Imagining a different future

THE next phase that the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan are entering is likely to usher in another deadly period of counter-terrorism operations and intense manoeuvring between the US, Russia, China and Iran.

This will take place against the backdrop of a mounting economic and security crisis in Pakistan, which is bound to create further tension. Meanwhile, Afghanistan has to find a way out of its security dilemma. This underlines the need to provide that country with the resources needed to fund its security liabilities.

The success of the policy to transfer security responsibilities to indigenous Afghan forces will depend largely on the external resources — some $6-8bn annually — made available to Afghanistan. Given the financial crisis prevailing in the West, it is questionable whether these funds will or can be made available. In this situation, the obvious solution for Afghanistan would be to reconcile with the Afghan Taliban, and this may also provide the boost needed by the Qataris to bring the Taliban in from the cold.

The re-shaping of Central Asian foreign policies under Russian sponsorship is squeezing the US at a time when it needed support for the northern supply route to function smoothly as a replacement for the southern route, now frozen by Pakistan. It is thus clear that another strategic re-designing is occurring which will once again affect the destiny of the Pushtun. And therefore, it is essential that they make the right choices; otherwise, another phase of bloodletting awaits them.

Why is it that the Pushtun react to challenges in a violent mode, rather than with sagacity? It would appear that the revenge aspect contained in Pushtunwali (the Pushtun code of social conduct) has a lot to do with it. Abdul Ghaffar Khan, amongst the most respected and astute Pushtun reformers, once commented that: “The Pathans were inclined to be violent and their violence was directed against their own kith and kin; against their closest relations. They were like smouldering embers, always ready to flare up and inflict harm and injury on their own brethren. One of their worst characteristics was their habit of revenge. They badly needed to change their anti-social customs, to check their violent outbursts and to practice good behaviour.”

In the 19th century, the British recognised this Pushtun penchant for violence and used it for protecting India against any threat from the northwest: Fata’s Pushtun were to be their first line of defence. To obtain the tribes’ commitment to this design, the region and its population were to be kept under-developed so that migration would be discouraged: it would make no sense to have a strategic barrier that was unpopulated. Accordingly education, health, skill-development and other services, such as were promoted in the rest of India, were not extended to this region; no legal or political reforms were undertaken in the context of the Pushtuns of Fata and what is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

To create a legal framework that would keep the tribesmen in ossification, the British devised the clever fiction that although the tribal territory was a part of India, it was not a part of British India. With this one master stroke, they abandoned the tribal areas and, in terms of political reform, even the erstwhile NWFP. As one researcher put it, “Unlike the other provinces of British India, where reforms were introduced, the NWFP was neglected and intentionally governed through ‘special ordinances’. The main aim of the colonial government in impeding the pace of reform was to discourage the local inhabitants from demanding an equal status for their province.”

The Pushtuns were thus placed in a strategic ditch constructed around the castle that was British India. The people learned to live under the shadow of the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulation, under which provisions such as Section 38 permitted the killing or punishing of the members of a proscribed tribe without any process of formal judicial review.

Basic human rights were and are denied and the system of high courts does not have full jurisdiction in Fata and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This is the result of Pakistan’s insistence on maintaining the formerly colonial design by retaining Article 247 in the constitution. Is it surprising, then, that the region covered by this article is also the one where insurgency remains endemic? Those who have been abused will obviously abuse in return when the opportunity arises. Should we, then, be surprised at what is happening to Pakistan?

Following US intervention in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, a new wave of slaughter became anchored in national and international military narratives. Pushtuns in Pakistan and Afghanistan have become playthings in the hand of soldiers. The time has now come for Pushtuns to wake up and stop allowing themselves to be mistreated. However, this will happen only if they re-create themselves and change the discourse of being touted as a ‘brave’ and ‘honourable’ people. They need to acquire, instead, a reputation for being wealthy and enterprising, a task that will require effort but can be done.

The Pushtun can, as a people, focus their lives differently to create an order where young women don’t become widows and where towns flourish instead of resembling graveyards. This is possible if tribal elders play a role in this respect and the military machines leave the region as soon as possible. The presence of armed forces invites a violent response from the Pushtun; if we Pakistanis haven’t learnt this basic dynamic of the Pushtun, then we must pay the price for continuing insecurity.

In brief, the Pushtun must stop being pawns in the politico-military operations in their region. The Pushtun need to embrace life and shun death — and this can only be achieved through peace.