First note: Changes are afoot in the lands of Pashtuns.
In the couple of weeks before the February 18 elections in Pakistan, attacks by presumed “Taliban” killed over 140 Pashtuns in Kandahar (Afghanistan) and over 25 Pashtuns in Charsadda (Northwest Frontier Province, Pakistan). After the elections they attacked a Pashtun wedding in Swat and killed 14 people, including the bride. Despite (or because of) this terror, the predominantly Pashtun electorate of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province marginalized the pro-Taliban political parties in the February 18 elections. The staunchly anti-Taliban Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party will dominate NWFP's delegation to the national parliament and will form the next government of the NWFP in alliance with the PPP; the two parties control 60 percent of the seats in the NWFP Legislative Assembly.
The ANP (about which more later) is closely allied to the government of Hamid Karzai in Kabul and opposed to both military rule in Pakistan and a mainly military approach to the challenge of militancy. Its victory poses an insoluble problem to the Cold-War minded Bush clique, which cannot conceive that a non-violent democratic party could be a better partner for opposing jihadi terrorism than a military dictator. (John McCain has shown his faithful following of this delusion, calling for continued support for Musharraf, while no Democratic candidate has yet shown an understanding of the possibilities created by the Pakistan elections).
I am hoping (but not too optimistic) that I will never again have to listen to people (especially, but not exclusively, Pakistani government officials) arguing that the Taliban are just Pashtuns fighting against foreign occupation and a Tajik-dominated central government in Kabul. And, consequently, that only a Pakistani regime dominated by the “pro-American” military can be a partner for the US in the struggle against extremism.
These persistent stereotypes make me wonder: why did a Taliban “Pashtun insurgency” kill hundreds of Pashtuns in Kandahar, while Tajiks and Uzbeks quietly went about their business from Badakhshan to Bukhara? Who are the foreign occupiers in Charsadda and Swat? Why are Uzbek and Chechen “Taliban” terrorizing Pashtun schoolgirls in Mardan, NWFP (threatening to attack their schools if they did not wear burqas, as I was told by a young Pashtun from Mardan in Islamabad in November, who feared for his sister)? Because they resent the fact that the Panjshiri Tajik Marshall Muhammad Qasim Fahim was Afghan Minister of Defense from December 2001 to December 2004? To drive the Canadians out of Kandahar? If Taliban are “just Pashtuns” (as a researcher at a Pakistani think tank told me recently), then who was voting in NWFP on February 18?
In Kandahar on Sunday February 22 a suicide bomber killed over a hundred people at a dog fight. (Left, the scene minutes after the bombing.) If you find an attack on a sporting event puzzling, read Whitney Azoy's book, Buzkashi: Game and Power in Afghanistan, or the late Clifford Geertz's essay, "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight." (Or reflect on the strange career of George W. Bush, former owner of the Texas Rangers, who has displayed the transformational power of freedom by making Iraq safe for baseball.)
Through such public games, people (men, usually) enact conflict and display their power. Azoy's book on Buzkashi (the game of north Afghanistan wherein teams of horsemen compete to snatch the body of a sacrificial victim -- calf or goat), ends, as I recall, with the author in the Kabul airport. He is on his way out of the country within days after the coup d'état by Soviet-trained military officers in April 1978. He asks one of his Afghan friends, "What will happen now?" The friend replied, "You should know. You've been studying it. Now the buzkashi will begin."
In Kandahar the enactment was close enough to the reality that even fundamentalists (who, regardless of affiliation, sometimes have difficulties processing metaphor, just like schizophrenics) could detect it. The sponsor of one of the dogs fighting was Abdul Hakim Jan, who appears to have been the main target -- the suicide bomber detonated himself so close to him that his remains have not been found.
Abdul Hakim had been a commander in the jihad against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and served as the police chief of Kandahar during the mujahidin government in the 1990s. He was a follower of the late Mullah Naqibullah, the major mujahid commander of the Alikozai tribe. Abdul Hakim had the reputation of a fierce opponent of the Taliban and Pakistani influence in Afghanistan -- several people in Kandahar say he was the only commander there who never abandoned resistance to the Taliban. His Arghandab district of Kandahar saw active revolt against forced conscription by the Taliban during their rule. According to a note from Sarah Chayes (order her book here, her soap here), Abdul Hakim was recently appointed the commander of the Afghan National Auxiliary Police (a new force intended to create a community-based "surge" against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan) in Arghandab. He was known as the best military tactician among the Alikozai fighters. According to Sarah, "What this is really about is opening Arghandab for the spring offensive." Another observer in Kandahar (who must remain anonymous) concurs: “Now Arghandab is wide-open for the Taliban to come in. And once Arghandab falls, everyone knows the next step.” Dear reader, should you not be among “everyone” – the “next step” is the fall of Kandahar.
After the death of Mullah Naqibullah (left) last October, Taliban briefly invaded Arghandab, even dancing on the roof of Mullah Naqibullah's house. They were expelled, largely by forces led by Abdul Hakim Jan, but signs point to a planned offensive in the spring, made easier by the successive deaths of Alikozai leaders. The modus operandi of the dog-fight killing bears all the earmarks of a suicide operation carried out by Afghan or Pakistani Taliban who have learned their technique from al-Qaida, but the Taliban’s public denial of involvement may be intended to exacerbate tribal tensions by aggravating doubts about who was responsible.
The day after the operation against Abdul Hakim Jan, someone (presumed to be Taliban) exploded another suicide bomb in Kandahar province, in the border district of Spin Boldak. This attack, which killed 38 Pashtun civilians, may have been aimed at a Canadian military unit. Canada is in charge of the NATO military command in Kandahar and is facing a divisive internal conflict over its commitment to Afghanistan that the bombers may have intended to influence.
An analyst in Afghanistan (whose position requires anonymity) has sent me confidential data showing that “security incidents” by “anti-government elements” in Afghanistan in early 2008 have exceeded those at the same season in 2007. Last year the late winter increase led to a spring escalation of asymmetrical attacks (suicide bombings and IEDs); this year the curve looks higher, perhaps presaging a larger offensive. Of course this offensive will not include conventional attacks (including tank battles, artillery duels, close air support, saturation bombing, or nuclear strikes), the lack of which has in the past led the Pentagon to claim that the Taliban are being defeated.
The major threat to the Taliban offensive, however, is not from the front but from the rear: Pakistan. For years, the Pashtun nationalists led by the Awami National Party have argued that support for the Taliban comes not from the Pashtun population but from the Pakistani security services and jihadi parties that use Pashtun lands, and especially the tribal agencies, as platforms for covert operations. Even if the military has lost control of some of these actors, who now threaten the army itself, many of its strategists still consider jihadis a tool against the threat posed not only by India but by a potential US-India alliance.
The ANP’s origins go back to the Khudai Khidmatgaran (Servants of God) or Red Shirts, founded by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (right, with Mahatma Gandhi) in the 1920s. Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who is buried in the Afghan city of Jalalabad near the tomb of Amir Amanullah Khan, the reformist ruler whom he admired, was known as the Frontier Gandhi for his espousal of independence, non-violence and village-based egalitarian social reform. Because the Pashtun nationalists originally allied with the Indian National Congress rather than with what they saw as the Muslim League’s communalist and reactionary orientation, the Pakistan establishment has always treated them as potential or actual enemies of the state, even after they proclaimed support for new state of Pakistan. Their leaders were arrested in the 1970s when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto suppressed an insurgency in Baluchistan. Some were rearrested by the Zia regime in the 1980s, while others sought refuge in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan.
The Pashtun nationalists (unlike Baluch separatists) have always supported non-violent resistance to Pakistani dictatorships and central domination. They have tended to look to the Afghan government as a protector of Pashtun interests – they had good relations with the royal regime, with President Daud Khan, the Soviet-supported regime (especially Najibullah), and, since 2001, with the government of Hamid Karzai.
I witnessed the intimate relations between the ANP and the Karzai government, on my first trip to Kabul after the overthrow of the Taliban. Waiting for the UN flight from Islamabad in March 2002, a week before the Nawruz holiday, I saw Afrasiab Khattak waiting for the same flight. Khattak, who is now the Secretary of the ANP in the NWFP, was the main speaker at the February 9 Charsadda rally attacked by the Taliban. I had met him years earlier when he had been honored in New York by Human Rights Watch for his work as a lawyer and chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
In March 2002 Afrasiab (left, with Asma Jahangir) and I were both part of a small foreign delegation of "friends of Afghanistan" invited by the new government to celebrate the first Nawruz after the Taliban’s ouster. During the following week, though I managed to evade most of the official events organized by our hosts, I had the opportunity to dine with Afrasiab with President Karzai in the Arg (Presidential Palace) and with Interior Minister Yunus Qanuni in his office, and to tour with him the devastated plain north of Kabul, where the Taliban and al-Qaida had carried out scorched earth tactics, burning houses, felling orchards, and uprooting vineyards.
Over the succeeding years I frequently saw Afrasiab in Kabul, where he had lived as a political exile under Najibullah, during the military dictatorship of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. (He had roomed with Najibullah at one time at a student hostel in Peshawar.) I noticed that he and his fellow Pashtun nationalists enjoyed as much trust in Kabul – and not only among Pashtuns – as their military rulers provoked distrust. In Islamabad and later on a visit to the US Afrasiab also introduced me to ANP leader Asfandiar Wali Khan, grandson of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and son of Khan Abdul Wali Khan.
By chance the six-foot-four Wali Khan had sat next to me on a flight from Peshawar to Karachi in November 1986, and I had an opportunity to observe how passengers brought their children to shake hands with the inheritor of a great legacy. At a time when the Reagan administration was pouring billions of dollars of sophisticated weapons into the most Islamist parties of the Afghan mujahidin, Wali Khan patiently explained to me why he thought arming Islamic extremists was a dangerous response to the Soviet presence in Afghanistan. This position alienated the Pashtun nationalists of Pakistan from some of the Afghans who had sought refuge on their soil. At the time I too thought that Wali Khan was making judgments about Afghanistan a bit too much on the basis of Pakistani domestic politics.
Asfandiar Khan and Afrasiab hosted Ahmed Rashid (author of the best-seller, Taliban) and me as guests at the “Pashtun Peace Jirga” that the ANP organized in Peshawar in November 2006. True to their democratic, pluralistic, and non-violent tradition, the ANP invited representatives of the entire political spectrum of Pashtuns in Pakistan, from the fiery Quetta-based nationalist Mahmud Khan Achakzai, who dwelt perhaps excessively on the perfidy of the British in dividing Pashtuns in the nineteenth century, to the wily Maulana Fazlur Rahman, leader of the Jamiat-ul-Ulema Deobandi party often seen as the godfather of the Taliban. Today Fazlur Rahman is a target of the new generation of Taliban, who see him as a sellout to the Pakistani establishment for his political alliance with Musharraf.
Fazlur Rahman’s party was the largest grouping in the Islamist alliance, the MMA (Mutahhida Majlis-i Amal, or United Action Council), which then controlled the provincial government of NWFP. In his speech to the jirga, Fazlur Rahman portrayed the Taliban as a movement of resistance to foreign occupation. He ambiguously held out hope of a political solution, arguing that he would not deny to others what the claimed for himself – the right to compete peacefully in elections – but that the withdrawal of foreign troops was a condition for Taliban to lay down their arms.
The ANP leaders took a different tack. Those whose views of Pashtuns are largely formed by Rudyard Kiping and his epigone, Pervez Musharraf, might be surprised to learn that the senior figure of the leading lineage of Pashtun nationalists placed great emphasis on the peaceful nature of Pashtun culture. He deplored that Pashtuns had become portrayed as terrorists and extremists throughout the world and argued that the tribal code, Pashtunwali, placed strict limits on the taking of life, and could never justify the type of violence now taking place throughout the lands of Pashtuns – with Pashtuns as its primary victims.
I encountered similar concerns the following year in a conversation with an official of the Afghan Presidency in Kabul. After this Pashtun official and I exchanged astonishment at the charges from Pakistan that the Afghan government was dominated by non-Pashtuns (the contrary charges by Afghan non-Pashtuns seemed to have more merit), I asked him what was President Karzai’s main concern. His answer surprised me – he said, “education” – and not just in the sense that Afghanistan has one of the world’s lowest rates of both literacy and professional training. President Karzai, he said, was particularly worried at the constant attacks on schools in the Pashtun areas of the country by “Taliban.” Nobody, least of all these “Pashtun” insurgents, was attacking Tajik, Uzbek, or Hazara schools – only Pashtun schools. Who wanted Pashtuns to be uneducated and weak? Who was attacking the future of Pashtuns? The unspoken answer was, neither non-Pashtuns in Afghanistan nor a “Pashtun insurgency”: the attack was coming from across the Durand Line.
[There are of course many domestic factors promoting the insurgency in Afghanistan – especially corrupt and abusive local governance; and actions by the Coalition and NATO that kill civilians or result in lengthy detention and fears of torture and abuse, certainly facilitate recruitment. But the secure foreign base for leadership and logistics transforms protest or resistance into an insurgency.]
According to Asfandiar Wali Khan and the ANP, the extremists, including the Taliban and al-Qaida, had been created on Pashtun land to serve strategic interests, of the US and Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, of Pakistan in the 1990s and thereafter. These powers had used the vulnerability and poverty of Pashtuns, to transform their lands into bases for extremist movements that exploited rather than represented the needs of Pashtuns.
The answer, according to the ANP, was democracy and federalism, not centralized military dictatorship and jihad. The Pakistan military has marketed its services to the US as the only force in Pakistan that would or could battle the militants – whereas the militants were that military’s own creation in its battle against domestic democracy and foreign enemies. The ANP’s program calls for the abolition of the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies that shelter the militants and the integration of their people and territory into a federal, democratic Pakistan. In that Pakistan, FATA would join a new province, named not the “Northwest Frontier,” after its security function in the British Empire, but “Pakhtunkhwa,” after its people,. The ANP has chosen this name, not “Pashtunistan,” the term used by Afghan irredentists, to emphasize that the goal is not separatism but participation as full citizens of Pakistan, like Sindhis, Punjabis, and Baluch, each of which has an eponymous province. Bringing FATA into the “mainstream,” which is part of the program of all the parties that won the recent elections, would constitute the best guarantee against the use of these territories against Afghanistan, Pakistani democracy, or anyone else, including the US and Europe.
If Pashtuns received such recognition of their identity and guarantees of their participation within Pakistan, the ANP would reverse the long history of Pashtun nationalism by recognizing the Durand Line as a border distributing Pashtuns between two states, and it would urge Kabul to do likewise. Once Pashtuns could participate as full citizens in both states, an open border could become a focus of cooperation rather than conflict. Such a settlement of issues surrounding the border could also help calm inter-ethnic relations in Afghanistan, where non-Pashtuns have at times feared the use by Kabul of the tribes across the Durand Line to suppress them and rulers have exploited the historic grievance over colonial borders as a symbol in ethnic politics.
On the day of the Pashtun Peace Jirga, Ahmed Rashid and I were invited to lunch with the then Governor of NWFP, General Muhammad Jan Orakzai. The lunch was a product of the good offices of Mushahid Hussain, Secretary-General of the PML-Q (Musharraf’s party) and chair of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Pakistani Senate. Mushahid had told the Governor that I was a “friend of Pakistan,” either because I had recommended in a report that Afghanistan should recognize the Durand Line, or because of a speech I had given at Mushahid's instigation several days earlier at a celebration of the 800th birthday of Jalaluddin Rumi at a shrine presided over by President Musharraf’s personal Sufi mentor.
The Governor is a rather grand figure, appointed by the President. He does not receive reports of insurance commissions, like an American governor. As representative of the President (and Chief of Army Staff), Orakzai oversaw a provincial government at least nominally led by a chief minister chosen by the legislative assembly. Furthermore, as representative of the Federal Government, he directed the administrative apparatus of FATA, overseeing the work of all political agents and the Frontier Corps. General Orakzai, himself a native of Kurram Agency, had taken an active role in FATA – he had conceived and negotiated the peace agreement in North Waziristan a few months earlier. The government claimed that the agreement was solely with tribal elders, though the Urdu text of the agreement defined the parties as including Taliban and mujahidin as well, thereby recognizing the war against the Kabul government as a jihad. Gen. Orakzai was unable to put his hands on the text of the agreement at our meeting, but fortunately someone had faxed me one from Islamabad earlier.
The entry into Governor’s House, Peshawar, offers no hint that it belongs to a “Republic,” Islamic or otherwise. After waiting in an elaborate drawing room full of gilded furniture and regimental memorabilia, Ahmed and I walked with the Governor in his formal garden, among the peacocks, in order to work up an appetite for the “humble camp lunch” that we were promised, which included, as I recall, at least eight distinct courses (served to the three of us by liveried servants at a banquet table capacious enough for all the OBEs of Imperial India).
Between mouthfuls of chapli kabab and other Peshawari delicacies, we discussed the same matters as at the Peace Jirga, but from a quite different point of view. As the discussion was off the record, I cannot cite the Governor’s remarks, save to assure President Musharraf, that General Orakzai’s views in no way differed from those delivered by his superior at the Council on Foreign Relations two months earlier: the Taliban were or were in danger of becoming a Pashtun uprising against foreign occupation and a Tajik-dominated Kabul government. On the subject of integrating FATA with the Pakistani “mainstream,” Orakzai cited numerous difficulties and instead supported the policy of reaching peace agreements, supposedly to re-empower the “traditional tribal leadership.”
At that time and until February 18, Pakistani official spokesmen continued to market this branding of the situation in the Pashtun areas. One Pashtun member of the country’s military-bureaucratic establishment could barely conceal his contempt for the ANP over lunch at the Serena Hotel in Kabul, in October 2006. He depicted the ANP as a bunch of effete intellectuals distant from the people (the equivalent of “latte drinkers”) who could not win even a single constituency in NWFP (especially when the elections were rigged to prevent their doing so).
This year, however, despite massive pre-poll rigging and terrorist attacks on their rallies, the ANP nonetheless swept the provincial and national assembly elections in NWFP. They will be coalition partners of the PPP and PML-N in the center and will form the provincial government of the NWFP with the PPP -- together the two parties hold 60 percent of the seats.
As long as he remains president, Musharraf will control the FATA ruling structure through the NWFP governor, but the signs of his power are waning. The new chief of army staff, General Ashfaq Kayani, has used his independence of Musharraf in favor of fair elections. He withdrew army officers from civil functions in the week before the elections, preventing implementation of the usual pattern of rigging on polling day. (Some technical changes made by the election commission and a broad-based citizens’ monitoring effort also made rigging more difficult). Thus far Kayani has not demanded to participate in the political negotiations over formation of a new government, as did his predecessors.
It is less than a month until Nawruz 1387/2008, six years after Afrasiab Khattak and I flew together from Islamabad to Kabul. I don’t know yet if Afrasiab will be Chief Minister of the NWFP or a minister in the Federal cabinet. He now must be one of the top terrorist targets in Pakistan, if not the world. But this spring he and his colleagues will try to use their popular mandate to gain control of their own land, which is now used as a base not only to attack the government of Afghanistan and the democratic forces in Pakistan, but as the logistics and support center for al-Qaida’s global operations.
Difficult as it may be for some in Washington to understand, the most sincere and potentially effective allies the US has in Pakistan are secular, non-violent opponents of military rule, not the generals in Islamabad. The generals were willing to send troops to and drop bombs on FATA. But the ANP and its allies are willing to mobilize the people of the area to try to take back control of their own land, something a military regime neither would nor could do. As the Taliban and al-Qaida launch their spring operations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, the political challenge to control of their base areas is their greatest vulnerability. Is the Bush administration capable of exploiting it?