There must be some way out of here
Said the joker to the thief
There’s too much confusion
I can’t get no relief – Bob Dylan, All Along the Watchtower
PARIS – Something’s happening in AfPak, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr Beltway think-tanker?
As Washington mashes up the “Taliban” – be they Afghan neo-Taliban or Pakistani Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) – in Empire of Chaos logic to justify perennial United States/North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops stationed in AfPak, an increasing number of Pashtuns living on both sides of the border have seized the opportunity and started to look to the Taliban as a convenient facilitator for the emergence of Pashtunistan.
But the Pentagon, make no mistake, knows exactly how to play its New Great Game in Eurasia. Balkanization of AfPak – the break-up of both Afghanistan and Pakistan – will engineer, among other states, an independent Pashtunistan and an independent Balochistan. Empire of Chaos logic is still British imperial divide-and-rule, remixed; and, at least in theory, yields territories much easier to control.
Don’t mess with Pashtun nationalism
Tribal Pashtuns (from eastern Afghanistan to western Pakistan) have never given up on being united again. Everyone familiar with AfPak knows the region is still paying the price for the fateful and – what else – divide-and-rule British imperial decision in 1897 to split tribal Pashtuns through the artificial Durand Line. The line remains the artificial border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Anyone who ever crossed it at, for instance, Torkham, at the foot of the Khyber pass, knows it is meaningless; people swarming on both sides are all cousins who never stopped dreaming of a pre-colonial, Afghan Durrani empire that straddled a great deal of contemporary Pakistan.
Few have noticed that Pashtuns were recently insisting on a very basic demand – that North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) in Pakistan have its name changed to Pakhtunkhwa (“Land of the Pashtuns”). The demand was shot down this past September by the dominant Punjabis in Pakistan. Pashtun nationalists protested en masse in fabled Peshawar, the NWFP capital. Pashtun national liberation is at fever pitch. Pashtun Guevaras are already issuing a call to arms.
But as much as Washington, now with a little help from its friend/client government of President Asif Ali Zardari in Islamabad, has been conducting essentially a war on Pashtuns since 2001, this is no monolithic movement. It all goes back to the early 21st-century maxim that virtually every Taliban is a Pashtun, but not every Pashtun is a Taliban. There are significant strands of secular Pashtuns that shun the TTP and its brand of Islamic fundamentalist dystopian dogma, even while the Pashtun masses may see in the TTP the ideal vehicle for the advent of Pashtunistan.
If we follow the money, we see that the TTP in Pakistan is now being financed mostly by wealthy, pious Gulf businessmen and not anymore by Islamabad. The financiers are more interested in jihad than in Pashtun nationalism, and that undermines the legitimacy of the Taliban as vehicles for Pashtun nationalism. At the same time, if the TTP and its Pashtun allies manage to establish full control over a strategic corridor straddling eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan, with or without jihadi support, and for example with a partial control of Peshawar thrown in, the public relations coup couldn’t be bigger: that means an Islamic emirate for all practical purposes constituted as Pashtunistan.
Other factors apart from the TTP facilitate the drive towards Pashtunistan. The West’s economic and aid packages to AfPak are pitiful and never trickle down to the average Pashtun. The “revelation” in the US of what was never a secret in Afghanistan, that Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of the “winner” of the soiled Afghan presidential election, has been on the Central Intelligence Agency’s payroll for years, erased any possibility of Pashtuns believing in anything emanating from Kabul.
United States corporate media dabbles on the Afghan presidential election kabuki (with rice) while ignoring that what passes for US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intelligence is bribing top warlords for on-the-ground “security” (a swell business for them) coupled with bribing the Taliban for a license not be killed by their explosive devices. And bribing itself just won’t do; the Taliban, via their former foreign minister, Mullah Muttawakkil, have just refused an American offer of eight permanent NATO bases for six provincial Taliban governorships. They want their Kabuli rice – and eat it too.
Islamabad’s military and security establishment, a state within a state, remains an annex of Washington’s; Pashtuns see the current offensive in Waziristan as Zardari selling out to Washington – same as “Busharraf”, president Pervez Musharraf, before. A Pakistani failed government, this one or any other one, has zero chance to control what are de facto Afghan lands on the Pakistan side of the Durand Line. In 2009 alone, more than two million Pashtuns have been forced to become refugees; there’s ample talk of a “Pashtun genocide”.
So it would be so much easier, and infinitely less bloody, for Washington to adopt the Pentagon line all the way: let’s pull another Yugoslavia; let’s Balkanize; let’s restore the Afghan Durrani empire.
The second coming
A rough beast, its hour come at last, Pashtunistan is already being born.
To start with, those “cousins” on both sides of the border are all tribal Pashtuns, mostly rural. They follow the same conservative religious rituals, enshrined by the ultra-reactionary South Asian Deobandi school of Sunni Islam and propagated by a vast network of made-in-Pakistan madrassas (seminaries). Their business is thriving, as can be attested by a visit to Spinbaldak, in southern Afghanistan, on the way between Kandahar and Quetta; the big fish thrive on smuggling and the narco-trade, and everyone else thrives on transportation or the timber business. The cash flow, in and out, is massive, especially out of remittances from Pashtun workers toiling around the Gulf and beyond.
Politically, the Pashtuns are represented by parties such as the Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Islami (JUI). Diplomatically, they are very well connected to the Persian Gulf and to most of the Organization of the Islamic Conference countries. From a military point of view, they are represented by myriad Taliban groups, not only the TTP. And strategically, they perform a delicious irony: a rural, ultra-religious, nationalist movement fighting tooth-and-nail a corrupt, urban-based government as if they were a post-colonial fantasy of the noble tribal savage – a la Rousseau – fighting the colonialist West.
This may not be what leftist, relatively secular Pashtun intellectuals had in mind; they maintain that the Punjabi-infested security agencies control both the Taliban and the Pakistani army, and they would rather get rid of both. A nationalist group such as the Pashtun Awareness Movement believes Pashtuns themselves should get rid of the Taliban, not the Pakistani army under the boot of the Pentagon. As for the predominantly Pashtun Awami National Party, which is in power in NWFP and has to compose somewhat with Islamabad, its dream of a more balanced Pashtunistan is still a long way away.
There may be only one thing missing for Pashtunistan to come of age: a passport. It’s not hard to see who will profit from it.
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