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Islam and Politics ( 31 May 2013, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Confused Pashtun


By Iqbal Ahmed Khan

22 May, 2013

Imran Khan’s Pakistani Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party is taking over the provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) bordering Afghanistan. At this point it is necessary to dispel a couple of myths that already seem to have accompanied the victory. But such an exercise must necessarily begin with an explanation of the reasons for the defeat of the former provincial ruling party, the Pashtun nationalist, Awami National Party (ANP). What this article will argue is that on the one hand, the PTI is filling in a vacuum left behind by a collapsing Pashtun nationalism. And on the other, it will attempt to get rid of a few misconceptions about the PTI’s victory and the Taliban that will arise as a result of the PTI’s gains in KPK.

But first the ANP and the collapse of Pashtun nationalism. The modern-day ANP emerged out a political tendency that was always, until very recently that is, at odds with the Pakistani establishment. The proximity of the ANP to the Indian National Congress – the ANP’s ideological patriarch Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan opposed the creation of Pakistan and its hostility to the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) meant that it was always held in suspicion by the political and military establishment. Isolated, and no longer able to look towards its old allies now ruling regional rival India, the ANP turned westwards found eager patrons in Kabul. Before the days of ‘strategic depth’, Pakistani policy towards Afghanistan was shaped by Kabul’s territorial claims on KPK. As from the 1950s, the ANP’s predecessor parties became close to Afghan President Daud Khan’s ‘Greater Pashtunistan’ policy to unite Afghanistan and the Pashtun-dominated KPK province of Pakistan. To that effect, Daud Khan insisted that the KPK be given a choice to become independent – in effect a protectorate of Kabul – or choose to join either Pakistan or Afghanistan. The ANP in the KPK was thus cultivated as an asset and possible political bridgehead to attract support amongst Pakistani Pashtuns.

Needless to say, Daud Khan’s dream did little to improve relations between the two neighbours. In the 1950s and 1960s there were frequent border clashes across the Durand line and both countries severed diplomatic relations twice in 1955 and 1962. After Daud Khan was overthrown and the Communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan took power in Kabul, the ANP closed ranks with the Soviets and their communist Afghan allies. The reason the ANP chose to embark on this political trajectory is simple enough to understand, on the one hand, Kabul offered patronage and a safe haven in case the Pakistani establishment chose to crack down on the ANP.

Secondly, in the ANP’s view, by dangling the bogey of Afghanistan, they thought that Islamabad would think twice before launching large-scale repression in the KPK – as it had time and again in Baluchistan. But most importantly, it was because throughout modern Afghan history, the Afghan state was always dominated by Pashtuns. The ANP and its Pashtun nationalism remained frozen in this prism right until 1992, when Pashtun nationalism received its first major blow.

The Fall

The overthrow of the communist government in Kabul in 1992 delivered a blow that the ANP has yet to recover from –ideologically speaking that is. On the one hand, the ANP lost a major patron. But 1992 also saw a rickety non-Pashtun coalition of warlords coming to power in Afghanistan that together with incessant civil war until 2001 largely sapped enthusiasm for the ANPs original program of union with Kabul not just amongst ordinary Pashtuns in KPK but amongst ANP cadres as well.

The over-reliance of Pashtun nationalism on the temper in Kabul meant that once Daud Khan’s old dream – surviving in communist Kabul as well – died, it left the ANP with little appeal and ideological direction. Still mistrusted in Islamabad but with little to offer, support for the ANP – and by extension Pashtun nationalist politics - gradually receded. One indication of this is that since then, KPK politics has been dominated by different parties in turn. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) took power in the province in 1993, the PML-N in 1997, a hodge-podge alliance of religious parties known as the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) in 2002, the ANP again in 2008 and the PTI in 2013. (It can be argued that the ANP’s recent trouncing is not so much an exceptional fact, but rather the continuation of a nearly 20-year old political trend in the KPK)

After the US occupation of Afghanistan in 2001, the ANP only dug its hole even deeper. It pursued a contradictory policy of on the one hand, rhetorically attacking the US presence in Afghanistan – overwhelmingly unpopular amongst Pakistani Pashtuns – while on the other cultivating close ties with the Pashtun president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, widely reviled within the KPK, and indeed, the ANP itself not least because he was in effect a puppet of the United States heading a government overwhelmingly dependent on non-Pashtun – particularly Tajik – support. All held together of course, by cultivating a national cult of Tajik warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud. This did not play well with Pashtun voters in the KPK that threw the ANP out of office in the 2002 elections under the rule of military strongman Pervez Musharraf. As is the practice in most South Asian dynastic parties, the reasons for the defeat were never analyzed within the ANP. Instead it pointed fingers at the establishment for engineering its downfall – which has an element of truth in it, but is clearly not sufficient - and brining the MMA to power.

This myopia meant that when the ANP returned to power in 2008, allied with the PPP, it not only repeated its mistakes, but did so on a much grander scale. Between 2008 and 2009, the Pashtun Nationalism under the ANP brand undertook its most dramatic volte-face. Rather than ditch an unpopular association with Hamid Karzai’s venally corrupt administration, the ANP strengthened it to the point of playing down its rhetorical hostility – already largely toothless – to the US occupation. That didn’t sit well in 2002, and certainly even less with drone attacks now taking place in the KPK. But more importantly, faced with Taliban attacks on its cadres, the ANP went from opposing the Pakistani military establishment to an outright alliance with it. Its predecessors might have been hounded by the military, but the present ANP leadership travelled with bodyguards from the Pakistani army.

To add to the confusion, the ANP’s attitude to the Taliban too was a victim of paralysis within the party. Since 9/11 right up to 2013, no less than 800 ANP workers were killed in Taliban attacks. Yet in 2008, the ANP campaigned in the KPK on a program of dialogue with the religious fundamentalists. It was only a full year later, in 2009, and after much ANP blood had already been lost that the party began formulating a more aggressive attitude towards the Taliban. For many Pashtun voters, this was one somersault too many. An augury to the ANP’s defeat seemed to come in 2012 when a number of ANP veterans split off from the party charging that the party had lost its way. Hence, just as in 2002, the ANP once again lost KPK in 2013. Only this time, the defeat was far more severe, with even the prestigious Bilour and Arbab families –strong families in key leadership positions within the ANP – losing their seats to the relatively fresh faces from the PTI. With that in mind, it would be pertinent to now turn to the Taliban movement itself.

Nationalist Taliban

The retreat of Pashtun nationalist politics and the doldrums in which the ANP was increasingly finding itself in coincided with the rise of the Taliban movement in Pakistan. In these circumstances, the temptation was strong to color the Taliban as an expression – albeit a parochial one- of precisely the nationalism that the ANP seemed to have been increasingly abandoning.

Now this idea came from primarily two sources. Anti-war activists and progressives in the West energetically championed the ‘Taliban and nationalist’ thesis. The reason why such an idea would make its way into the western anti-war movement is all too understandable. For them the main enemy was those promoting the war in Afghanistan at home, and part of that effort meant that if proponents of the war argued of the Taliban movement as a medievalist, savage force, the anti-war movement sought to delegitimize that propaganda by casting the Taliban in a more relatable light. The motivations were sincere – indeed admirable – but the conclusions are all too wrong. And let’s be frank, the romaticisation of movements, especially those concerning religion, is not a new disease within the broader left in the West. Take for instance, their attitude towards the Afghan mujahedeen fighting the Soviets and the reception of Buddhist religious politics in Tibet and Myanmar.

The problem is that via the internet, this view quickly gained ground within Pakistani political circles as well. Unlike their Western counterparts, the motivations of Pakistani advocates of the thesis were much baser. They were motivates less by ideology, and more by an unwillingness to take on a position that they deemed to be unpopular. One indication of the shallowness of this thesis was that as soon as public opinion in Pakistan turned against the Taliban, it was swiftly dumped by the majority of its former champions, although it does rear its head every now and again.

Ping Pong Progressivism

The challenge confronting Pakistani politics in this instance is very similar to the one posed by the Khalistan movement in India and the Indian states role in fostering it and reacting to it. What does one do when a reactionary movement spawned by a reactionary state spins out of control? Instead of looking at US imperialism, the Pakistani state and the Taliban as different, mutually reinforcing facets of a reactionary system, what many did was assume that they had to pick sides and support one or the other. The result? Pakistani liberals awkwardly turn a blind eye to drone attacks and become uncritical supporters of US Imperialism. Right wing religious parties on the other hand, play up the damage done by drones and perceived violations of state sovereignty while similarly turning a blind eye to the Taliban. For the Pakistani broader left the dilemma is much more acute, constantly shifting between the two in a kind of ‘ping, pong progressivism’, depending on which side committed the most recent outrage.

It is strange however, that the idea of the Taliban as Pashtun nationalists should gain traction in Pakistan in the first place. For one thing, not least because its adherents would presumably be familiar with the history of the ANP, by no means a modest or inconsequential party. Equally strange given that the Taliban themselves reject such a notion. Here’s the supposed ‘Pashtun nationalist’ Taliban spokesperson, Muslim Khan in 2009: “If you are a Muslim like 95% of Pakistan, the Caliphate should be just for this division (Malakand in KPK), it should be for Muslims all around the world”. Or take the view of Mullah Mazir, long-time number two in the Taliban, “we fight against Kufr (unbelief). Our jihad isn’t limited to just Pakistan and Afghanistan”. Hardly the language of nationalists.

One common refrain is that the Taliban movement has a class element to it. But then again that’s not saying much. Almost every political movement seeks to capitalize on class discontent and has a class dimension to it. The point here would be not to argue to that a class contradiction exists, but rather on how the Taliban propose to solve it. Another idea, the Taliban’s Sharia isn’t Sharia at all, but rather Sharia mixed with a sprinkling of the traditional Pashtun value-system, the Pasthunwali. The answer to this may be quite simple. The Pakistani Taliban are not the product of Pashtun culture, but of a deracinating – or rather, Arabising – booming madrasa culture. In 1971 there were just 900 madrasas in Pakistan. By the end of the Zia era in 1988, there were no fewer than 8000 registered and 25,000 unregistered Madrasas dotting the country, and compensating for the collapse of the official education system.

These networks, however, are noted neither for their Islamic historians nor for producing sophisticated theologians. So if local custom makes its way into interpretation of law, it might simply be the Taliban making it up as they go along, since they don’t know any better.

But more importantly, the leadership of the Pakistani Taliban is dominated by the Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan. This tribe provided much for the forces for the Pakistani tribal incursions into Kashmir in 1947-8 and has closely been associated since then with Pakistani foreign policy goals vis a vis Kashmir and Afghanistan.

A stance that for almost the entirety of post-colonial Pakistani history, pit the Mehsuds firmly against Pashtun nationalist politics. And true to form, today the bitterness between the two is still evident, with the Taliban actively targeting the ANP and rival tribes. Another development since then has also been the Taliban attracting support from Punjabi Sunni sectarian groups – leading to the formation of what has been billed as the ‘Punjabi Taliban’. No one of course stopped to ask that if indeed the convoluted, backward politics of the Taliban really did represent a variant of regional nationalism seeking to address regional grievances, why would such organizational and ideological linkages – with obviously non-Pashtun forces - arise, or be necessary to begin with? So much for the ’nationalist Taliban’.

Imran Khan At The Frontier

Now that the reasons for the defeat of the ANP have been established, attention must now turn to the Imran Khan’s PTI, who despite doing poorly nationwide, did manage to make some gains in KPK and is forming the provincial government there. One narrative that’s already accompanying the victory is that the PTI managed to beat the ANP is because of its highlighting of drone attacks and opposition to the US and its relatively conciliatory attitude to the Taliban. This is a dangerous idea given that the main danger from the Taliban in Pakistan has never been that of an outright military takeover. After all, it’s not plausible that the Taliban can take on and defeat one of the most organized and lavishly funded militaries in South Asia. No, the main danger the Taliban pose in Pakistan is the sharp reactionary turns that they inspire within mainstream parties afraid of being politically outflanked and losing support. This blinkered explanation of the PTIs gains in the province can only give rise to a politics of accommodation, much to the detriment of Pakistani politics in general.

So did the KPK vote for Imran Khan because they identified with his party’s accommodation of the Taliban and taking up many of their demands? If that were indeed the case, it’s hard to explain why voters did not choose to support the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) of Fazl Ur-Rehman or indeed the JUI-F’s breakaway faction led by Sami Ul-Haq, both of which are must more established in the province and have a much longer history of association with the Taliban. After all, much of the Taliban’s core was educated in Madrasas run by the two parties. So why did voters stay away from these parties? That’s because if the ANP was seen as supporting the US and the Pakistani military, the JUI and its various permutations were seen as too close to the Taliban. Indeed, the growth of the Taliban and its activities was one major reason why the MMA – of which the JUI-F constituted a part – was thrown out in 2008. The fact that voters did not turn to them now is a tacit rejection of the Taliban. A subtle point, but crucial point not getting enough attention.

A conclusion that would lost on anyone that insisted on choosing between one and the two and refusing to reject both. As the voters in the KPK already seem to be doing. KPK voters would have turned to other parties like PML-N, who also have raised the issue of drone strikes, but stayed away because of its overwhelmingly Punjabi identity, the PML-N of course did manage to retain its strength in the non-Pashtun Hazara division of the KPK.

So why did the famous cricketer-turned-politician win? After all his main message wasn’t directed at the rural Pashtun voter, rather it was intended for the largely apolitical (and hence, incredibly conservative) upper and middle classes of Pakistan. The answer is relatively simple. Khan, from the Punjabi-speaking Niazi tribe of Pashtuns settled in northwestern Punjab played up his Pashtun identity. In the eyes of the KPK here was a Pashtun – albeit a deracinated one – talking about drones and the US in a way that the ANP was not. Political commentary right now has not gone beyond talking about the challenges he faces or his relative inexperience. More fruitful, rather, should be a warning. Should Khan insist, as his predecessors have, on a manichean view of the problem he will not survive. If he turns towards the US and continues his close association with the Pakistani military, he risks being dumped as the ANP was. If he interprets his victory as a vindication of his soft stance on the Taliban, then again he will be dumped as the JUI-F and other religious parties in the province were. The rational course would be to reject both imperialism as well as the Taliban. After all, the voters in KPK seem to have reached that conclusion already. The question is, will Imran Khan?

Iqbal Ahmed Khan is a journalist and is a member of the communist Manzoor Kisan party in Pakistan.