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Silk Road Books Literary Review

April 2014 


  • Great read
  • Thought provoking
  • Good
  • Could be better
  • Utter rubbish

Books Reviewed:                                                                                          

The Pashtun Question the unresolved key to the future of Pakistan and Afghanistan by Abubakar Siddique Published by Hurst and Co 2014                                                  

Rating: Thought provoking/Good

This is a welcome addition to the literature on the Pashtun tribes of Afghanistan and Pakistan written by a Waziri tribesman. The book deals with both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and the authors writing style is readable. The author highlights the failure "to incorporate the Pashtuns into state structures and the economic and political fabric has compromised the security of both countries...the often extraordinary great power interventions in the Pashtun borderlands - and their focus on the Taliban as primarily a military threat- have only prolonged the crisis. I have tried to show that main factor behind the rise of Islamic radicals such as the Taliban is the lack of development and stability in the Pashtun homeland." The author further seeks to explain the rise of the Taliban and their vision for the future. The author details the role of the Taliban on both sides of the Durand line.

The history of the conflict between Pashtun  Muslim nationalists and Islamic fundamentalists is an old one. The Roshnya movement struggling against the Mughals advocated "a patriotic, moderate sufism inclined towards rationalism". The Roshnya sought to unite all Pashtuns under a single national ideology combining religion and politics. The ideological opponents of the Roshanya the " Derweza promulgated the primacy  of a rigid Sunni mullah. The split continues to reveal itself through the Sunni clerical establishment's opposition to reforms, development and modernity in Pashtun society. its influence can be felt in how religious movements and personalities continue to define themselves - up to and including those involved in the wars of the 1980s and in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan of the early twenty-first Century".

The author explores the history of the region and states that one of the largest tribal uprisings against the British occupation occurred in 1897 which the author suspects was caused by the Durand line created in 1893. Waziristan was the British Empire's  headache causing thousands of casualties during the 1930s and 1940s, much as it is today for contemporary Pakistan in the struggle against the Pakistani Taliban.

After the independence of Pakistan in 1947, Afghanistan voted against her neighbour becoming a UN member due to the territorial dispute over the Pashtun areas of Pakistan which Afghanistan craved. This brought the tensions of the cold war to prevail in the region. During the cold war Afghanistan sought weapons from the Soviet Union as Pakistan became a US ally and the training of the Afghan armed forces by Soviet personnel and indoctrination of the same meant that the April 1978 coup would seal Afghanistan's path to disaster culminating in the December 1979 Soviet invasion. Pakistan chose to primarily back Islamist groups to fight the Soviets because  they did not want "India gaining influence in Afghanistan and being able to threaten Pakistan's western border...In practical terms, Islamabad wanted to be able to rely on a client regime in Kabul that could provide territory and airspace to accommodate the retreat and recuperation of Pakistani troops in case of confrontation with India." This was in essence the Pakistani doctrine of 'strategic depth'.

Arabs flocked to the jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union and some like Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden, who would not only make their reputations in this conflict but also meet their end in the region. Pakistan under General Zia began to promote pan-Islamic thinking and the Arabs were most welcome, "The war in Afghanistan provided Pakistan with a golden opportunity to act on its long standing desire to weaken Pashtun nationalism. However, Islamabad's support for pan-Islamism resulted in a new movement that could be described as Pashtun Islamism".  However, Pakistan is under threat today  from the pan-islamic groups like the Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeeda who have demanded a complete islamicisation of Pakistani Society.

As to the Afghan Taliban the author writes, "The Taliban failed to  please any segment of Afghan society . Most  Pashtuns in particular, eventually came to detest the movement's rigid policies (page 56) ." The author justifies the latter bold  assertion by listing all those Pashtun elements disaffected by the Taliban such as those supporting the old Royalist regime, "the mujahideen, the majority of whose leadership and foot soldiers    were Pashtun also suffered." The author then writes, "Many Pashtun mujahideen commanders fought against the Taliban for years". The book would be all the better if these anti Taliban cliches and Pashtun nationalist assertions such as that the majority of the mujahideen were Pashtun had been edited out. The author returns to the same Taliban critique  on page 198 when he states that  "During their rule in the 1990s, however , the Taliban failed to satisfy any segment of Afghan society, including Pashtuns. The regimes rigid policies and close links to Pakistan prevented it from attracting wide support." It remains a fact that generally speaking, the Talban brought peace as well as freedom from the arbitrary and oppressive rule of warlords and a system of justice for the majority of Afghanistan under their control, which many welcomed. The author implicitly acknowledges the same on page 213 when he states "Afghans can no longer be lured by promises of justice alone".

Yunis Khalis a veteran Mujahedin leader who did not participate in the 1990s civil war was one of the few critics of the Afghan Taliban who lived under areas controlled by them, and stated "Today, a government that cannot even establish a television station cannot be considered a proper government".  Khalis even favoured the return of the former King to help unite Afghans. Undoubtedly however, the rule of the Taliban was rigid, they had inherited a chaotic state but the banning of TV and music served no purpose. The Taliban probably realise the ban on TV was nonsensical given their slick propaganda films on their website and in DVD format sold in bazaars of the region.

The author quotes Afrasiab Khattak, a Pakistani Pashtun politician who states that "the destruction of the Bamiyan buddhas and vandalism of cultural heritage were all part of a strategy to re-engineer Afghan society along Islamist lines". However it is well known that Mullah Omar had previously issued decrees to protect the Buddhas but later the Taliban succumbed to pressure from Al Qaeda to destroy the Buddhas.

The author notes that the Taliban of today in Afghanistan are not the same as those of the 1990s, "The movement has experienced exile and exposed itself to the ideologies of more radical Islamists. It has been forced to adapt to new technologies to respond to an Afghan population that is increasingly connected to the outside world thanks to a largely free media...Most Afghans can no longer be lured by promises of justice alone. They want improved living conditions and a more responsive Government - something most realise the Taliban cannot achieve on its own".  As a sign of the changing times, by 2012 the Taliban had declared they would no longer assassinate teachers and health workers.

Many Pashtuns of course continue to fight for the Taliban against the ISAF and Afghan national army troops. The author explains the attraction of the Taliban as follows:

"1. Those motivated by religious zeal;
2. Those who seek revenge for harassment, intimidation or perceived injustices by the government and foregin powers;
3. Those who are holdovers from the former Taliban regime, for whom 'climbing into the mountains' - a Kandahari euphemism for joinging the insurgency is a career path.

An example of the second type would be Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a key architect of the insurgency who also served as Taliban military chief. Hamid Karzai freed 'Mullah Baradar then returned to his home in Uruzgan Province. Locals flocked to congratulate him on choosing a peaceful life. But within three months, his life was turned into hell.They raided his uncle's home one day, and his father's the next. Finally he was forced to take up weapons and move to Pakistan'.

Former police officer and Kandahari lawmaker Abdul Rashid Ayubi has observed that, in some cases, outrage over the government's systematic targeting of Taliban cadres has driven previously non-radicalised men to join the insurgency."

Pakistani government peace accords with the Pakistani Taliban between 2004 and 2006 simply allowed the Pakistani Taliban to strengthen control over the region and eliminate the traditional leadership in the form of clan maliks with links to the Pakistani Government. Similar treatment was meted out by the Taliban in Swat to those from Government lashkars (para militaries) and the police. For the people of Waziristan the policies of Pakistan were a disaster, "Every second person in Waziristan, or nearly half a million people, has migrated since 2003. A majority of some 400,000 displaced Mehsuds living in the neighbouring Tank and Dera Ismail Khan districts since the autumn of 2009 are reluctant to return to their villages."

The territorial dispute between Pakistan and Afghanistan can be addressed according to the author by "a peace process that includes serious talks about permanently opening the border. The aim would be to establish, finally, a recognised and mutually agreed border. The economic and social benefits of the free exchange of people and goods across the border would be immediate."  Since 1947 Afghanistan and Pakistan have been too short sighted to engage in such meaningful measures. It remains to be seen whether the 21st Century will cure the myopia of both neighbours and bring peace and prosperity to the region.

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