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June 23, 2017

Our Pakhtun roots


June 23, 2017

Afghanistan is not just a neighbour in the regular sense. It is a sort of tarbur (blood cousin) in Pakhtunwali. Since 1947, our relations with our neighbour have never been friendly. Except for the brief Taliban period, relations between the two countries have faced countless ups and downs.

Pakistan’s efforts to host one-sixth of the Afghan population for almost more than three decades have not earned it any gratitude. Instead, Afghanistan has directed more hatred towards us. Even those who have reached the echelon of power through Pakistan’s assistance do not entertain friendly feelings towards the country. The policymakers in Pakistan are surprised by these developments.

Decisions in Pakistan are made through the narrow security and bureaucratic lenses that are believed to be rooted in Punjab and, therefore, judge everything through a string of biases. Policies are guided by transient considerations. Regardless of whether the Haqqani Network, the Quetta Shura and the Taliban exist or not, Pakistan will invariably continue to invite anger and contempt from Afghanistan. No one has ever peeped into the minds and souls of the Afghans – which are the outcome of their history and geography.

Leaving aside the yesteryears tussle of the two camps on the Afghan battlefield, the internal dynamics of the problem also need to be probed. Afghanistan is not a Pakhtun country. The same is true for Pakistan. However, Pakistan and Afghanistan are also countries of Pakhtuns. When both countries are on the same page, the Pakhtuns are the first to benefit. But this has never happened and will not happen in the foreseeable future.

How did such a sorry state of affairs develop that both countries – which have so much in common – are now on the path of divergence despite the efforts of saner voices on both sides? We must revisit our history in search for answers.

Afghanistan has been ruled by the Persianised Pakhtun elite since its very inception in 1747. The 20th century brought forth new realities: the emergence of national consciousness and political awareness, the search for a national identity and narrative against the backdrop of liberation movements in the Third World and the liberation struggle in India that affected the Indian Pakhtuns in the neighbourhood.

Though the rule of King Amanullah Khan (1919-1929) was also affected by such events, his mercurial character made it difficult for him to devise a clear-cut policy. It was only under the relatively stable period of Nader Khan (1929-1933), Zahir Shah (1933-1973) and president Daoud (1973-1978) that Afghanistan was put on the path of Pakhtunism.

The Afghan monarchy – though ruled by the Persianised elite – wanted to get rid of Turco-Persian and Turco-Afghan traditions. Historiography, literature and the media were manipulated to toe the official line in publications. The school curriculum was also geared towards presenting this official line. Non-Pakhtuns reluctantly followed suit. Afghanistan was a closed society and the sole government printing press operating in the country was allowed to publish material under strict official censorship. Several generations were raised in this setting.

There was a limited approach to foreign and modern languages by ordinary Afghans, and so a twisted understanding of history and surroundings developed.

The emergence of Pakistan brought forth a new situation.  The generations raised in Pakhtunism could not digest the emergence of a new country incorporating people of Afghan origin. In collaboration with the recalcitrant Pakhtun nationalists and Indian underhand prodding, the issue of the Durand Line and Pakhtunistan was blown out of proportions even though the Afghan elite had already approached the British to hand over the Afghan-populated areas to Afghanistan. This resulted in a permanent tension. 

Pakistan also needed a national identity that was separate from India and a national narrative which went against the aspirations of the various nationalist groups in Pakistan. Pluralism and multi-ethnicity was anathema to the Pakistani ruling elite. They searched for the seeds of Pakistan in the invasion of Sindh by Muhammad bin Qasim in the seventh century and tied themselves to the traditions of West Asia rather than conforming to their indigenous roots. Pakistan unwisely chartered a course that went against the realities of the country. The Pakhtunism of Afghanistan and the Islamism of Pakistan clashed against the backdrop of the Indo-Pak tensions.

Pakhtun history and literature remains in Pakistan. The country unwisely avoided – or rather discouraged – attempts to develop and expand  Pakhtun culture and literature in Pakistan. Meanwhile, Afghanistan raised the banner of Pakhtuns and Pashto. Over the years, the establishment in Pakistan has increasingly viewed Islam as the source of the country’s identity, and not the Pakhtunism of Afghanistan. Both approaches created problems within Afghanistan and Pakistan. Islam is the common religion of both countries. But a balance was not maintained.

While Pakhtun culture is a common feature in both countries, Afghanistan has stoked Pakhtunism against Pakistan. Meanwhile, Pakistan has failed to play the Pakhtun card even though it comprises a large Pakhtun population – who some see as the real bearers of Pakhtun culture. It has spurned the efforts of Pashto-lovers and provided space to Afghanistan. 

As a result, Afghanistan concocted fake stories that were ordinarily believed by its educated Pakhtun lot, but were never dear to its non-Pakhtun intelligentsia. When an Afghan Tajik completed his PhD from Tehran University, Dr Javed wrote an article in an Afghan magazine stating that the Ghilji Afghans originate from the Turkish Oghuz group of Khalaj. The article invited the rage of state-patronised scholars. He was immediately dismissed as a lecturer of the university and demoted to the status of a clerk in the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture during Zahir Shah’s rule.  Pakistan needs to rethink its strategy and use reverse logic in its relationship with Afghanistan. It should not leave space to the Afghan intelligentsia by shying away from the powerful Pakhtun roots within its soil.

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