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Goodbye Afghanistan, Hello AfPak and Pakhtunkhwa

May 16, 2009

Lately there’s been a lot of talk, especially from America, about the need for Western countries to adopt an “AfPak” mentality that views the Afghan conflict and the persistent turmoil and instability in neighbouring Pakistan as a single strategic problem. It’s hard to argue against this basic perspective, since both the Afghan and Pakistani governments are effectively at war with insurgents that tend to call themselves Taliban, espouse radical Islam, and cooperate to some degree with like-minded groups on the other side of the border.

In particular, Afghan insurgents have long been able to frustrate Western troops by withdrawing into Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP). If the Pakistani government could crack down effectively on Taliban activity in the NWFP, Canada and its allies would suddenly find that the military side of their task in Afghanistan had become much easier. Unfortunately, the fighting in Pakistan seems to be having more immediate impact on the civilian population, of whom well over a million have been displaced in the past year, than on the militants.

An important piece of the Af-Pak puzzle is the realisation that many of the inhabitants of southeastern Afghanistan and the NWFP probably do not think of themselves primarily as Afghan or Pakistani citizens at all. This borderland is the home of the Pakhtun people, usually called Pashtuns or Pathans in English, and from their perspective the whole area is simply Pakhtunkhwa, the country of the Pakhtuns. I suppose Pashtunia and Pashtunland might be acceptable anglicisations, although I prefer the latter because Pashtunia sounds too much like “petunia”.

In official terms Pashtunland is a dubious entity that sloshes awkwardly across recognised boundaries. However, the porousness of the Afghan-Pakistani border and the tribal and communal links between Pashtuns on opposite sides give Pashtunland plenty of geopolitical weight. It can also claim historic privilege, since Pashtuns were present in the region for thousands of years before their territory was divided by the “Durand Line”, which defines the modern border, in 1893.

Canadian troops are operating in southern Afghanistan, but in an equally valid sense they are operating in western Pashtunland. When thinking about Canada’s involvement in the region, we need to take the social and cultural characteristics of the Pashtun people into account. An overlapping consideration is that, as Gwynne Dyer argues, the Taliban insurgency is partly rooted in Pashtun grievances that are political rather than religious. Although the Pashtuns are Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, and have traditionally enjoyed a fair measure of power, they have been sidelined under the government of Hamid Karzai despite the fact that he is a Pashtun himself.

Perhaps we should regard our Afghan mission as, first and foremost, an effort to help bring about an understanding between the Pashtun tribes and the Karzai government. A necessary part of that understanding will be the futility of armed insurgency, which is one good reason to fight the Taliban. There just might, however, be room for respectful and conciliatory dialogue as well.


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5 Comments leave one →
  1. reneethewriter permalink
    May 18, 2009 10:26 am

    Great to have you back and at ’em, Cor. I enjoyed reading the “drill down” into details on “Pashtunland” and welcome more. I’ve collected a grab-bag of A/Stan related articles these past few weeks but have not had the time to “process.” More, later. Good to see Gwynne Dyer referenced – i wish mainstream CDN media would do so more often. R

    • corsullivan permalink*
      May 20, 2009 11:36 am

      I’ll see what else I can come up with regarding Pashtuns and Pashtunland. Meanwhile, I know what you mean about Gwynne Dyer – as a teenager I used to read his column quite frequently in the Victoria Times-Colonist, but at some point the “mainstream CDN media” must have decided they didn’t want him around. It’s funny, because I’ve always thought of him as a guy with pretty mainstream attitudes, just unusually perceptive and well-informed. Which isn’t, of course, to say that I always or even usually agree with him.

  2. May 17, 2009 2:34 am

    “Perhaps we should regard our Afghan mission as, first and foremost, an effort to help bring about an understanding between the Pashtun tribes and the Karzai government.”

    There’s a gap in Afghanistan’s political structure. Staring at the top we have the president, parliment, provicial governors, and so on. From the bottom we have the people, the elders of their respective villages, the local mullahs, and so on. There is a gap in between; there is no formal connection between the top and the bottom.

    Pound for pound, probably the most politically powerful in Afghanistan are the rural village leders. Within their own turf, pretty much nothing can happen without their consent. If we had those people on our side, the war would be over tomorrow.

    Most Afghans are opposed to Taliban rule. They remember what life was like under the Taliban, and they have no desire to go back. Unfortunately, there currently is no viable alternative. The Karzai government is so extremely corrupt one may as well let the Taliban run things; the latter will beat you from time to time, but the former always robs from you.

    I believe part of the solution to Afghanistan’s problems will be to rebuild society from the bottom up. If we reach out to those rural communities and strengthen them, they will shrug off Taliban influence, and they may later send their own best and brightest to participate in the national political system.

    Doing this would decentralize the national government’s power, and there is no guarantee that a reformed Afghanistan would be a close friend to the United States (or Canada). But there is no guarantee that they would not be such a friend; Pashtuns have something of a natural egalitarianism built into their culture, and many western visitors to this country have commented on how much easier it is to get along with Afghans than it is with, say, Iraqis. Our respective cultures have some common ground.

    In the meantime, if Pakistan gets disassembled and the maps redrawn, that would be okay with me. That is exactly the outcome that Pakistan was afraid of and was hoping to avoid, but by covertly supporting the Taliban they’ve caused it to come closer to reality. Evil actions are ironic that way.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      May 20, 2009 11:28 am

      I believe part of the solution to Afghanistan’s problems will be to rebuild society from the bottom up.

      Ah. That sounds easy.

      Seriously, though, I do agree that encouraging local leadership is a good idea. This doesn’t even necessarily have to come at the expense of the central government, who may be glad to have a local leader to work with and talk to.

      I see your point about the choice between being beaten by the Taliban and robbed by the Karzai government – that’s a bleak view of things, but with an element of truth. So many Islamic countries seem to be trapped, to one extent or another, between zealotry and venality. On the other hand, I sometimes think that the West is different only to the extent that we decided the issue in favour of venality a long time ago (ask just about any British MP). But that’s another bleak perspective.


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