Understanding ethnic dimension key to problem


ANALYSIS/OPINION:TO WESTERN eyes the struggle raging in Pakistan with the Taliban is about religious fanaticism. But in Pakistan it is about an explosive fusion of Islamist zeal and simmering ethnic tensions that have been exacerbated by US pressures for military action against the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies.

Understanding the ethnic dimension of the conflict is the key to a successful strategy for separating the Taliban from al-Qaeda and stabilising multi-ethnic Pakistan politically.

The Pakistani army is composed mostly of Punjabis. The Taliban is entirely Pashtun. For centuries, Pashtuns living in the mountainous borderlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan have fought to keep out invading Punjabi plainsmen.

So sending Punjabi soldiers into Pashtun territory to fight jihadists pushes the country ever closer to an ethnically defined civil war, strengthening Pashtun sentiment for an independent “Pashtunistan” embracing 41 million people in big chunks of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

This is one of the main reasons the army initially favoured a peace deal with a Taliban offshoot in the Swat valley and has resisted US pressure to go all out against jihadist advances into neighbouring districts. While army leaders fear the long-term dangers of a Taliban link-up with Islamist forces in the heartland of Pakistan, they are more worried about what they see as the danger of Pashtun separatism.

Historically, the Pashtuns were politically unified before the British Raj. The Pashtun kings who founded Afghanistan ruled over 40,000 square miles of what is now Pakistan, an area containing more than half of the Pashtun population, until British forces defeated them in 1847 and imposed a disputed boundary, the Durand Line, that Afghanistan has never accepted.

Over Pashtun nationalist protests, the British gave these conquered areas to the new, Punjabi-dominated government of Pakistan created in the 1947 partition of India. Afghan governments have challenged Pakistan’s right to rule over its Pashtun areas, alternatively pushing for an autonomous state to be created within Pakistan, an independent “Pashtunistan” or a “Greater Afghanistan”.

Fears of Pashtunistan led Pakistan to support jihadist surrogates in the Afghan resistance during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and, later, to build up the Taliban. Ironically, during its rule in Kabul, the Taliban refused to endorse the Durand Line. Afghan president Hamid Karzai also resisted, calling it “a line of hatred that raised a wall between the two brothers”.

The British got the most rebellious Pashtun tribes to acquiesce by giving them formal autonomous status in their own “Federally Administered Tribal Areas” (FATA). This autonomy was respected until the Bush administration pressured former president Pervez Musharraf into sending his army into those areas in 2002, displacing 50,000 people. Since then, Predator aircraft strikes have killed more than 700 Pashtun civilians.

So how should the foreign forces, and particularly the Obama administration, proceed? Militarily, the US should lower its profile by ending airstrikes. By arousing a Pashtun sense of victimisation at the hands of outside forces, the conduct of the “war on terror” in FATA, where al-Qaeda is based, has strengthened the jihadist groups the US seeks to defeat.

Politically, US policy should be revised to demonstrate that America supports the Pashtun desire for a stronger position in relation to the Punjabi-dominated government in Islamabad.

The Pashtuns in FATA treasure their autonomy and do not like to be ruled by Islamabad. As a March 13th International Crisis Group report recognised, what they want is integration into the Pashtun North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

The US should support Pashtun demands to merge the NWFP and FATA, followed by the consolidation of those areas and Pashtun enclaves in Baluchistan and the Punjab into a single unified “Pashtunkhwa” province that enjoys the autonomy envisaged in the inoperative 1973 Pakistan constitution.

Instead of permitting Islamabad to administer the huge sums of US aid going into FATA, the Obama administration should condition the aid’s continuance on most of it being dispensed in conjunction with the NWFP provincial government.

Al-Qaeda and its “foreign fighters,” mostly Arab, depend on local support from the Taliban for their FATA sanctuary. Unlike al-Qaeda, with its global terrorist agenda, most of the Taliban factions focus on local objectives in Afghanistan and FATA; they do not pose a direct threat to the US. – ( LA Times-Washington Post)

Selig Harrison is author of a recent report, Pakistan: the State of the Union, for the Centre for International Policy. A former Washington Postbureau chief in South Asia, he has written five books on the region