Modern Pakistani governments have followed their British predecessors in exploiting Pashtun religious sentiment, but now suffer a serious backlash. Almost 3,000 Pakistanis are lost to suicide bombers each year in the Pakistani Taliban insurgency, which has cost the Pakistani Army more soldiers’ lives than the US lost in Afghanistan.
Abubakar Siddique is at his most interesting in The Pashtuns when he analyses why Pashtuns in particular have become such ardent supporters of Taliban thinking, and how this has been manipulated by outsiders. He goes back to the 15th century to find some moderate Islamic thinking under Pir Roshan among the Pashtuns that was inspired by “spirituality and moderation”. But he also identifies a far harsher brand of Islam led by Akhund Derweza, which later led to what Siddique calls “frontier jihads”, against the British in the 1890s.
This strand of belief was exploited by the new Pakistani government during the 1947 independence talks in order to undermine the Afghan government’s efforts to bring the Pashtun lands of Pakistan under Kabul’s rule. Later, Pakistan’s ISI also used this trail of thought when it spent millions of US dollars to support Pakistani Pashtuns to go into Afghanistan and kick-start the mujahedeen movement against the Soviets.
But decades later, the wheel has turned full circle as Siddique’s book reports a major shift in Pakistani military thinking, contained in its annual Green Book, which in 2013 noted that the threat to the Pakistani state from Islamist radical groups operating within Pakistan were a greater threat than its traditional rival India.
More than one million Pashtuns have died in violence since 1979, according to Siddique, and he is not hopeful for a good future after the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation-led International Security Assistance Forces withdraw from Afghanistan.
But he is consistent in his support for Kabul and Islamabad to stop marginalising Pashtuns when he urges that Islamabad stop exploiting them for their own purposes as this will keep them weak and tormented. This “may serve the short-term interests of powerful governments. But such policies will only prevent the region from rising to its potential and may yet again prove self-defeating”.