The conflict in the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands has similarities with other contemporary struggles. From Timbuktu to Kandahar, jihadis, national governments, ethnic groups and, in some cases, tribes are fighting for supremacy. In each place there are complicating local factors: badly drawn international borders; the relative strength or weakness of non-violent Islamist movements; the presence or absence of foreign forces, whether Western or jihadi; and different historical experiences of colonialism. From the point of view of Western policymakers some of these conflicts seem to be more important than others. For the French, the potential fall of Mali to radical Islamist forces was unacceptable, so they intervened. In Somalia, by contrast, the problem has largely been ignored by the West and is mostly being dealt with by the African Union. It was said that al-Qaida must not be allowed to hold territory in Syria, but both an al-Qaida affiliate and Isis have been doing just that, and it wasn’t until earlier this month that Obama announced he’d strike Isis from the air.
It’s far from clear that these varied responses to jihadi activity are the result of rational decision-making. In Yemen, for example, al-Qaida supporters move about freely and plot attacks against the West. Yet although the US has used air power in Yemen it has for the most part left the fighting to the far from capable Yemeni armed forces. But the Pashtun areas of the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands are an exception to the mixed messages. There the West has used every tactic at its disposal to confront jihadis: boots on the ground, air strikes, drone attacks, bribes, social welfare programmes and infrastructure projects – the effort to control the Pashtuns hasn’t lacked commitment. There are, of course, important differences between Yemen and the Pashtun areas. Attacks organised in Pashtun areas – including 9/11 and 7/7 – have succeeded; even the most sophisticated plot to emerge from Yemen, in which bombs were disguised as printer cartridges, was foiled. And it isn’t just that the US was impelled to avenge 9/11. The outside world is interested in the Pashtuns’ poppy crop and their hosting of much of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Over the last century and a half the intricacies of Pashtun politics have been discussed by politicians and their advisers in the capitals of all the Great Powers: it’s Washington that’s worrying today, but it used to be Moscow, and before that London.
In 1893 the British created the Durand Line to divide Afghanistan from the north-west corner of the Raj (now Pakistan). These days Pakistan accepts the border and Afghanistan doesn’t. The line cuts the Pashtun people in two: roughly a third of them are in Afghanistan and two-thirds in Pakistan. The Durand Line had a specific purpose, and governed British policy towards the Pashtuns. This was not an imperial heartland but a buffer zone and British administrative arrangements reflected this. Some British-controlled Pashtun areas were declared ‘settled’; others, close to the line, were designated ‘tribal’. The tribal elders were given subsidies and status: in return, they were expected to keep the peace and, crucially, to ensure the roads stayed open. And so the military objective of protecting the edge of the empire was achieved with minimum resources. Just in case the bribes were insufficient, the elders were further persuaded to co-operate by the Frontier Crimes Regulation, imposed in 1901. It had two crucial elements: first, people could be held indefinitely without charge; second, it allowed collective punishment, meaning that whole communities could be sanctioned for the crimes of one member.
As some British administrators realised at the time, the system entrenched tribal structures. It might have been thought that the birth of Pakistan in 1947 would transform the situation, with the new state making efforts to drag the tribal areas towards more regular constitutional arrangements. In fact little changed. Collective punishments against the families and communities of suspected miscreants are still handed down. The Pakistani officials who implement the system are still called political agents, just like their British forebears. Their powers remain sweeping and arbitrary. ‘Around here,’ a Khyber political agent once told me, ‘I am Allah’s deputy.’ On the Afghan side of the border, too, the central government has never been strong enough to break down tribal affiliations. On both sides of the Durand Line the result has been economically and socially disastrous – on the Pakistani side female illiteracy stands at more than 70 per cent.
The unusual methods of governance in the Pashtun areas became especially significant after 9/11. When the Taliban and al-Qaida fled Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002, many ended up in Pashtun areas on the Pakistani side of the line. They took advantage of the fact that jihadis and tribesmen are free to move across it but the military forces of Washington, Kabul and Islamabad are not. As the war in Afghanistan ground on, and the Afghan Taliban regrouped, the US had a choice. It could work with Pakistan’s political agents to bribe and bully tribal elders to hand over Taliban fighters seeking refuge in Pakistan; or it could use force. Unwilling to delegate a frontline in the war on terror to a bunch of tribal administrators, the US deployed soldiers in Afghanistan and drones and special forces on both sides of the Durand Line. The tribal elders found themselves squeezed by the forces surrounding them. Should they offer sanctuary to the jihadis? Or should they capture them and take US money for handing them over? As they considered their options, the elders took into account the challenges posed by local political competition, including both religious and nationalist leaders.
In recent years the religious elements have been in the ascendant, but the nationalists also have deep roots in the Pashtun areas. The faqir of Ipi, a Pashtun leader who fought the British in the 1930s, represented both aspects of Pashtun society. An obscure rural cleric from North Waziristan, he became a symbol of opposition to the British Empire. The case that thrust him to prominence has a modern parallel. The story goes that Mullah Omar established his leadership credentials in the Afghan Taliban by challenging a warlord near Kandahar who had buggered a local boy. The faqir of Ipi began his career by complaining about a British Indian court’s ruling against the marriage of a 15-year-old girl to a Muslim man. The court found that the girl, originally a Hindu, had been converted when she was a minor and so removed her from her husband. The faqir used the case to unite tribal forces and was soon able to raise a private army of thousands, drawn from Afghanistan as well as areas under British control. At this stage, his pitch was religious: he spoke about the impending doomsday, when only those Muslims who answered his call to action would gain entry to paradise. His followers believed he could heal the sick and turn air ordnance into paper. The British practice of airdropping propaganda leaflets confirmed the faqir’s powers.
When it came to the creation of Pakistan, the faqir, knowing that it would be difficult to object on religious grounds to a country created in the name of Islam, opposed it for nationalist reasons. He argued that for the Pashtuns to be ruled by Pakistanis was hardly better than being ruled by the British. After 1947 he allied himself with the Pashtun nationalist leader Abdul Ghaffar Khan, whose followers were known as Red Shirts (their uniforms were stained with brick dust). As the British prepared to leave the subcontinent, Ghaffar Khan’s anti-imperialist rhetoric resonated throughout the Pashtun areas. To accommodate the nationalist movement, the British decided to hold a referendum in the North-West Frontier Province. Ghaffar Khan demanded that as well as offering a choice between India and Pakistan, the British should allow the Pashtuns to vote for an independent state, Pashtunkhwa. The government in Kabul argued for a fourth option: union with Afghanistan. Lord Mountbatten, however, permitted just two choices: union with India or Pakistan. Ghaffar Khan, desiring neither outcome, boycotted the vote. Of those who voted, 99 per cent opted for Pakistan.
The nationalist movement didn’t go away. Ten years ago I watched a rally in north-west Pakistan that was attended by thousands of people wearing red shirts. The event was organised by the Awami National Party (ANP), the direct political descendant of Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s movement: it is currently led by his grandson Asfandyar Wali Khan. Wali Khan has always been careful to ask only for greater autonomy (Pakistani law forbids open demands for secession), but few doubt that if Pashtun independence were on offer he would grasp it. The ANP can be seen as just an obscure regional party with – now – only one member in the National Assembly. But you could argue that it is one of the most important parties in Pakistan: unlike most of the others, it articulates liberal values and directly opposes the Taliban. While everyone else has compromised with the jihadis, the ANP has taken a stand, and paid a terrible price. Recognising that the ANP is its main ideological challenger, the Pakistani Taliban has relentlessly targeted the party’s leaders. As the death toll mounted, the electorate came to see the ANP as weak and, in the unforgiving world of patronage politics, voters lost confidence that the party would be able to secure benefits from the government in Islamabad and so rejected it at the polls. The ANP’s lonely stand against the religious extremists was further undermined by the central government’s fears that the party threatens Pakistan’s territorial integrity.
If it was looking for existential threats, Islamabad would have been better advised to worry about the jihadis. The Pashtun nationalists have always faced insurmountable obstacles. They are divided between two states – Pakistan and Afghanistan – that have no intention of giving up territory. Just as the Line of Control has fatally undermined the attempts of Kashmiri nationalists to break free of India and Pakistan, so the Durand Line has obstructed the Pashtun nationalist cause. And by giving senior military and bureaucratic jobs to a few Pashtuns from prominent families, Islamabad and Kabul have been able to co-opt potential separatist leaders. Pakistani Pashtuns are now so well represented in the army and the civil service, and so commercially active in Karachi, that independence would come at a cost higher than most would be willing to pay.
For all their appeal to many Pashtuns, the nationalists seem doomed to remain bystanders to another struggle: between the tribal and religious leaderships. At the time of Pakistan’s creation, the tribal elders had the upper hand. The mullahs were seen as uneducated, socially inferior functionaries whose main role was to supervise marriages and funerals. Over the last decade there have been moments when tribal elders on both sides of the Durand Line (often encouraged by US bribes) have protected their interests by forming lashkars – private armies – to fight Taliban forces. All the governments involved in fighting the Taliban have tried to leverage tribal loyalties, although this policy has the arguably counterproductive effect of entrenching the tribal structures that have held back social and economic development: in the long run this only helps the jihadis find more recruits. In some ways the origins of the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban movements lie in a revolutionary politics demanding the overthrow of the tribal structures. There is no doubt about the intensity of this contest. It is reckoned that over the last decade the Pakistani Taliban have killed nearly a thousand tribal elders.
The ethnic, religious and tribal affiliations in the Pashtun areas are not always easy to disentangle. Take Jalalludin Haqqani, the man who has overseen the growth of the Haqqani network, a formidable military force that over four decades has worked with a wide range of international jihadi organisations, al-Qaida, Pakistan, the UAE and both the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban movements. It has also sometimes acted as a mediator between them. It has fought against both the Soviet Union and the United States with considerable success. Haqqani supports his military activities with a diverse international business that ranges from scrap metal to hostage-taking. At one point he even had a private airport. Four of his children have been killed: two by drones; one by US ground forces in eastern Afghanistan; one in mysterious circumstances last year in Islamabad. The Haqqanis first stood out from the other tribal leaders when they encouraged Arab volunteers to join the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan. One of Jalalludin’s early recruits was Osama bin Laden and it could be said that the Haqqanis pioneered global jihad before bin Laden had even thought of it. The network has hosted jihadis from China, Chechnya, Central Asia and Europe. Because of its might and its international approach to business and conflict, the Haqqani network has been a close ally of the Afghan Taliban but has never been subsumed by it.
As well as its bases in eastern Afghanistan, the Haqqani network has religious and military training facilities on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line, and so has needed to stay on good terms with the Pakistani state. It has achieved this by providing services: in the 1990s it trained militants to fight as Pakistani state proxies in Kashmir; more recently it has bombed Indian and US targets in Afghanistan – in some cases with the connivance of the ISI. One of these attacks, in 2011, involved a truckload of explosives sent by the Haqqanis from Pakistan to a Nato base in Afghanistan. The Americans had intelligence about the truck and asked Pakistan to stop it. Despite assurances from Pakistan’s chief of army staff, General Kayani, the truck continued into Afghanistan. The Americans were monitoring its progress using spy drones but the Haqqanis outwitted them by switching vehicles in a tunnel. The truck bomb wounded 77 US personnel.
The US became so frustrated by the Pakistani state’s links to the Haqqani network that in 2011, despite America’s longstanding effort to keep up appearances in its relationship with Pakistan, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, could contain himself no longer. ‘The Haqqani network,’ he complained to the US Senate Armed Services Committee, ‘acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.’ In 2012, Washington put the Haqqani network on its list of designated terrorist organisations. The Pakistani state, however, continued to allow it freedom of action, even overlooking its close relations with the Pakistani Taliban. Having cleared the Pakistani Taliban from six of the seven tribal areas – in a series of campaigns that led to the deaths of five thousand Pakistani soldiers – the high command in Rawalpindi failed for years to mount a final offensive in the one place that remained in militants’ hands: North Waziristan. It wanted to allow the Haqqani network’s operations there to continue without disruption. When the offensive finally took place earlier this year, the Haqqanis were given sufficient warning to enable them to slip to the relative safety of Afghanistan.
In The Pashtun Question, Abubakar Siddique, a correspondent for Radio Free Europe, argues that if the Pashtuns had been able to govern themselves from 1947 they might have drawn on moderate indigenous traditions represented by figures such as Pir Roshan, a 16th-century cleric whose opposition to the Mughals unified the tribes. Roshan gave the Pashtun language a script, introduced external intellectual influences and accepted Sufi interpretations of sharia. That Pashtun society moved in a less tolerant direction was a result of the new Pakistani state’s sense of insecurity. Karachi (the first capital) and later Islamabad had an interest in encouraging less benign strains of thinking. The Pakistan military backed successive jihads against Kabul, partly as a way of resisting Afghan attempts to undermine the Durand Line, and having become a tool of Pakistani policy, the jihadis were empowered for decades by the huge levels of funding – an estimated $20 billion – that flowed in from the US and Saudi Arabia during the anti-Soviet struggle. By sponsoring religious parties and establishing a network of madrasas to train up zealous cannon fodder, Islamabad created the conditions in which not only the Taliban but also al-Qaida could flourish.
On this account, the creation of Pakistan, rather than emancipating the Pashtuns, simply replaced one set of outside rulers with another. For Siddique, the entrenchment of regressive power structures by a succession of outsiders is a better explanation for what is going on than the alternative argument that the roots of jihadism in the borderlands lie in the predisposition of the tribesmen to violence. Westerners misunderstand Pashtun society, Siddique argues, in part because they are often fixated on romantic ideas about Pashtunwali – the tribal code that is said to prize honour, revenge and hospitality above all other virtues. Understandably irritated that British imperialists and today’s foreign correspondents have reduced his culture to an Orientalist fantasy, Siddique points out that, far from relishing the chance to murder one another, most Pashtuns, just like everyone else, would be very happy to live in peace. As for Pashtunwali, as well as allowing for the violent resolution of disputes, its traditions include taking decisions after broad consultation and discussion aimed at finding consensus.
Hassan Abbas, a former police officer in north-west Pakistan, also objects to those who see the Pashtuns as ferocious tribesmen with traditions and attitudes at odds with the modern world. In The Taliban Revival, he offers rational explanations for their having fought against the British, the Soviets and the Americans: the Pashtuns have a culture of resisting invaders, he writes, because they have always lived on the edge of other people’s empires and so have been invaded with remarkable frequency.
The Afghan Taliban, Abbas argues, was able to re-emerge after its defeat in 2001 for a number of reasons, including the presence of US forces in Afghanistan and the profits being made by criminals associated with the organisation. As for the Pakistani Taliban, it drew strength from the lack of state control in the tribal areas and, for some years, from Musharraf’s ambiguous policy of supporting those elements of the Taliban movements which he thought could further Pakistani interests. Both Talibans were helped by Saudi funding and by the Pakistani concern that trumped all other considerations: the fear of growing Indian influence in Afghanistan and Balochistan. But while Pakistan was busy bolstering the Afghan Taliban to counter the Indians, it found that the Pakistani Taliban was an increasing problem. Islamabad was comfortable with the Afghan Taliban’s objective of getting back into power in Kabul, but had trouble containing the Pakistani Taliban’s growing independence. Some ISI officers shared Mullah Omar’s frustration with the Pakistani Taliban fighters who refused to rally to his Afghan cause. As Abbas points out, recruits for the Pakistani Taliban have been drawn not just from the Pashtun belt but from all over Pakistan. Sectarian militants from Punjab and alumni from Karachi’s radical madrasas joined up not to fight alongside Pashtuns and against the US, but to topple the Pakistani government and establish religious rule in Islamabad and beyond. The strategic and ideological differences between the two Talibans manifest themselves in many ways. The more ideological and internationalist Pakistani Taliban, for example, has opposed polio vaccinations; the more pragmatic Afghan Taliban has been much more willing to allow UN health teams to do their work.
When foreigners consider Siddique’s ‘Pashtun question’ they tend to do so in the hope that resolving conflict in the Pashtun belt will make the West safer. Pashtuns want the question answered for different reasons. They want to escape the poverty and insecurity that has plagued and brutalised several generations. It isn’t just that a great many Pashtuns have been killed over the last century: even more have been dispersed. There are now more Pashtuns living in Karachi than in Peshawar or Kandahar. Wherever they live, many would agree with Siddique that the answer lies in economic development.
But Pashtun nationalists face a contradiction. Siddique argues that more should be done to incorporate the Pashtuns into regular state structures: for one thing, laws that apply in the rest of Pakistan should replace the repressive Frontier Crimes Regulation. But any process of political modernisation and reform will necessarily include the acceptance of the Durand Line as the international border. Modern states exist only because they have borders that they police. But this would entrench the division of the Pashtun people. Siddique tries to get round the problem by proposing the recognition of the line as a border but allowing free movement across it. It’s a solution that can’t work: as long as militants are able to cross the border more freely than the two states’ security personnel, the Taliban movements will maintain a crucial advantage. Mullah Omar is based in Pakistan and the Pakistani Taliban’s leader, Mullah Fazlullah, operates from Afghanistan. Distrust between the governments in Kabul and Islamabad is so acute that the intelligence agencies of both sides are happy to host each other’s enemies.
Governments in the Middle East and North Africa are using different methods to try to control religious movements with political ambitions. In Syria, the Assads have massacred them. In Egypt, Sisi has imprisoned them. In Tunisia, Gannouchi is trying to use politics to outwit them. But in Pakistan and Afghanistan, despite everything that’s been thrown at them, the two Talibans are still standing. The Pashtuns have suffered decades of conflict and few expect that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan will bring an end to internal strife. Iran, India and China are already being drawn in to fill the vacuum left by the US. If history is any guide they will each back different warlords in an attempt to maintain influence or at least to prevent others from getting influence over the government in Kabul. And once again the Pashtuns will be caught in the crossfire.