It would be unwise for Pakistan’s policy makers to perceive Pashtun resentment as a nationalist case for separation from Pakistan and use force to curtail it.
[Manish Rai | Oped Column Magazine]
While they make up 15-16% of the total population and is the second largest ethnic group in the country, the Pashtuns have been associated with negative stereotypes in Pakistan.
Out of 49 million Pashtuns, more than 35 million lives in Pakistan. They are mostly inhabited in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces along with tribal areas on the Afghanistan–Pakistan border. Besides ‘Pashtun’, this ethnic group is also referred to as ‘Afghan’, ‘Pathan’ and ‘Pukhtoon’.
While the Pashtuns are dignified people who have paid in blood and money from years of terrorist violence and military sweeps, there’s this negative perception in Pakistan that the Pashtuns are war-loving barbaric people.
Pashtun areas are the poorest ones in Pakistan and the social indicators reflect 70 years of neglect. Militancy has wrecked the infrastructure and traumatized the population. The economy of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which is mostly inhabited by the Pashtuns, is weak. What little industry exists is concentrated only in Peshawar, the provincial capital. There’s a huge economic, social and educational disparity between the Pashtun areas and the rest of Pakistan.
Moreover, the United States led “War on Terror” had further aggravated the sufferings of the Pakistani Pashtuns, who were caught in the middle of an armed conflict between USA-Pakistan’s security forces and al-Qaeda-Taliban. They had to bear the brunt of military operations in the region and suffer racial profiling based on where they lived. Hence, they started to feel alienated in Pakistan.
What’s more, after a military campaign against the Taliban in Waziristan, the Pashtun areas fell into major turmoil.
The rise of a nationalist and ethnic movement for the Pashtun people is the natural corollary of the neglect they have been suffering for decades. Hence, the movement named Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) began in 2014.
In 2018, protests against the extra-judicial killing of a 27 year old Pashtun, Naqeebullah Mehsud, in the southern port city of Karachi sparked countrywide support for the PTM. The movement has spread from the tribal areas to other parts of Pakistan, including big cities.
Another important aspect of the PTM is that it had gained the sympathy of the mainstream Pakistani political parties, especially the Pashtun ones like the Awami National Party (ANP) and Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PMAP). It clearly indicates that Pashtuns across all party lines are lining up for common cause.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, a Pashtun himself, is trying his best to pacify Pashtuns and address their grievances. In January this year, he approved a draft law criminalizing enforced disappearances. With this move, he is trying to address the long-standing demand of the Pashtuns.
But Imran Khan too is facing several bottlenecks. His administration is facing challenges in convincing Pakistan’s three provinces to allocate three (03) percent of their share in national resources to former FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), a Pashtun-majority tribal area.
The argument given for seeking more fund’s allocation is that the various military operations launched to eradicate terrorists in the region have brought-about immense destruction to the former FATA, which has been recently merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government alone cannot arrange the required funds for the reconstruction. But Imran Khan is hardly able to convince anyone over this.
Apart from the lack of development funds, there are other pressing issues too. For instance, Islamabad’s promised reforms are moving at a snail’s pace even after a year FATA was merged into Pakistan’s administrative and legal mainstream. While the Pakistani courts have struck down some discriminatory laws, the judiciary is yet to establish a foothold in the region. The courts established for the region’s more than five (05) million inhabitants are now working outside their allocated districts. A police force capable of policing the region is yet to take shape.
In the Pashtun tribal areas, an estimated 60% inhabitants live below national poverty line. Hence, for time being these areas should be given preference in resources allocation of the state. Special attention should be given towards sustainable employment opportunities through rehabilitation of small and medium enterprises (SMEs), investment mobilization, and institutional capacity building.
It would be unwise for Pakistan’s policy makers to perceive Pashtun resentment as a nationalist cause for separation from Pakistan and use force to curtail it. If coercive actions are taken against the already alienated Pashtuns, it would invite a backlash and sow the seeds of enduring tension between the Pashtuns and the state.
Manish Rai is a columnist for Middle East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geopolitical news agency Viewsaround.