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  • Writer's picturePhilipp Requat

‘Students’ on the Khyber Pass

Updated: Apr 2, 2019

The interface of Pashtun nationalism and terrorist insurgency in North Western Pakistan

This paper was a Highly Commended entry in the Social Science category of the Global Undergraduate Awards, the world's largest pan-discipline academic essay competition hosted annually in Dublin by the Irish government and Google. The full-text including footnotes can also be downloaded from their online library as a PDF here.

When spring-time flushes the desert grass, Our kafilas wind through the Khyber Pass. Lean are the camels but fat the frails, Light are the purses but heavy the bales, As the snowbound trade of the North comes down To the market-square of Peshawur town.

– Rudyard Kipling, 1890 (cited in Kipling, 1920:283-286)

Since Kipling portrayed the fringes of British India, the Pashto-speaking territories of North Western Pakistan have retained their status as a frontier. Separating the Russian and British empires through the buffer of Afghanistan then, the area now forms an embattled vanguard in the “global War on Terror” (Ghufran, 2009:1095). For Weaver (2002:5), the world encountered by Kipling persists in the terrorist insurgency for which these lands have achieved unenviable fame, described by her as a conflict ‘…between independent peoples and independent tribes whose ancient codes of honour and animosities have coalesced’. It has become commonplace for scholars to link an avowed tradition of belligerence, pride and xenophobia in Pashtun society with the spread of religious extremism in its homeland. Inspired by such argumentation, this paper seeks to shed light on the interface between Pashtun nationalism and the presence of the Taliban, or ‘Students’[1], and their affiliates on Pakistan’s Afghan frontier. Polarizing contentions abound in this debate, as exemplified by Kaplan’s claim that the ‘Taliban constitute merely the latest incarnation of Pashtun nationalism’ (Saigol, 2012:198).Taking this wager as a starting point for analysis, we offer an alternative framework of understanding. Ou endeavour is divided into four parts. We commence by outlining the geography, people and terrorist insurgency subject to this inquiry, as well as exploring the relevance of their investigation in South Asian context (I). The essay proceeds to discuss the phenomenon of Pashtun nationalism (II), before reviewing its history (III). Finally, we contrast a discerned ethno-nationalist movement with radical Islam (IV). Prominent consideration will hereby be given to international politics as a factor in the trajectory of Pashtun nationalism and terrorist insurgency.

I. The “Graveyard of Empires” - Outline and contextualisation

Characterized by the glaciered Hindu Kush, its lush valleys and arid plains, this paper’s territorial focal point is located in the North-Western reaches of Pakistan (see Map 1). We hereby refer to the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP)[2], the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATAs) and Northern Balochistan province. A commonality across this area is the predominance of the Pashtun ethno-linguistic community which constitutes its majority population (Lieven, 2001:378). The term Pashtun is used to encompass those Pashto[3]speakers and members of the colourful array of tribes, clans and cultural sub-groupings, which identify themselves as part of a corresponding ethnicity. Pashtuns are found on both sides of the British-established Durand line that separates Pakistan from Afghanistan (Saigol, 2012:210-211). They are estimated to number 41 million in total, of which 21 million live in KP and 3.18 million live in the FATAs. Pashtuns are the 2ndlargest ethnic group in Pakistan after Punjabi (44.17%) and ahead of Sindhi (15.35%) demographics, accounting for 15.44% of its citizens (Rahman, 2005:110-11). In cultural, historical and linguistic terms, North Western Pakistan’s (NWP) Pashto-speakers are deeply rooted in the broader Pashtunistanregion, often mystified as the “Graveyard of Empires” (Jaffrelot, 1999:168-169; Saigol, 2012:210-211). Colonial stereotypes of a fierce Pashtun “martial race” resonate in this dubious title, earned through the repulsion of Imperial Britain, the Soviet Union and, reputedly, the armies of Alexander the Great (Saigol, 2012:210-11).

More recently, the Afghan proximity of Pakistan’s Pashtun border is reflected in the outbreak of terrorist insurgency. (Ghufran 2009) Since the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, religious extremist groups have proliferated in NWP. Loosely united in a bloody jihad (‘holy struggle’) to re-establish a Caliphate according to puritan interpretations of 7thCentury Islam, a plethora of organizations have come together under the expansive ‘militant umbrella group’ of the Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) (Ghufran, 2009:1093). A uniting feature of the TTP and its associates, including Al-Qaeda, can be found in the dominance of strict Wahhabi-Deobandi religious doctrine, which is disseminated through local madrasas (religious schools; see Cohen, 2004:184). Nevertheless, radical Islamists in NWP have been highly fractionalized and internal rivalry common (Ghufran, 2009:1107). The term ‘Talibanization’ is invoked to describe the escalation of this conflict between non-state ‘terrorist’ actors, local political authorities and international governments in the wake of US/NATO and Pakistani military operations (Ibid., 2009:1109).

By terrorist insurgency, we mean to denote a range of violent activities from beheadings to suicide bombings which have targeted civilians, tribal authorities, public or military institutions and personnel (Ghufran, 2009:1108). We employ terms such as ‘terrorism’ because of widespread of their widespread familiarity, not because we necessarily agree with their selective use. It must be noted that other insurgencies within our parameters have been described as acts of ‘political violence’ performed by ‘freedom fighters’ or ‘rebels’ (Leonard, 2010:20-23). Without doubt, the Taliban and their ideological kin have wrought deadly destruction upon NWP. Pashtun areas on the porous Afghan border form an operational hub of Pakistani religious extremism. Although precise regional figures are hard to come by, Ghufran (2009:1094) states that 2,184 terrorist attacks occurred in Pakistan in 2008 alone. This marks an increase of 746% compared to 2005, leaving 2267 people dead and estimated 4500 injured.

The topical prominence of NWP’s Islamist insurgency can be partially explained as a figure of the prevalence of terrorist activity throughout South Asia (Cohen, 2004). In the subcontinent’s modern history, various terrorist outfits have mounted serious challenges to state authority from Kashmir to Sri Lanka. Linkages between the rise of TTP fundamentalism, Pashtun nationalism and the role of the Pakistani and foreign governments, might suggest that regional implications could be drawn from a study of our case. In Sri Lanka, Spencer (2008: 611-615) has similarly noted connections between governmental policy and the escalation of its clash with the ethno-nationalist, Tamil-minority based, LTTE. As will hopefully crystallize in my examination of Pashtun nationalism and “Talibanization”, however, the phenomena under scrutiny are deeply anchored in regional and historical idiosyncrasies. Any generalizations drawn for South Asia from this paper would hence demand caution. Nonetheless, investigation of the patterns which underlie the development of terrorism on the Pashtun frontier may inform us on dynamics of ethnic sub-nationalism and communitarian resistance against central state power. In order to advance such understandings, we must first turn to the complex nature of Pashtun ethno-nationalism.

II. Defining Pashtun Nationalism

The growing clout of Talibanand related jihadiforces in Afghanistan and NWP has incited a conflict over the interpretation of Pashtun nationalism (Saigol, 2012:197). Saigol (2012:197) has identified a “journalistic tendency to equate a Pashtun ethno-nationalist movement with Talibanization”, which clashes with contradictory arguments that the former represents the antithesis to radical Islam. Debate along these lines begs the critical question of what it is that constitutes Pashtun nationalism. A conceptual discussion is hence required, before being able to review the history of the corresponding movement and contrasting it with religious extremism.

Harrison’s (Harrison, 2009) definition of Pashtun nationalism emphasises an ethnic self-image, as expressed in communitarian habit and tradition. Political objectives in the representation of Pakistani Pashto-speakers are neglected. The characterisation of Pashtun nationalism is instead posited on the basis of cultural features, which are seen as integral to ethnic identity. Accounts of popular disposition are employed as a source of group distinctiveness that critically marks Pashtun nationalism. In discourse described as “primordial” or “essentialist” by Geertz and Taj (cited in Jaffrelot, 1999:153), romanticising stereotypes created by British Empire are woven in a narrative of brave and unruly Pashtun tribes (Saigol, 2012:199). Perhaps unwittingly, such views effect a continuation of colonial divide and rule policies, which shaped essentialist concepts of Pashtun nationhood by creating boundaries in its subject’s minds. Accordingly, Pashtuns are held as a “monolithic, seamless, primordial group that has not been touched by history” (Ibid., 2012:200). Their alleged cultural canon incorporates a vengeful justice system, misogyny, belligerence, and antagonism towards foreigners (Jaffrelot, 1999:154; Lieven, 2011:371). Accordingly, the terrorist insurgency in NWP is a reflection of Pashtun traditions which characterize a consequential ethno-nationalism. In conjunction with tropes surrounding the religiosity of Pashtun society, Harrison (cited in Saigol, 2012:198) invokes a convergence of Islamic extremism with the fervour of tribal pride in reaction to “simmering ethnic tensions”. Pashtuns in NWP are claimed to support the insurgency, because of material conflicts with the larger and dominant Punjabi community. Infused with ideological tenets of Pashtun nationalism, a rivalry over resource distribution has thus taken the shape of “Talibanization”. Renditions in this vein depict Pashtun nationalism as a rigid cultural foundation governing the ethnicity’s beliefs, aspirations and organization. NWP’s terrorist insurgency could consequently be explained as a modern articulation of such a framework.

Saigol (2012:197-201) and Ghufran (2009:1093) have lamented that primordial narratives neglect the heterogeneity and mutability of the Pashtun community. A causal link between its ethno-nationalism and religious extremism, due to timeless cultural features of the former, is criticized as simplistic. The confinement of Pashtun nationalism to selected colonial stereotypes disregards the history of NWP’s ethnic movement, as well as the diverse cultural realities of its adherents. Acknowledging the fluidity of ideology and a greater role for material dimensions can serve to establish a more nuanced ethno-nationalist movement, which allows for deeper inquiry into its relationship with terrorist insurgency (Adeney, 2002:29-30; Jaffrelot, 1999:153-156). While primordial conceptions appear to be inspired largely by colonial imagination, Saigol (2012:202) argues that certain constructed identities are indeed central to Pashtun nationalism. Often originating in legend, these are embraced by large parts of Pashtun society nevertheless. As such, they form part of a wider and malleable group identity which inhibits and informs the ethno-nationalist movement.

For example, the tribal code of Pashtunwali plays a significant role in the articulation of Pashtun communal mobilisation (Lieven, 2011:372-373). The principles of morals and justice which it elaborates have historically governed Pashtun society. Like most nationalisms, NWP’s strand comprises notions of an ancient history of ethnic originality (Saigol, 2012:209). Pashtunwaliis centuries older than Islam and hence regularly used in this context to trace the roots of Pashtun people. This is reflected in a quote by politician Wali Kahn (cited in Saigol, 2012:197), who mused that he “had been a Pashtun for 3000 years, a Muslim for 1300 years and a Pakistani for 25 years”. Pashtun nationalism rests more on Pashtunwali as a foundation, than on religious sentiments emphasised in primordial accounts (Ghufran, 2009:1096). The mandatory sporting of Islamic beards, beheadings of infidels, or uncompromising opposition to female education cannot be labelled as archetypically “Pashtun” (Saigol, 2012:206). These practices were unheard of in NWP before the spread of Wahani-Deobandi doctrine from Arab Gulf states, during the Soviet Invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan. Feminist reservations about gender relations in nationalist ideology should not be discarded however, as it often denigrates women to repositories of familiar and national honour (Ibid., 202-203). The rulings of the Jirga (“Council of elders”) specifically, which are held in high esteem by most Pashtuns and enshrined in Pashtunwali, have a history of assigning preferential treatment to men (Lieven, 2011:372-373). Contrary to the widespread image of Pashtun hostility towards aliens however, Pashtunwali demands that milmestia (“hospitality”) be offered to foreigners (Ghufran, 2009:1102). As occurred during the Afghan-Soviet war, when millions of Afghans fled to NWP, the related principle of panahcan be invoked to grant refuge to Muslims escaping from political prosecution.

Cultural norms are relevant to the conceptualisation of Pashtun nationalism as its ideal underpinning. Yet while ethnic symbols and identity markers are frequently used, Jaffrelot (1999:164) claims that their role is secondary in shaping the movement compared to material realities. Pashtun nationalism in NWP is primarily defined by conflict over economic and political resources in which competing social groups are perceived as marginal and dominant (Ibid., 1999:153-154). It reflects a struggle in which the Pashto-speaking minority has sought to protect its interests against the neighbouring Punjabi demographic. Less a matter of ethnic specificity, the movement has thus been one of evolving demands for political representation and autonomy. Since NWP was part of British India, Pashtun policymakers have sought to establish more equitable distributions of goods and authority between the sub-continental centre and their tribal peripheries (Ghufran, 2009:1096). Resulting demands for regional independence are unrelated to religious zeal or tribal pugnacity. They are born out fears of ethnic disenfranchisement in socio-economic and political terms. Although infused with notions of ethnic identity, Pashtun nationalism should therefore be foremost understood as a movement to protect communal material interests. The subsequent historical review of a corresponding movement will bolster this argument and further the ultimate objective of determining the relationship between Pashtun nationalism and terrorist insurgency.

III. Searching for Pashtunistan– A brief history of Pashtun nationalism

Pashtun nationalism, as illustrated in Section II, predates the creation of Pakistan. Ethnic mobilisation in NWP has since taken contours which conflict with the TTP’s insurgent goals. Well before British India’s partition, the demand of the Northern Indian Muslim elites for an Islamic state was resented amongst Pashtuns (Roy, 1990:388; Bates, 2007:168-169; Jaffrelot, 1999:154-156). Fears of prospective Punjabi dominance in the proposed polity led to reactionary nationalism in KP, then known as the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP). Headed by “Bacha” Kahn, the Khudai Khidmatgar(KKM) organization was founded in 1929 (Saigol, 2012:206; Ghufran, 2009:1095-1096). The KKM, or “Redshirts”, were secular, social reformists. Subscribing to non-violence and opposed to partition, convergence between KKM and the Indian Nation Congress (INC) ideology earned its leader the title “Frontier Ghandi” (Lieven, 2011:217). Kahn promoted a reformed Pashtunwali, according to democratic principles as a foundation for Pashtun society (Ghufran, 2009:1096). Individual freedom retained an integral status in his revised version and was seen to be upset by colonialism. The KKM organized boycotts of British institutions and demanded their replacement with jirgas. Kahn’s followers envisaged a united post-colonial Indian nation, which they would remain part of in a Pashtun province with extensive autonomy. The British-friendly and pro-Pakistan stance of the influential Muslim League (ML) was hence incompatible with the Redshirt programme. London rewarded the loyalty of its Northern-India based leader Jinnah, by supporting his party in NWFP (Ghufran, 2009:1097). British policymakers patronized rich landlords in the province, who in turn carried out propaganda against the KKM.

When partition occurred in 1947, heightened fears of Pashtun marginalization in the nascent state kindled demands for an independent Pashtunistan(Jaffrelot, 1999:155-156). Confronted with the prospect of Punjabi-Mohajir dominance, Pashtun nationalists began to define a new communal identity which “shared a past with Afghanistan but did not want a future with it” (Ghufran, 2009:1097-1098).The KKM successfully fought for a plebiscite on the fate of Pashtuns after the departure of British Empire. The options to join Afghanistan or become an independent state were taken from the ballot by Lord Mountbatten however, leaving voters with a decision between acceding to India or Pakistan. In a referendum boycotted by Redshirts, NWFP and the contemporary FATAs became part of Pakistan in July 1947 (Lieven, 2011:217, Ghufran, 2009:1098). In the face of electoral defeat, Kahn accepted the results and pledged loyalty to the Pakistani state. Keen on reconciliation with the ML-controlled central government, the KKM redefined its Pashtunistan demand. Their new nationalist objective was to ensure the “right of Pushtuns to manage their own affairs as a provincial unit within Pakistan” (Ghufran, 2009:1098). Despite this political moderation, the central government was diametrically opposed to a regional devolution of powers. Jinnah remained suspicious of Afghani or Indian support for Pashtun nationalists and was quick to dismiss the KKM government in NWFP. The organization was subsequently banned in 1948, but continued to operate underground until the 1950s. (Jaffrelot, 1999:155-156)

From the 1960s onwards, KKM nationalism went into decline (Lieven, 2011:371; Jaffrelot, 1999:168-169). Calls for an independent Pashtunistan became rare, as the relationship between NWP’s population and the central state improved. After the falter of the Mohajir-Punjabi alliance, the Punjabi majority began sharing the country’s military, political and economic spoils with Pashto-speakers. The National Awami Party (NAP) lead by Bacha Kahn’s son Wali is a point in example (Lieven, 2011:371; Ghufran, 2009:1099). As the NAP integrated into conventional Pakistani politics, its articulation of Pashtun nationalism underwent a significant moderation. Wali Kahn strayed from his father’s secular legacy when he entered an alliance with the religious-conservative Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI) party in 1972. NAP pragmatism was less an abolishment of KKM ideology than an acceptance of the changing circumstances in its electorate. Within the first two decades of independence, traditional Pashtun nationalism was confined to urban strongholds in KP and lost whatever little influence it had in the FATAs. Political centralism under President Bhutto briefly saw Pashtun irredentism resurface, but the trend was reversed under his successor Zia in 1978 (Jaffrelot, 1999:170, Ghufran ,2009:1099). As KP’s economy came to interlink closely with the Punjab and the Pashto-speaking diaspora in Karachi swelled further, loyalties and perspectives changed. Many Pashtuns developed ties with the central government, especially in military service. The limited attraction retained by Kabul’s continuous lure for NWP to join Afghanistan faded entirely when Soviets, Mujahedin(“Holy Warriors”) and Taliban seized the country in succession between 1979 and 1996 (Kaushik, 1993:9, Lieven, 2011:218-219).

This contraction of Pashtun nationalism supports an argument I have made in section II. Increasing Pashtun-Punjabi cooperation exemplifies how the flexible movement is activated to promote material group interests, as opposed to being a direct figure of an inherent ethnic identity (Cohen, 2004:185,194). Although the influx of millions of predominantly Pashtun refugees from Afghanistan into KP distressed Punjabi elites, communal rivalries over resource distribution were considerably reduced. Large numbers of middle class Pashtuns lost interest in an independent or autonomous Pashtunistan as a result (Jaffrelot, 1999:170). The Western tribal peripheries that came to host the bulk of Afghan arrivals, including scores of Mujahedin, constitute an exception from this rule (Ghufran, 2009:1100). The socio-economic deprivation of their inhabitants compared to “settled” KP areas remind us of enduring competition between central government and provinces, as well as within the latter. Improvements notwithstanding, the Punjab held on to the major share of national services and goods. Although the Punjabi-Pashtun coalition was thus unequal, NWP’s political and economic integration was enough to weaken secular, social-reformist nationalism (Adeney, 2002:29-30). The erosion of the movement’s material basis witnessed reconstructions of Pashtun identity and gave an opening to more religious articulations thereof, especially in tribal peripheries and on the margins of society. Despite buoying Islamic extremism, which drove many of its followers out of NWP, secular Pashtun nationalism has not disappeared (Saigol, 2012:200). An affirmation of its persistence was felt in the 2008 victory of the ANP, an heir to the NAP, in provincial elections. For Ghufran (2009:110), the consequential renaming of NWFP to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (“Land of the Pashtuns) underlines continuities between current nationalist policies and Redshirt objectives.

IV. “Students”, States and ethnic irredentism- Relating Pashtun nationalism to terrorist insurgency

At this point in our enquiry, we have proposed a definition of Pashtun nationalism and traced the history of its corresponding mobilisation. We must now contrast the characteristics of NWP’s terrorist insurgency with the movement thus identified. After drawing attention to the role of states in the advent of “Talibanization” (A), I will conduct a direct comparison of ideologies and policies (B). The factor of international politics is critical to the trajectories of religious fundamentalism and Pashtun nationalism in this paper’s enquiry into their relationship.

A) International politics, “Talibanization” and Pashtun Nationalism

“Talibanization” is inextricably linked to state actors who actively fostered religious fundamentalism (Saigol, 2012:206). An account of its emergence detracts from claims that the proliferation of jihadi outfits in NWP is reflective of Pashtun ethno-nationalism. In Pakistan, the materialization of Wahhabi-Deobandi puritanism is mostly a result of the “regional ambitions of the elite of the dominant [Punjabi] nationality as envisioned by General Zia” (Ibid.). The 1979 Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan saw Pakistan and the U.S. unite on the Cold War’s final battlefield (Rashid, 2000:44). American eagerness to undermine the USSR gave Zia an opportunity to gain political and economic advantages in exchange for assistance across the Durand Line. Since the Redshirts rallied forPashtunistan, successive Pakistani administrations mistrusted Kabul for its cordial relationship with NWP’s Pashtuns (Rashid, 2011:308). Afghan assistance for domestic irredentism was seen as threatening to the Islamic state. Added to fears that the neighbour-state would side with India in a sub-continental war, Pakistani governments were impatient to establish an Afghan client state. As a consequence, policymakers and military leadership developed a concept of “strategic depth”, whereby Afghanistan’s terrain would serve as an impenetrable retreat during an Indian attack (Saigol, 2012:208). As Ziring shows (2005:184-185), aiding Washington was thus incentivised by three major factors. Firstly, Islamabad would gain substantial financial and military aid. Secondly, Pakistan could fulfil its desire to install a friendly government in Kabul. Last, but not least, control over said government could then be employed to subdue the nationalist movement of its domestic Pashtun minority.

As an unofficial operation, the shape of US-Pakistani engagement in Afghanistan entailed a key role for Pakistan’s secret service (Ibid., 2005:180). The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directed the resistance of rebels against the USSR and its allied Afghan socialist government. Accordingly, arms and funds provided by Washington and Sunni Gulf states, most notably Saudi Arabia, were channelled into Afghanistan through Pakistan. The ISI recruited Mujahedin fighters, who became the main beneficiaries of international assistance (Ghufran, 2009:1103; Cohen, 2004:183). Although predominantly Afghan Pashtun, their cadres were significantly strengthened by Arabs and fighters of other, foreign, origins. A network of Jihad-preaching madrasas and paramilitary training facilities in NWP was vital to these efforts. Financed largely by Arab petrodollars, Wahhabi-Deobandi schools mushroomed on Pakistan’s borderlands (Weaver, 2002:125). The enlisting of the most extremist of fighters was endorsed by all governments involved. While Washington was convinced that fundamentalism would make fierce warriors, Riyadh was most concerned with the threat of Shia Iran’s regional hegemony after the country’s Islamic revolution in 1979 (Ghufran, 2009:1103).

After the Soviet Union’s ouster, Afghanistan descended into a chaotic civil war (Ziring, 2005:188). As Washington’s interest in the conflict weaned, Pakistan remained desperate to achieve “strategic depth”. The ISI thus turned to rearing a new extremist force – the Taliban. Educated in Pakistani madrasas, the Taliban gained most of their following from Afghan refugees in NWP (Hussain, 2011:146-147). The “Students” defeated rivalling Mujahedin and other Afghan factions with generous support from Islamabad, declaring the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” in 1996. Shortly into the anticipated erection of Pakistan’s client state in Kabul, the U.S. turned against the Taliban for sheltering Al-Qaeda. Post 9/11, Washington pressured Pakistan to participate in its “War on terror” in Afghanistan and NWP (Haider, 2005:125; Rashid, 2005:306). Resulting military offensives have led to a massive spill-over of insurgent violence into Pakistan, as Taliban cadres fled into NWP. Contrary to their official position, Pakistani governments and the ISI continue to support factions of religious extremists (Ziring, 2005:194). Fundamentalist allies are perceived as a necessary to protect regional interests, especially in recollection of a drastic deterioration in relations with the US following Soviet defeat. TTP affiliates are still a government-endorsed counter to Pashtun nationalism. While some extremist organizations may have turned against the Pakistani state and capitalised on Pashtun ethnic dissatisfaction, their aspirations are religious rather than separatist. Despite criticising drone strikes aimed at terrorists in NWP, Pashtun nationalist parties have hence openly opposed the insurgency and complained that Pakistani authorities could crush the TTP if they only wanted to (Ghufran, 2009:1109-1104). The contributions and motivations of governments in their support for fundamentalism imply important distinctions between Pashtun nationalism and terrorist insurgency. Insights gained during sections II, III and the above enquiry into the advent of jihad in NWP, enable us to conduct a direct comparison of the movements scrutinized by this paper.

B) Ideological and political divergence

To postulate a causal bearing of Pashtun nationalism on the emergence of radical Islam, primordial views assume that the Taliban are essentially a “Pathan phenomenon” (Lieven, 2011:376). This premise fails to consider key characteristics of terrorist insurgency, ranging from its ethnic configuration, ideological tenets, political objectives and developmental history. As we have already hinted throughout this paper, NWP’s ethno-nationalism diverges from “Talibanization” in all of these points.

Firstly, organizations found under the TTP’s umbrella are not exclusively Pashtun (Ghufran, 2009:1096; Saigol, 2012:208). Although Pashtuns are thought to make up the biggest share of its supporters, no studies have been conducted to verify such estimates. It is known however, that substantial numbers of insurgents hail from a variety of other ethnic backgrounds. Members of the Punjabi community had already mounted a terrorist offensive in Kashmir before the Afghan war brought religious extremism to NWP. The Punjab based Lashkar-e-Taiba group, for example, is closely allied to TTP outfits in NWP. Furthermore, a significant proportion of NWP’s fundamentalist insurgents are foreign nationals (Ghufran, 2009:1092-1093). Taliban doctrine has attracted recruits from the Arab Gulf, Chechnya, Europe and North America. The ethnic diversity of the insurgency detracts from the argument that Talibanization is a modern expression of Pashtun nationalism.

Secondly, there are important ideological and political cleavages between Pashtun nationalism and radical Islam. While Pashtunwali is employed in nationalist mobilisation as a symbol of ethnic identity, TTP behaviour has frequently contradicted related cultural norms and ideas (Weaver, 2002:89-90). The bombing of Rahman Baba’s tomb in 2009 draws attention to crucial differences between fundamentalism and Pashtun nationalism (Saigol, 2012:209). Venerated by Pashtuns as their national poet, Baba is an apostate in the eyes of fundamentalists. Due to Sufi mysticism in his verse, the poet is disdained by an insurgency founded on “a grotesquely distorted view of Wahhabi Islam” (Ibid., 2012:204). Following Weekes (1964:130), radical Islamists have dismayed inhabitants of NWP by banning artistic and musical traditions integral to local culture.

As mentioned in Section II, Pashtun nationalism rests more on the foundation of Pashtunwalithan religious ideology (Saigol, 2012:205). Contrary to the a-historical Sunni extremism supported by parts of Pashtun society, conflicting ethno-nationalist ideas have responded flexibly to social and historical developments. Even in the treatment of women, where Pashtun nationalism and fundamentalism are claimed to be complementary, fault-lines are apparent (Ghufran, 2009:1093; Lieven, 2011:372-373; Saigol, 2012:205). A growing number of tribal elders have urged the Pakistani government to build girl’s schools. Pashtun males have been disgruntled by the Taliban-enforced transition of control over female mobility and clothing from relatives to the general male populace. Public floggings and executions of women who transgressed the boundaries set by Wahhabi-Deobandi puritanism consequently sparked outrage Further, the TTP has deeply offended the institution of Jirga (Saigol, 2012:204). Suicide bombings performed by extremists at councils have been common, often killing entire tribal leaderships. While revenge has a place in Pashtunwali, Taj notes that “[n]othing in the code…sanctions or even justifies indiscriminate use of violence” in its pursuit (cited in Ibid., 2012:202) For him, the Taliban have replaced Pashtun principles with simple “vigilantism” (Ibid.).

Finally, Jihadi ideology and practice are blatantly at odds with Bacha Kahn’s secular social-reformist movement, which remains the foundation of modern ethno-nationalism (Saigol, 2012:203-206). It appears cynical to equate Pashtun nationalism with Talibanization, considering the TTP’s murder and displacement of Pashtuns who have resisted their religious puritanism. Even in the FATAs, famed for sheltering Taliban cadres, the insurgency is hardly popular (Saigol, 2012:206). Pashtuns from this area have formed anti-Taliban armies in response to killings of tribal dignitaries and Sunni-Shia agitations. The Afghan-Soviet conflict heralded the arrival of violently-enforced fundamentalism which originated in the Arab Gulf. This holds true for the prosecution of Shi’ites, who co-existed peacefully with Sunnis in Pashtun society before 1979. As Cohen (2004:177) importantly notes, the TTP have never claimed to represent Pashtuns. Using Pashtun nationalist rhetoric would risk the loss of vital funding from non-Pashtun sources. Contradictory to an ethno-nationalist movement, it pursues pan-Islamic objectives opposed to communal separatism (Ibid.). Religious extremism owes most of its rise to international political circumstance and related attempts of Pakistani governments to contain Pashtun nationalism (Lieven, 2011:377).

V. Conclusion

This paper examined and responded to the claim that “Talibanization” is an expression of Pashtun nationalist sentiment. In an effort to gain insight into their relation, I have discarded an essentialist nationalism of cultural habit to which terrorism could be seen as a simple corollary. Instead, I discerned ethno-nationalist mobilisation which pursues the political representation of Pashtuns in NWP. Pashtun nationalism has evolved to protect communal material interests, to which Pakistan’s Punjabi elite responded with efforts of containment. Punjabi-controlled governmental institutions have consequently fostered pan-Islamic extremists groups in NWP, which were partially conceived of as an opposition to domestic irredentist forces. Reared with the help of international governments, the terrorist insurgency is in antagonistic juxtaposition with Pashtun ethno-nationalism. Frequently behaving paradoxically to nationalist ideology, fundamentalist groups have met serious popular resistance in NWP. Contrary to Pashtun nationalists, the Taliban do not claim to represent Pashtuns. The TTP is inspired by a religious puritanism whose ambitions are global rather than ethnic. Although some of the terrorist insurgency’s following is born out of the same resource conflict, “Talibanization” and Pashtun nationalism are thus overwhelmingly contradictory developments.


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A. Rashid, Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia (2000) London: Tauris & Co Ltd

A. Rashid, “The Afghan Conundrum” in Pakistan – Beyond the Crisis State, M.Lodhi (ed.) (2011) London: C. Hurst & Co

R. Saigol, “The multiple self: interfaces between Pashtun nationalism and religious conflict on the frontier” South Asian History and Culture(2012) vol. 3, no. 2

J. Spencer, “A Nationalism without Politics? The Iliberal consequences of liberal institutions in Sri Lanka” Third World Quarterly (2008) vol. 29, no.3

L. Ziring, “Pakistan: Terrorism in Historical Perspective” in Pakistan: democracy, development and security issues (2005) (Kukreja; Singh eds.) New Delhi: Sage

R. V. Weekes, Pakistan: Birth and Growth of a Muslim Nation (1964) Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Company

[1]In both Arab and Pashto

[2]Officially known as “North Western Frontier Province” or NWFP until 2010

[3]Also Pukhto or Pushto

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