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.

Ben Arnoldy / The Christian Science Monitor
Nationalist: Said Alam Mehsud heads the nationalist Pashtun Awareness Movement.
Fayaz Aziz / Reuters
Nationalist: Residents flee the troubled northwest region of Pakistan.

A long-dormant nationalism movement among ethnic Pashtuns shows signs of reawakening as Pakistan – at United States urging – has boosted military activity in their region and as political efforts for autonomy have stalled.

The most basic Pashtun demand, changing the name of the North West Frontier Province to Pakhtunkhwa ("Land of the Pashtuns"), was thwarted in September by dominant ethnic Punjabis. A new faction of Pashtun nationalists has protested in Peshawar, the capital of the NWFP. Leaders warn that younger cadres may abandon politics for arms.

Stemming widespread discontent among Pashtuns is important because they hold the keys to the war on terror. Their lands straddling the Afghan-Pakistani border are a haven for the Taliban and top Al Qaeda figures like Osama bin Laden.

Many Pashtuns are frustrated with the Islamic militants' presence and the military offensives they have brought – anger that secular leaders, who have traditionally led the push for autonomy, can channel against religious extremism.

But a peril also exists: Islamic militants may become the force seen as best able to deliver autonomy for Pashtun regions.

"The danger of the [largely Pashtun] Taliban overtly using Pashtun nationalism to justify an independent Pashtun state is small because they are operating with financial support of jihadi forces," says Selig Harrison, director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy in Washington and author of a recent report on Pashtun nationalism.

"But what could emerge, if the Taliban were to get control over large areas of the border districts in Afghanistan, is some sort of Islamic emirate which would in fact be a Pashtun state."

That could expand to more Pashtun areas by merging the appeal of pan-Islamic ideas and the long suppressed dream of a Pashtun state, he argues.

US troops in Afghanistan and the Pakistani military would then be fighting Pashtun pride on top of other passions fueling the insurgencies.

Two million Pashtuns flee Swat fighting

Since 2001, Pakistani, Afghan, and NATO troops have rushed into Pashtun lands. US drones fill the sky. This year has been especially rough for Pashtuns in Pakistan, with more than 2 million forced to flee military offensives in Swat and nearby areas.

"It's like a Pashtun genocide," says Ayeen Khan, of Swabi, NWFP, echoing a phrase heard across the region. "In different areas a lot of Pashtuns are being killed. They need someone to stop the killing."

Many who fled the fighting said they want neither the Taliban nor the Army in their lands. They say the Punjabi-dominated security agencies control both forces, with the Army periodically fighting the militants, then receding and letting the Taliban reimpose their terrorizing rule. Pashtun civilians say they are caught in the middle of this "double game."

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.

"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."

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