Pakhtuns, state and nationalism

Published October 15, 2021
The writer is the author of The Dark Side of News Fixing: The Culture and Political Economy of Global Media in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The writer is the author of The Dark Side of News Fixing: The Culture and Political Economy of Global Media in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

TO absolve Pakistan of its role in the fall of Kabul, Prime Minister Imran Khan is trying to sell a selective story based on two simplified themes: first, he resorts to dataism (the ideological use of data) to play the victim card at the expense of the Pakhtuns; second, he shifts the blame onto the Pakhtuns as a nation, portraying them as holy warriors by choice to achieve larger policy ends.

Khan’s address to the UNGA last month is a case in point. Of particular importance are the segments relating to the Pakhtun question. Referring to Pakistan’s joining the US-led ‘war on terror’, he said, “80,000 Pakistanis died. $150 billion were lost to our economy. There were 3.5 million internally displaced Pakistanis”. This aggregation obscures the fact that not a single IDP was non-Pakhtun. Those who died were also mostly Pakhtuns. This disproportion is true for economic losses too. Yet, de-particularising the victims is sought in order to blur victimisation.

From 2007 to 2009, KP and the then Federally Administered Tribal Areas together saw an average of two suicide attacks per month. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, the death toll rose from 98 in 2006 to 507 in 2007; 670 in 2008, and 1,221 in 2009. In parallel to this, the state carried out US-funded military operations in Fata and KP. All parties involved in this war were rival sovereign nodes, yet united in spilling blood on local streets. Telling apart agents from victims can humanise this data.

On March 21, 2021, four dead bodies — one decapitated, one shot and two stoned to death — were discovered by a shepherd’s dog in Jani Kheil town in Bannu District close to North Waziristan (the dog was garlanded later by the locals as a protest against the administration). Worried about the presence of the ‘good Taliban’, the locals launched a sit-in with the dead bodies outside the military fort (they believed the militants were controlled from there). Failing to draw attention, they began to march towards Islamabad. Police erected hurdles, resorted to teargas shelling and opened fire, killing one and injuring 10. But the protesters were determined. Provincial PTI leaders persuaded the protesters to bury their dead, assuring them the area would be cleared of militants and action taken against the culprits. ‘Missing persons’ held for years at internment centres, would be released, they said. But within three days, a protest leader was shot dead, leading to more protests and one more death in police firing.

They have lost the most in the ‘war on terror’. Why then is the PM painting Pakhtuns as a nation of holy warriors?

To pacify the protesters, the security forces released four missing persons. In consultation with the administration, the Utmanzai and Ahmadzai tribes formed a local jirga and began talks with the ‘good Taliban’, a colonial practice for ‘absolving’ the state of its role to protect the people. But despite assurances, two more locals were targeted. It shows how Pakhtuns residing near a military fort are living on the militants’ terms and how warring parties are united in generating violence. It also sheds light on the bodies that constitute the aggregate data. As if their lives are disposable, the Pakhtuns bear the brunt of the state’s policies; their protest does not matter to officials.

The victims have to display the mutilated and bullet-riddled bodies of their loved ones for weeks to get their leaders to acknowledge that they, and their dead, matter. But the power elites still expose them to the wolves and look the other way. (On one occasion, the prime minister accused victims of blackmailing him).

Meanwhile, the prime minister conflates Pakhtun nationalism with religious extremism. The people in the tribal belt, he told the UNGA, “had affinity and sympathy with the Afghan Taliban not because of their religious ideology but because of Pakhtun nationalism, which is very strong”. The theme was reiterated in his article for The Washington Post.

In a recent interview with the Middle East Eye, Khan, contextualising the TTP threat to Pakistan, said that Pakhtuns on Pakistan’s side of the Pak-Afghan border began attacking the state when it allied itself with the US that invaded Afghanistan. Handling domestic sentiments on its western border in this way has already exposed Pakhtuns to bloody militarisation. This new narrative, however, signifies an extension of the state policy: earlier, Pakhtuns were projected as fearless border soldiers defending settled Pakistanis but now they are painted as brave warriors who not only rescued Afghanistan, but will also keep it at any cost.

Clubbing together the Taliban and Pakhtun nationalism is toxic fiction with real consequences. The Taliban derive their identity from a jihadi culture sponsored by the US and nurtured by the Pakistani state in the shadow of Cold War politics. Eighty thousand jihadists, including Arabs, were trained in the Pakhtun belt before being launched to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. The Taliban — who were groomed in the madressah culture on the Pak-Afghan border with the homeless Arabs later called Al Qaeda — might speak Pashto but take pride in Arab culture. They don’t believe in a national land, a national flag or local history. They killed thousands of Pakhtuns. Yet, Khan wants to prove they are nationalists.

Editorial: PM's argument that TTP is a product of Pakhtun nationalism is dangerously flawed

Although the Pakhtuns are always seen in a suspicious light in Pakistan, their death at the hand of the Taliban was because of their opposition to state-sponsored jihadi elements. Khan’s narrative to redesign Pakhtun identity by replacing it with jihadi ideology shows that the state will continue weaponising Pakhtun culture beyond Pakistan’s border, which is a dangerous plan meant to further expose the country’s underbelly to extremism and militarisation.

The prime minister has got more on his plate than he can digest. Reducing the loss of Pakhtuns to collateral damage (aggregate data) and distorting history by rebranding terrorism as a reactionary and regional Pakhtun phenomenon is an act of using cultural space for military extension beyond the border, a form of adventurism that will lead Pakistan towards further isolation. In his UNGA speech, the prime minister complained to the world for not appreciating Pakistan’s role, “What about us?” he said. This meaningful expression explains where our policymakers stand in Pakistan’s relationship with the rest of the world.

The writer is the author of The Dark Side of News Fixing: The Culture and Political Economy of Global Media in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Published in Dawn, October 15th, 2021



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