Once Pakistan was created, general neglect set in with regard to the Pakhtuns by the Punjabis and Urdu-speaking elites who grabbed power. Even the Pakhtuns in armed forces, natural fighters they are, lost their position to the twin power centres….writes Rifan Ahmed Khan
Pakistan’s longest-serving military dictator, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, was a Pathan, or Pakhtun or Pashtun and so is the current Prime Minister Imran Khan. Yet, the Pakhtuns are the most neglected and their North West Frontier Province (NWFP), re-named Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, or KP for short, after over six decades, remains the most discriminated.
Reasons are many and some are buried in history, particularly of the British India. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the “Frontier Gandhi” who led a peaceful movement of Red Shirts, lamented that the Pakhtuns had been “thrown to the wolves” for having preferred to live in an undivided India, but were forced into being part of Pakistan.
Once Pakistan was created, a general neglect set in with regard to the Pakhtuns by the Punjabis and Urdu-speaking elites who grabbed power. Even the Pakhtuns in armed forces, natural fighters they are, lost their position to the twin power centres.
Overall, Pashtuns are an ethnic group of about 49 million people, the biggest share of them lives in Pakistan. Smaller share is in Afghanistan. In Pakistan they are mostly inhabited in KP and Balochistan, another large and neglected province along with tribal areas on the Afghanistan–Pakistan border. The Pashtuns make up the second largest ethnic group in Pakistan numbering around more than 35 million which is 15-16% of the total population, in the country.
Sadly, the Pashtuns have been associated with negative stereotypes, with the most common being the perception that they are war-loving barbaric people. This began during the British era when the imperial rulers, who could not control Afghanistan, sought to divide the Pakhtuns, termed some tribes as privileged and others less so, and discriminated against them. Eventually, the Durand Line was drawn to divide the Pakhtuns as part of what the British historians call the “Great Game”, meant to deny Russia, then under the Czar, access to the Indian Ocean.
Successive governments in Pakistan have treated the province as a law and order problem and used military force to retain control. The “national security” state that the military controls also uses these Pakhtuns as fodder in their political and strategic designs.
The best example is the use of the people and the territory to promote Jihad against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Pashtuns found themselves caught in the crossfire of the U.S. and Pakistan’s security forces battle against the al-Qaeda and the Taliban, bearing the brunt of military operations in the region and suffering racial profiling based on where they lived.
Three million Afghan refugees entered Pakistan; housing and feeding them was a gigantic exercise. Training camps in the tribal areas and the distribution of weapons among Afghans was an open secret and that changed the Pakhtun society. The influx of drugs ruined the youth, otherwise used as the Mujahideen against the Soviets. The tragedy is that while conflict has never left Afghanistan since, the Pakhtuns of Pakistan have also bore the brunt till this day. With an estimated half a million refugees still housed in the province and unable to return, KP remains the battleground for the Taliban whom Islamabad shelters.
In reality, Pakhtuns, whose social and economic fabric have been torn asunder, have rather been a dignified people who have paid in blood and money from years of terrorist violence and military sweeps. Pashtun areas are the poorest one in Pakistan its social indicators reflect 70 years of neglect. Militancy wrecked its infrastructure and traumatized its population.
The economy of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (mostly inhabited by Pashtuns) is weak. What little industry exists is concentrated in the regional capital, Peshawar only. The economic, social and educational disparity between Pashtun areas and rest of the Pakistan is wide.
Pakhtuns have been caught in Islamabad’s military and strategic ambitions. Successive governments have used them. Moving the military into the tribal areas was opposed by many including the sitting prime minister. President Musharraf made a bad decision to appease the US and marched on the tribal areas. There was no realisation that the tribal areas could suck in endless numbers. At one point during the British Raj, there was more army in Waziristan than the rest of India.
Since the British Raj, there has always been a trust deficit between the tribes and the government. The tribes were termed hostile for petty crimes committed by individuals and seen as adversaries. This deficit has been exacerbated by more recent events. The emergence of the PTM and other voices of dissent are a manifestation of this trust deficit.
The movement claims it is against war and all the groups that perpetuate war. The army on the other hand has been fighting militancy for the last so many years and has sacrificed many fine men in order to achieve peace. The biggest enemy on the ground is the TTP.
The rise of a nationalist and ethnic movement for the Pashtun population is the natural corollary of the humiliation and neglect they have had to suffer for decades. Hence the movement named Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) began in 2014. After a military campaign against the Taliban in the Waziristan tribal region witnessed the Pashtun areas in major turmoil.
In 2018, protests against the extra-judicial killing of a 27-year-old Pashtun, Naqeebullah Mehsud, in the southern port city of Karachi sparked countrywide support for the group. The Pashtun movement has spread from the tribal areas to other parts of Pakistan including big cities.
Another important aspect of this Pashtun movement is that it had gained the apathy of mainstream Pakistani political parties, especially the Pashtun ones like the Awami National Party (ANP) and Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party. It clearly indicates that Pashtuns across all party lines are lining up for common cause.
Prime Minister Imran Khan, who party rules the province since 2013, has failed to end dissatisfaction because the poverty has been perpetuated.
The Khan administration is facing challenges in convincing Pakistan’s three provinces to allocate 3 percent of their share in national resources to former FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) a Pashtun majority tribal area. Argument given for seeking more fund’s allocation is that because of the destruction due to various military operations launched to eradicate terrorists in the former FATA which has been recently merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa more funds are required which KP cannot handle with its meagre development funds. But PM Khan is hardly able to convince anyone over this.
Pakistan’s policymakers perceive Pashtun resentment as a nationalist cause for separation from Pakistan and use force to curtail it. If coercive actions are taken against the already alienated Pashtuns it would invite a backlash and sow the seeds of enduring tension between the Pashtuns and the state. Definitely a disaster looms in Pakistan, if the demands of the Pashtun population remain unaddressed for long.