Persistent instability in Pakistan has been helped by the way the 50 million Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been excluded from civil society on both sides of the border on the false analysis that violent extremism is rooted in their history and culture.
The case for incorporating Pashtuns fully into mainstream society is made in the book The Pashtuns by Abubakar Siddique, a journalist and leading analyst on Afghan and Pakistani affairs from South Waziristan.
Talking to GN Focus, Siddque explains that his central thesis is that the cycle of war economy had to be broken, pointing out that Pashtuns have survived decades of chronic violence and instability, and many have been displaced and exposed to all sorts of ideologies. "There is an established economy of war under which people are used to being displaced and they have developed livelihoods [that] depend on fighting or supplying fighters. The solution is to encourage regional cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan for both states to make their institutions work and to kick start [their economies]."
Siddique gives an example of the immediate benefits. When Pakistan’s military recently built a road linking South Waziristan, where he was born, to Dera Ismail Khan, cutting the drive time from eight hours to four, it opened up a new market to the farmers of South Waziristan who do not have cold storage and, therefore, previously had to sell their produce immediately. "A whole new stream of income came into the region."
The Pashtun economy’s strengths are trading, transport and agriculture, says Siddique. "For example, 90 per cent of the trade between Pakistan and China is handled by Pashtuns."
Siddique is realistic about the problems that harm the chance of moving away from the cycle of violence. His book raises several factors that would help. The most important has been a consistent willingness from the Pashtuns to work with the national systems of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Siddique points out that despite all the current problems, there is no Pashtun secessionist movement.
And this is despite Pakistan maintaining a different controlling regime over the Pashtuns than other Pakistanis. The most obvious is the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), in which Siddique details the continuance of draconian colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulations. Drafted in 1901, it is still used by Pakistan to reinforce the powers of the political agent to serve as judge, jury, prosecutor, police chief and prison administrator who can oversee matters such as health care, education and raising taxes as it wishes. Much of this contradicts the Pakistani constitution whose collective punishments of entire communities have realised little result.
He also emphasises that the majority of Pashtuns in Afghanistan have embraced the chance to vote in the current presidential elections between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, and have ignored calls from Taliban leaders to abstain or wreck them.
The Pashtuns offers a comprehensive report of Pashtun history and present-day politics. Siddique’s storytelling skills as a journalist save the book from sinking under its evident scholarship, and by writing of his own people, he offers a genuine understanding that far too many commentators miss because they only focus on whatever political crisis brought them there.
Siddique has spent 15 years researching and writing about the security, political and human and cultural issues in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which he covers for Radio Free Europe.
— The Pashtuns is available in the UAE for Dh203 at Magrudy’s.