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The enigmatic Pakhtun

Updated March 02, 2014

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Recently a Pakhtun friend of mine who is doing his doctorate in Anthropology from a European university emailed me the following: “Nothing has damaged us Pakhtuns more than certain myths about our character that were not constructed by us”.

We were exchanging views on how some self-proclaimed experts on Pakhtun history and character in Pakistan were actually using the stereotypical aspects of this character to deter the Pakistani state from undertaking an all-out military operation against religious extremists in the Pakhtun-dominated tribal areas of the country.

My friend (who originally hails from the Upper Dir District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) also made another interesting observation: “You know, these myths have been engrained so deep into the psyche of today’s Pakhtuns that if one starts to deconstruct them, he or she would first and foremost be admonished by today’s young Pakhtuns. They want to believe in these myths not knowing that, more often than not, these myths have reduced them to being conceived as some kind of brainless sub-humans who pick up a gun at the drop of a hat to defend things like honour, faith, tradition, etc.”

But in his emails he was particularly angry at certain leading non-Pakhtun political leaders, clerics and even a few intellectuals who he thought were whipping up stereotypical perceptions and myths about the Pakhtuns to rationalise the violence of extremist outfits like the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that has a large Pakhtun membership.

He added that in the West as well, many of his European and American contemporaries in the academic world uncritically lap-up these perceptions and myths. He wrote: “They are surprised when they meet Pakhtun students here (in Europe), who are intelligent, rational, and humane and absolutely nothing like Genghis Khan”!

There have been a number of research papers and books written on the subject that convincingly debunk the myths attached to the social and cultural character of the Pakhtuns.

Almost all of them point an accusing finger at British Colonialists for being the pioneers of stereotyping the Pakhtuns.

Adil Khan in Pakhtun Ethnic Nationalism: From Separation to Integration writes that in 1849 when the British captured the southern part of Afghanistan, they faced stiff resistance from the Pakhtun tribes there. The British saw the tribes as the anti-thesis of what the British represented: civilisation and progress.

This is when the British started to explain the Pakhtuns as ‘noble savages’ — even though in the next few decades (especially during and after the 1857 Mutiny), the colonialists would face even more determined resistance from various non-Pakhtun Muslims and non-Muslims of the region.

From then onwards, British writers began to spin yarns of a romanticised and revivalist image of the Pakhtuns that also became popular among various South Asian historians.

Adil Khan complains that such an attempt to pigeonhole the Pakhtuns has obscured the economic and geographical conditions that have shaped the Pakhtun psyche. What’s more, the image of the unbeatable noble savage has been propagated in such a manner that many Pakhtuns now find it obligatory to live up and exhibit this image.

The myths associated with the Pakhtuns’ character have most recently been used to inform the narratives weaved by those who see religious militancy emerging from the Pakhtun-dominated areas in the north-west of Pakistan as a consequence of the state’s careless handling of the traditions of the ‘proud Pakhtun tribes’ (which may have triggered the ‘historical’ penchant of these tribes to inflict acts of revenge). Interestingly, the same myths were once also used by secular Pakhtun nationalists.

One of the most popular architects of Pakhtun nationalism, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, banked on the myth of Pakhtuns being unbeatable warriors to construct the anti-colonial aspect of his Pakhtun nationalist organisation, the Khudai Khidmatgar.

Earnest Gellner in Myths of Nation & Class in Mapping the Nation is of the view that though the Pakhtuns are an independent-minded people and take pride in many of their centuries-old traditions, they are largely an opportunistic and pragmatic people.

When Pakistan became an active participant in the United States’ proxy war against the Soviet forces that had entered Afghanistan, the Ziaul Haq dictatorship — to whip up support for the Afghan mujahideen — used state media and anti-Soviet intelligentsia to proliferate the idea that historically the Pakhtuns were an unbeatable race that had defeated all forces that had attempted to conquer them.

One still hears this, especially from those opposing the Pakistan state’s military action in the country’s tribal areas. But is there any historical accuracy in this proud proclamation?

Not quite. The truth is that the Pakhtuns have been beaten on a number of occasions. Alexander, Timur, Nadir Shah, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and the British, were all able to defeat the Pakhtuns.

In the 2008 paper, Losing the Psy-war in Afghanistan, the author writes: ‘True, the British suffered the occasional setback but they eventually managed to subdue the Pakhtun tribes. Had the British wanted they would have also continued to rule Afghanistan, only they didn’t find it worth their while and preferred to let it remain a buffer between India and Russia. The Russians (in the 1980s) too would never have been defeated had the Soviet economy not collapsed — and it didn’t collapse because of the war in Afghanistan — and had the Americans not pumped in weapons and money to back the so-called Mujahideen.’

The paper adds: ‘… while Pakhtuns are terrific warriors for whom warfare is a way of life, they have always succumbed to superior force and superior tactics. The Pakhtuns have never been known to stand against a well-disciplined, well-equipped, motivated, and equally ruthless force.’

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