Pakistan's Pashtuns, looking for statehood, may look to Taliban
The Taliban could expand their influence to more Pashtun areas by merging its pan-Islamic goals with the long-suppressed dream of a Pashtun state.
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Whether that remains the case is debated, but for years Pakistan's intelligence agencies supported the Taliban and other Islamic militants to counter secular Pashtun nationalists.Skip to next paragraph
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"After 9/11, Pakistan announced itself as an ally of the world, but actually they kept on continuing their policies," says Said Alam Mehsud, head of a newly revived nationalist group called the Pashtun Awareness Movement. "If this [Pashtun] nation is able to convey its actual feelings to the world and the world understands, we will not only be able to defeat terrorism, we can achieve those [nationalist] goals as well."
Pashtuns want an end to the Taliban, says Dr. Mehsud, but it should be Pashtuns who flush them out – not the Army backed by the US.
"The Punjabi military presence … in these Pashtun areas has been poison, because historically you had conflict between Pashtuns and Punjabis," Harrison says. The result has been Pashtuns becoming "politicized and radicalized."
After 9/11, Pakistan did try to compel Pashtun tribesmen to tackle militancy through traditional councils (jirgas) and tribal militias (lashkars). But both proved ineffective. Meanwhile, Pashtuns are making political demands that, if met, could perhaps win some goodwill.
Mehsud says 300 members of his Pashtun Awareness group this spring took to Peshawar's streets for Pashtun rights, such as creating a province for Pashtuns that includes NWFP and the neighboring Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and allowing it to keep more of its resources.
Lack of respect in media
Some respect would be nice, too, he suggests. "They present our culture in films, TV, drama, writing as if these people are the most backward."
After almost two years in office, the predominantly Pashtun Awami National Party, which rules the NWFP and has ties to the government in Islamabad, has found that working within the system has not helped it win greater autonomy for Pashtuns.
Despite promises, President Asif Ali Zardari has not signed an order to allow democratic representation in FATA. Nor has a collective punishment law there been amended to exclude women and children. The military and intelligence establishment are blocking efforts to merge FATA into the NWFP, says Zulfiqar Ali, a Pakistani journalist.
Mr. Ali warns these setbacks mean the secular ANP may lose in the next elections – to Islamic parties that oppose NATO in Afghanistan.
The ANP leader tasked with FATA issues, Lateef Afridi, does not dispute that progress is slow. He worries the original generation of nationalists will be replaced by more volatile youths.
"There is a bit of thinking that the possibility of getting these rights through normal means is not there and therefore we have to adopt other means," including "the question of taking up arms," says Mr. Afridi.
But like many US experts, he doesn't think the Taliban will attract the youths. The militants have waged war on ANP workers and secularists.
Christine Fair, a regional expert at Georgetown University, says Islamabad ought to rename the province and share power and resources more equitably. "[The US] should be promoting constitutionalism, and the Constitution does call for devolution," she says.
Harrison urges more US action, including withholding aid until Pakistan merges FATA into the NWFP and allows the money to flow through the provincial government. He also argues the US should curb the use of drones. But Mehsud, Afridi, and some other secular Pashtuns feel the drones have helped pin down militants. "I openly support drone attacks," says Mehsud. "These are very well targeted."