Why Afghanistan should leave Pakistani Pashtuns alone

Published: February 25, 2020
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Pakistani Pashtuns pictured in 1952. PHOTO: GETTY

Successive Afghan governments, since Pakistan’s founding in 1947, have remained self-proclaimed champions of Pakistani Pashtuns’ rights. The basis on which Afghan officials (and part of the public alike) have shown interest in Pakistani Pashtuns is the assumption that Pakistani Pashtuns are an oppressed people. The source of the oppression, the argument goes, is the Punjab province. Bilateral Afghan-Pakistan tensions did not begin after the 1978 communist coup in Kabul or the subsequent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, when Afghan Mujahideen and refugees fled to Pakistan. Afghan-Pak tensions had begun in 1947, when Afghanistan started insisting that Pakistan give its Pashtuns the right to self-determination, thus giving birth to the so-called “Pashtunistan” issue. Afghanistan also unilaterally announced that it no longer recognised the border with Pakistan.

Although Afghanistan remained neutral in all of the Indo-Pak wars, its interference in Pakistan has cost it dearly. First, in the 1950s and 1960s, Afghanistan unnecessarily deteriorated relations to the brink of war with Pakistan — on whom it depended for access to the Karachi seaport — bringing Afghanistan closer to the Soviet Union. Second, Afghanistan’s interference in Pakistan prompted the ‘India-centric’ Pakistan defence and foreign policy establishment to try to install a ‘friendly’ government in Kabul, which would neither interfere in Pakistani affairs, nor align with India against Pakistan.

Despite having been at war since 1978, Afghanistan continues to interfere in Pakistani Pashtuns’ matters. Lately, the emergence of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) has provided Afghanistan with yet another lifeline to remain invested in the Pashtun cause in Pakistan. History and facts on the ground, however, call into question Afghanistan’s position on Pakistani Pashtuns.

First: Afghanistan’s troublesome history with frontier Pashtuns

Afghan rulers have repeatedly betrayed and “sold” frontier (formerly India’s, and now Pakistan’s) Pashtuns to the British. In 1857, the sepoy uprising —centered at Delhi — in the East India Company’s (EIC) Bengal Army posed a serious challenge to British rule in India. As British troops in present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (K-P, formerly the Northwest Frontier Province — NWFP) were rushing to assist the outgunned and outnumbered British garrison on the Delhi Ridge, India’s frontier with Afghanistan lay wide open for the Afghan Amir Dost Mohammad Khan to cross and “liberate” frontier Pashtuns from British yoke. Dost, however, chose to stand idly by, and let British rule continue on the frontier.

In 1879, during the Second Anglo-Afghan War, Dost’s grandson Amir Yaqub Khan signed the notorious Gandumak Treaty with the British. In it, Yaqub relinquished to the British control of the Khyber Pass, the Kurram Valley, Sibi, and Pishin in exchange for an annual subsidy of “six lakhs.” A year later, when Dost’s other grandson Abdur Rahman ascended the throne in Kabul as amir, he too agreed to the spirit of the Treaty of Gandamak.

In 1893, Amir Abdur Rahman Khan and British Indian Foreign Secretary Mortimer Durand (thus the border would later become known as the Durand Line) signed another treaty in Kabul to “determine” their respective “spheres of influence,” a pseudonym for giving more Pashtun territory to the British. According to the treaty, Afghanistan officially relinquished control of several districts such as Swat, Bajuar, Chitral and Chaman. In exchange, the British increased Abdur Rahman Khan’s annual subsidy by “six lakhs.” Although the treaty was between Abdur Rahman and Durand, it was renewed by the former’s son Amir Habibullah Khan in 1905 with British Indian Foreign Secretary Louis Dane.

More importantly, during World War I (1914-1918), when frontier Pashtuns were more than willing to join hands with the Ottomans and rise up against the British, Amir Habibullah Khan put them off. He preferred to remain loyal to the British. Habibullah’s loyalty to the British allowed the latter to keep a light military footprint on the frontier, and deploy British troops elsewhere against the Ottomans and Germans.

In 1919, after the Third Anglo-Afghan War, during which Afghanistan threatened British India with a potential Pashtun uprising, Afghanistan agreed to “accept” the above-mentioned 1905 agreement as the basis for border management with British India. The 1919 agreement was reaffirmed by Afghanistan in 1921. Likewise, after coming to power in 1929, King Nader Khan informed the British government through his ambassador in London that Afghanistan accepted its frontier with British India.

It wasn’t until mid-1940s, and only after realising that Britain’s days in India were numbered, that Afghanistan brought up the issue of self-determination for frontier Pashtuns. Afghanistan has since remained involved in their affairs one way or another. Previously, however, in order to grab or retain power in Kabul, successive Afghan rulers — from 1857 to 1947 — had agreed to relinquish claims to Pashtun majority areas and leave their Pashtun inhabitants at Britain’s mercy.

To Afghan rulers — as long as they remained in power — Kabul, Kandahar, and Nangarhar were more important than Peshawar, Mardan, and Kohat. It is interesting that before Pakistan’s independence Afghan rulers had been fine with the non-Muslim British ruling frontier Pashtuns, but after 1947 Afghan rulers could not stand their fellow Muslims (which also included ethnic Pakistani Pashtuns) ruling frontier Pashtuns. This is hypocrisy of the highest order.

Second: Four things Afghans need to understand about Pakistani Pashtuns

While Punjabis are a majority in Pakistan, it would be distortion of facts to view Pakistani Pashtuns as oppressed. There are four important things that Afghans need to know before judging Pakistani Pashtuns as oppressed.

A. Pakistani Pashtun population

Pashtuns in Pakistan outnumber Pashtuns in Afghanistan by at least two to one. There are 35 million people in Pakistan that identify as Pashtun (the actual Pashtun population in Pakistan is much higher due to centuries of Pashtun migrations to different parts of present-day Pakistan, where they settle and gradually stop using Pashto as their language, like the Sadozais of Multan or Kashmir and the Kakazais of Lahore). Afghanistan’s entire population is estimated to be 38-40 million, of which Pashtuns comprise an estimated 40% to 45%, making for a total of 15-18 million.

Pakistani Pashtuns are a diverse people, who live in all four provinces, Islamabad, and Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK); Pashtuns are not confined to the so-called “tribal areas.” Out of Pakistan’s 35 million Pashtuns, only five million, or just 15% of entire Pakistani Pashtun population, lived in the former Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which merged with K-P in 2018. More Pashtuns live in Karachi — which is simultaneously home to the largest metropolitan Pashtun population in the world — than in Kabul, Kandahar, and Jalalabad combined.

If Afghanistan had indeed believed that Pakistani Pashtuns were an oppressed people it should have advocated for FATA’s merger with K-P from day one of Pakistan’s independence, so that FATA’s people wouldn’t have had to live under the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) for seven decades. Not only did Afghanistan not do that, it had remained opposed to FATA’s merger with K-P as late as 2018. In the name of autonomy, Afghanistan had advocated lack of education, rule of law, and unemployment for FATA’s people for more than seven decades.

B. The larger-than-life role of the Pashtuns in Pakistan’s history

Historically, the terms Afghan, Pashtun (pl. Pashtana), and Pakhtun (pl. Pakhtana) have all been different names for the same people, residing between the Hindukush mountains and the Indus River (note that the term Pathan is a corruption of Pakhtana, and has no basis in Pashto language).

Pashtuns’ contributions to Pakistan had begun long before Pakistan’s founding. Without the Pashtuns, Pakistan would be incomplete. The name Pakistan (initially Pakstan, without the letter I) was first coined by a group of Indian Muslim students — amongst whom were several Pashtuns such as Aslam Khan Khattak and Khan Inayatullah Khan of Charsada — in the early 1930s in England. In Pakistan, the letter P stands for Punjab, A for Afghan (meaning Pashtuns of NWFP), K for Kashmir, S for Sind and the ending ‘tan’ for Balochistan. It was later that people started translating Pakistan as ‘the land of the pure.’ Pakistan, in essence, is an acronym of its five comprising regions.

In the 1940s, during the independence struggle from the British, there were many notable Pashtuns who supported the Muslim League and its leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah. For instance, Maulana Abdus Sattar Niazi backed the idea of Pakistan from a religious standpoint. Due to his religious credentials, Niazi’s support was crucial to the Muslim League cause to counter a Congress Party ally Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind’s (JUI) anti-Pakistan message.

Another notable Pashtun during the independence struggle whom Jinnah trusted and later picked as Pakistan’s first minister of communication was Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar, a Kakar Pashtun of the Peshawar area whose family had migrated from Zhob in Balochistan. Having served as minister of communication for two years, in 1949 Nishtar became the governor of Punjab, the first Pakistani governor in Pakistan’s history. Later, Nishtar would become president of the Pakistan Muslim League, and his nephew Abdul Waheed Kakar would serve as army chief from 1993 to 1996.

Before independence, the Congress Party had two staunch allies in the NWFP: Khan Abdul Jabbar Khan, known as Dr Khan Sahib, and his younger brother Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who led a movement named Khuda-i-Khidmatgar (Servants of God), supporting the Congress Party and opposing the Muslim League. Pakistan’s founding, however, brought about a permanent split between the two brothers. In 1955, when the One Unit scheme was adopted by merging the four western provinces and princely states to form the province of West Pakistan, Dr Khan Sahib became its first chief minister.

From 1947 to 1993 (a total of 46 years), the following three Pashtuns have served as heads of state in Pakistan for a total of 20 years combined: Governor-General Malik Ghulam Mohammad (1951-1955), a Kakazai Pashtun of Lahore; President Ayub Khan (1958-1969), a Tarin Pashtun of Rehana; and President Ghulam Ishaq Khan (1988-1993), a Bangash Pashtun of Bannu. At the height of Afghanistan’s Pashtunistan propaganda against Pakistan in the 1950s and 1960s, Pakistan was headed by Pashtun heads of state, first by Ghulam Mohammad then by Ayub Khan.

Along with Punjabis, Pashtuns have remained dominant in Pakistan’s military high command. Pashtuns have served as army, air, and naval chiefs; corps commanders and run intelligence agencies, including the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) For instance, for 11 out of 12 years between 1979 and 1991, three Pashtuns named Akhtar Abdur Rahman (a Kakazai), Hamid Gul (a Yousafzai) and Asad Durrani served as directors-general of the ISI Additionally, Pashtuns from K-P have long comprised a large portion of the Pakistan Army’s foot soldiers.

It also goes without saying that had it not been for Pakistani Pashtuns’ sacrifices in the 1947-48 Kashmir War, today AJK would still be part of India. In addition to being home to a large Saddozai Pashtun population, since its creation in 1947, AJK has had several Saddozai presidents. For instance, Sardar Muhammad Ibrahim Khan, who served as the first AJK president, would go on to serve intermittently three more terms as president. Since 2016 another Saddozai named Sardar Masood Khan, Pakistan’s former ambassador to China and the United nations (UN), has been the AJK president.

Furthermore, at the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission it was under the chairmanships of two Kakazai Pashtuns Munir Ahmad Khan (from 1972-1991) and Ishfaq Ahmad Khan (from 1991-2001) that Pakistan developed and tested its nuclear weapons. When it comes to sports, cricket is considered to be the most popular sport in Pakistan. The only time that Pakistan won an ICC Cricket World Cup was in 1992 under the captaincy of a Pashtun named Imran Ahmad Khan Niazi from Mianwali. Popularly known as Imran Khan, he is currently serving as the 22nd prime minister of Pakistan. Pakistani Pashtuns have also made significant contributions in squash and field hockey.

Finally, the notion that Urdu, Punjabi, and Hindko speaking Pashtuns are not ‘real’ Pashtuns is misleading. If qualification for affiliation with an ethnicity is solely based on linguistic abilities, then most of Afghanistan’s Durrani Pashtun rulers, who spoke and wrote Persian (which is officially called Dari in Afghanistan today) would not be considered Pashtun either. This would undermine the popular claim that Pashtuns have ruled in Afghanistan since 1747.

From the founding of the Durrani dynasty in 1747 to the 1930s, almost all correspondence and official documents in Afghanistan were written in Persian only. Similarly, the Lodhi (1451-1526) and Suri (1540-1556) Pashtun rulers of India, and the Hotaks (1709-1738) in western Afghanistan and Persia, too, were fluent in Persian and used it as their official language. If Pashtuns in Afghanistan, India and Persia can use Persian, why can’t Pashtuns in Pakistan use Urdu, Hindko or Punjabin?

C. Government structure in Pakistan

Pakistan, unlike Afghanistan, is a federal state. In each of its four provinces the provincial assembly is elected by the people. As such, for decades Pashtuns in K-P have elected their provincial assembly, and through the assembly their provincial government. Similarly, Pashtuns have also been represented in Balochistan’s provincial assembly (Pashtuns comprise around 33% of Balochistan’s population).

Within the limits of Pakistan’s constitution, K-P’s provincial assembly can pass, amend and annul provincial laws concerning the affairs of its residents. In Pakistan (including K-P), power is further devolved from provincial governments to local governments at the district, tehsil, and council levels, where people take part in governing their cities, towns, and villages. On the contrary, despite being a diverse and multi-ethnic country, Afghanistan has remained unitary and centralised. It’s hypocritical that many Afghans consider talking about devolving power from the central government in Kabul a taboo, but at the same time want Pakistani Pashtuns to advocate for greater autonomy or secession.

D. Pakistani Pashtuns’ wider access to services

First, Pakistani Pashtuns have a higher literacy rate, and wider access to better quality education than Afghans. For instance, K-P’s 50% literacy rate is higher than Afghanistan’s overall 31% literacy rate. With regards to higher education, many of the more than 30 universities in K-P offer doctoral degrees in various fields, including the Persian language. Whereas, in Afghanistan’s entire history, only between 10 and 20 students have earned doctoral degrees in either Pashto or Persian language respectively from the Kabul University.

Likewise, Pakistani Pashtuns have wider access to much better health care than Afghans. A short tour of almost any K-P hospital, where one comes across Afghan patients on a regular basis, would confirm the above statement. Not just K-P, Afghan patients can be seen seeking medical treatment as far as Lahore and Karachi. Furthermore, undisputedly, Pakistani Pashtuns have wider access to electricity, natural gas, and phone services than Afghans. The Afghan government has even failed to provide its capital and largest city, Kabul, with uninterrupted electricity, let alone other cities and villages. In addition to security issues, it is because of having access to these services in Pakistan that Afghan refugees are hesitant about returning to Afghanistan.

Third: Supporting PTM is counterproductive

Supporting PTM seems in line with Afghanistan’s long-standing policy to assist Pakistani Pashtuns. However, Afghanistan’s betrayal of frontier Pashtuns, and Pakistani Pashtuns being in a better and stronger position than Afghans, are indications that Afghanistan has less credibility to remain invested in Pakistani Pashtuns’ affairs. Even with the best of intentions, if Afghans appear to be supporting PTM it will put the movement in a difficult position in Pakistan, and give currency to theories like PTM is working to further Afghanistan’s interests in Pakistan. Like all aspects of Afghanistan’s Pakistan policy, this aspect too seems to be based on miscalculation.

Additionally, as the bilateral balance of power has shifted dramatically in Pakistan’s favour over the last 42 years, Afghanistan’s vulnerabilities have only increased. Today, unlike from the 1950s to the 1970s, Pakistan hosts around three million Afghan refugees, at least half of whom are in Pakistan on an unregistered basis. Any provocative action by the Afghan government could make life harder for Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

Moreover, hundreds, if not thousands, of Afghan patients and medical tourists enter Pakistan on a daily basis. Tense relations followed by Afghan-Pak border closures put thousands of Afghans — patients and their families — under unnecessary stress and suffering. It’s a clear indication that the Afghan government neither cares for its three million refugees in Pakistan, nor for thousands of Afghans who travel to Pakistan. With so much apparent vulnerability, supporting PTM is counterproductive for Afghanistan.

It’s true that Pashtuns have suffered a lot over the last 19 years. But it’s also true that Afghan Pashtuns have suffered more than Pakistani Pashtuns. Are there more Afghan refugees in Pakistan or are there more Pakistani refugees in Afghanistan? Whichever country hosts more refugees should be better off than the other. As Afghanistan’s decades-old misguided Pashtun-centric Pakistan policy has backfired with disastrous results, it should redefine its Pakistan policy taking history, reality on the ground, and its long-term strategic interests into account.

On a brighter note, the very presence of 50 million Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan brings the two countries closer. It’s an opportunity that needs to be utilised properly to bridge the gap between the two countries. There seems no alternative to improving bilateral Afghan-Pak ties. We cannot move Afghanistan or Pakistan to another part of the world. As neighbours, it is imperative that we try our best — at all levels, people to people, and government to government — to improve our bilateral ties. If we fail, we should try again, and keep trying until we succeed. An Afghan proverb sums it up beautifully:

از صد خویش یک همسایه پیش

A neighbour is closer than a hundred relatives

Arwin Rahi

Arwin Rahi

The writer is a former adviser to the Parwan governor in Afghanistan. He has a master’s degree in politics and security studies with a focus on Afghanistan and Central Asia from the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, and another master’s degree in international affairs from Texas A&M University’s George Bush School of Government and Public Service in Texas. He has written for Dawn, the Express Tribune, Forbes, the National Interest, BBC Persian, and the Diplomat, among others. He can be reached at [email protected].

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.