by Asfandyar Wali Khan, the party’s Central President discusses in some detail the need for regional cooperation, the failures of the Pakistani foreign policy regarding its neighbors and the need for bringing the peoples of the two countries closer together while the inference remains to be the Pashtuns coming closer together. The 14-point proposal by the party covers diverse areas of interest such as:

Easing of the visa regime for their citizens with the ultimate aim of doing away with it. The need for the expansion and improvement of the two main roads of Spin Boldak-Kandahar-Kabul and Torkham-Kabul roads and extension of at least another ten possible roads to ease the burden of the expanding trade between the two nations. The proposal also refers to the need of extension and improvement of at least ten roads mainly along the tribal belt inside Pakistan for the same purpose. The proposal also calls for work that should start on planning and preparing for building railway links between the two countries. These links along with a network of roads, the policy statement says, are vital for future trade between Central Asia and South Asia. The statement says it is very strange that the Government of Pakistan has ignored Peshawar and Quetta while starting air links with Kabul. Flights should immediately start between the aforementioned cities, as at the moment people have to travel first to Islamabad to catch a flight for Kabul. Another issue touched by the statement covers the need for agreements about bus service between Peshawar-Jallalabad and Quetta-Kandahar. The statement says: “Business community from Pakhtoonkhwa, FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Area) and Balochistan has a negligible share in Pak-Afghan trade due to the economic underdevelopment of the area. This situation has come into being as a consequence of the discriminatory policies of the Punjabi-dominated ruling establishment of the country. The aforementioned areas should receive special incentives to develop industry and increase its share in the trade between the two countries.” The statement further says: “Pakistan should actively pursue remodeling of the Afghan Transit Trade. It should abolish all the negative lists developed over the past decade and promote unfettered free trade with Afghanistan, which will eventually be a prelude to establish a regional free trade regime between South Asia and Central Asia.” The ANP policy statement goes on to say that both countries should encourage people to people contacts to break the stereotypes that had come into being during the political tension between the two countries. Among other salient points raised by the statement is a proposal that universities in Kabul, Jallalabad, Khost and Qandahar should develop close relations of academic cooperation with Universities in Peshawar, Dera Ismail Khan and Quetta. To boost people to people contact the statement calls for the “people from Pakhtoonkhwa and Baloochistan to have permission to visit different provinces of Afghanistan to participate in traditional festivals and cultural activities. Citizens from Afghanistan should also have the same right to visit different places in Pakhtoonkhwa and Baloochistan. The followers of Baacha Khan should have the freedom to visit the tomb of their leader in Jallalabad. The statement also calls for administrative, political and legal reforms in the Federally Administered Tribal Area according to the wishes of the people of tribal areas and in a bold suggestion it wants that Peshawar – Jallalabad, Khost – Bannu, and Quetta – Kandahar should be declared twin cities so the local governments and peoples of these cities can establish cooperation in civic and cultural spheres. Finally the statement calls for the release of all the innocent prisoners languishing in the jails of neighboring countries and that for an honorable and voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees to their country. “Afghan refugees,” says the statement “should not be used as fodder of war.”

As can be seen by inferences, most of these proposals refer to the Pashtuns and Pashtun areas and in reality is a sly way of proposing methods that would eventually lead to unification of this important ethnic grouping that makes the majority in the Afghan nation and is a minority in Pakistan. The statement reflects the desires and wishes of the Pashtun ethnic minority in Pakistan for building effective and practical relations between Pashtuns and Balochis with their Afghan brethren. This policy statement therefore is worth a deep scrutiny by the Afghan politicians who should study all its aspects and should decide whether they should take any action on its basis.

On the other hand as is evident from news reports Pakistani nationals are being accused of and even arrested for acts of terror inside Afghanistan that is a reference to the fact that Pakistan cannot remain and has not remained indifferent to the events in Afghanistan. This is notwithstanding the fact that the Pakistani president recently contacted the Afghan president by phone more than once to discuss the important subject of Pak-Afghan relations. Karzai and Musharraf seem to have found out that they are strange team players in the field of United States war on terror. This war will eventually end, but the Pashtun factor would remain and the artificial divide between mainly the Pashtun areas might continue to be a thorny issue, and so would the issue of the Durand Line. In Afghanistan a new constitution provides for democratic safeguarding of the needs of all its ethnic populations based on equality and justice. Perhaps Afghanistan today is a more united and cohesive nation than the long years of unrest imposed on it by foreign interests and intrigues. Let the issue of the Durand Line and the need for further bringing together of the Pashtun nation also be solved in a peaceful manner worthy of a new era namely the 21st Century that should be the beginning of an era of democratic life for all humanity.