- The Challenge of Complexity:Ethnicity and Religion in Afghanistan and Pakistan
The scholarship on South Asia has long grappled with the features of society that challenge, confound, and even undermine the state there. Two recent books advance our understanding of how ethnicity and religion have played their parts in this long, unfolding tale.
The long debate on where and how Pashtuns fit into South Asia often reminds me of the similar debate about where Kurds fit into the Middle East. Both groups belong there, but no one is quite comfortable with how they fit into the regional mosaic. As Pashtuns straddle the long and contested border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, their position in both countries is contentious. A new book by Abubakar Siddique of Radio Free Europe, entitled The Pashtun Question, meets this question head on. He notes, “The division of Pashtuns into two states remains an open wound, severely affecting economic growth and social development” (p. 216). The historical calls for a “Pashtunistan” from the Afghan side of the border and the emergence of Pashtun and Islamist political parties on the Pakistani side of the border make it clear, however, that this open wound will not be closed anytime soon.
Siddique’s excellent book deftly weaves together the question of the troubled present of the Pashtun areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, beginning each chapter with illustrative anecdotes derived from his journalistic career. The entire book reads like a journalist’s story. In fact, Chapter Two, “From Peaceful Borderlands to Incubators of Extremism,” provides a general history of the Pashtun area and people from Pir Roshan forward until the end of the 1980s, while noting that “Pashtun historiography has many blank chapters” (p. 25). Another historical chapter (Chapter Three, “The Taliban in Power”) carries the tale forward to focus on the 1990s through 2001, detailing a now-well-known story of how Pashtun religious students rose up against the quarrelsome mujahideen parties in the early 1990s and gradually extended this new “Taliban” movement to hold sway over most of Afghanistan by the late 1990s. Siddique also describes the complex way in which the Taliban became Pakistani proxies and hosts to al-Qa‘ida, and how the growing extremism of the movement (and its guests) brought it into conflict with the international community.
The core of the book takes the reader through the recent developments in the Pashtun heartland, with four chapters on events in Pakistan and three more chapters following on Afghanistan. The flight of the Afghan Taliban and al-Qa‘ida into Pakistan in the face of American-led military operations in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002 caused further radicalization among parts of the Pakistani Pashtun population, especially in Waziristan and the Bajaur Agency. As the Pakistani government came to realize its longstanding policy of balancing between good and bad Islamists was no longer viable, open warfare with militant Pakistani extremist groups caused human development in the region to suffer, the [End Page 135] old social structures such as tribes to disappear and tribal elders to be assassinated, and by the mid-2000s, Islamist terrorist attacks that threatened metropolitan Pakistan. Yet, Siddique’s short seventh chapter, “Simmering Balochistan: A Taliban Haven,” illustrates the conundrum Pakistan still finds itself caught in, as its security forces continue to wage a brutal and repressive campaign against Baloch separatists while maintaining the Taliban’s relative safety from US offensive actions.
Siddique’s three Afghanistan chapters each examine a different general Pashtun area (Loy Nangarhar, Loya Paktia, and Loy Kandahar) and detail how those areas have been transformed from the era of mujahideen resistance to Communism through the upheaval of the intervening years until the present day. These relatively underwritten chapters nonetheless provide some of the most compelling insights from the book, as they reveal the complexities of transforming Islamism in a cauldron of warfare, national resistance, and economic...