The Pashtunistan Concept: Does it have wider support in Pakhtunkhwa?

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There are about 50 Million Pashtuns spread out across a vast expanse of territory. The majority of Pashtuns are in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (A province of Pakistan) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (An autonomous region in North-west Pakistan bordering Afghanistan).

The rest of the Pashtuns are in Afghanistan. Population-wise about 29 Million Pashtuns are in Pakistan while less than 13 Million are in Afghanistan. This division of Pashtuns came about in the year 1893 when according to Durand agreement signed between Afghan King Abdur Rehman Khan and Sir Henry Mortimer Durand they were partitioned between Afghanistan and British India. Over a hundred years after this partition the Afghans or bar (Northern) Pashtuns continue to believe that they have a right over the lands of lar (Southern) Pashtuns.

In recent years a concept or ideology calling for a Greater Afghanistan or a United Pashtunistan has been pushed forward by some Pashtun Nationalists, mostly from Afghanistan. The Greater Afghanistan ideology seeks to unite the Pashtun areas of Pakistani Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan with Afghanistan giving the country a population of 70% Pashtuns. On the other hand the Pashtunistan concept seeks the creation of a separate homeland for Pashtuns in Pakhtunkhwa where over 90% of the population is Pashtun.

The concept has come to be heard more and more often. Possibly due to the failure of the war on terror and the damage caused in our quest to rid the country of the menace of terrorism. There is no doubt that terrorism is the number one threat for Pashtuns on each side of Durand line, the demarcated border set by Amir Abdur Rehman Khan with the British.

As the situation slowly deteriorated for the Pashtun, who had once controlled 30% of the armed forces in Pakistan and is still a part of much of the bureaucracy I watched with a feeling of despair and saw a race beloved to me, a race I consider my own fall deeper into chaos. I listened eagerly when Pashtuns from Swat reported the army had mistakenly destroyed their homes or had caused other damages to their lives and tried to comfort them. But then being the ever-optimistic Pakistani I naively thought that everything would fix itself with time and there would be no consequences for our failure in the war on terror but unfortunately I hadn’t seen much.

Ever since I started visiting some Pashtun forums it became clear to me that many Afghans have no love for Pakistan and their lives consist of dreaming of a world without a Pakistan. However I have noticed some people claiming to be from Pakhtunkhwa sharing their beliefs. This has deeply worried me.

These people claiming to be from Pakhtunkhwa seemed to be the most critical in their assessment of Pakistan, their own nation. I was surprised by this behaviour so after a while I resolved to contact some of the Pashtuns I knew. Initially my purpose was to find out whether there is a large body of Pashtuns that share these views, but as I talked to more people it became to prove the Afghans wrong, to prove that the Pakistani Pashtun is by all means Pakistani and does not want a Pashtunistan or Greater Afghanistan.

My first taste of the raw patriotism of our people came when I talked to a friend named Feroz Khan two years ago. Feroz serves the Frontier Corps of the Pakistan army. We are not on the best of terms anymore but I remember a talk with him when I had first heard of the Pashtunistan concept. White skin, handsome features, quick temper and great melmastia, Feroz looks every bit the Pashtun he is.

“The Pakistan army has always used the support of the Pashtun to further its interests and the interests of Pashtuns. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. It’s tragic that the Afghans consider us enemies,” he told me as we met in a restaurant close to my place of work in Karachi.

Feroz shares a dislike of two people. The Mahsuds, a tribe from South Waziristan and the Afghans. I have never agreed with his assessment of the Mahsuds which I feel is a little harsh but I sympathize with some of his views for the Afghans ever since I started noticing their attitudes towards Pakistan.

“They come to our land, make our cities dirty and take our jobs. That’s not really a problem. But after we helped them out and hosted millions of their refugees how can they squeak about dividing our land?”

“How much or how little do you agree with the concept that Pashtuns are equal to Afghans? Some Afghans have told me no Pashtun can be a Pakistani,” I said.

I remember Feroz laughing wildly. “Afghanistan is a country and Pakistan is a country. Pashtuns are an ethnicity that can belong to either country. The majority is in Pakistan and is therefore Pakistani. This may frustrate the Afghan but the Pashtun in Pakistan is more Pashtun than him and has achieved far more for Pashtuns than the Afghan in terms of culture, sports, art, fashion and music. They have no culture because of the Taliban. Only because we are doing better they want us to sing Afghan songs. Otherwise they wouldn’t give a damn about us.”

This was an old conversation and at that time I was not as well-versed about Pashtun culture and traditions as I am now. Only recently I started conducting interviews with a number of other Pashtuns to confirm this belief.

A Pashtun woman I contacted recently to confirm whether Feroz’s views were right is Arooj Khan Marwat. Arooj has been to Afghan controlled forums before as well and is as hurt as me by the treatment meted out to us by Afghans there.

“I, as a Pashtun girl from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will never support their (Pashtunistan) ideology and in my opinion they are Pashtuns from Afghanistan and we are Pashtuns from Pakistan. I respect their language, way of living, and even their people (but) expect the same in return, which we didn’t get. They hate us for no reason or may be just because we are Pakistani Pakhtuns. As they hate Pakistan they hate KPK (too). You will hardly find any Afghans who have good thoughts about Pakistan.”

“Do you believe the Pashtunistan concept is supported by the Afghan rather than the Pakistani Pashtun? A concept foreign to the Pashtun of Pakhtunkhwa,” I asked.

“Of course it is. We Pashtuns from Pakhtunkhwa don’t need someone telling us about Pashtunwali. Being true patriots and “ghayyur” pashtuns, we Pakhtuns from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will never want to separate from Pakistan and join Afghanistan just because our great Pashtun forefathers were born and rooted there. Those Afghan Pashtuns never missed a single chance to insult Pakistani Pashtuns.”

According to Arooj there is a clear strong divide between a Pakistani and Afghan Pashtun because they belong to two differing nations.

For an in-depth analysis of the situation and for proof that Feroz and Arooj were right I finally contacted Alamdar Yousafzai the Chapter head of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of a Nationalist movement. Surely a leader of Pashtuns who commanded a large number of Pashtun followers would be able to address my concerns and confusions.

Alamdar Yousafzai proudly introduced himself, directly hinting at the fact that he has some sort of power in Pakistan and is not to be trifled with. “I am the leader of a Nationalist movement in Pakistan, one that has a large number of people from Pakhtunkhwa,” he boasts. 

Alamdar Yousafzai’s reputation amongst the Nationalists precedes him. He has served several Nationalist groupings. All he had was dedicated to the cause of Pakistan. He owns land but instead of using the land for profit making ventures he has used it to build schools and educate Pakistanis, most of them Pashtuns from Pakhtunkhwa. He is a well-known and well-respected leader of a movement of over 3000 people, possibly even 12,000 if his role in the UPNM is considered, a united conglomeration of Pakistani Nationalist groups founded to guard the interests of Pakistan.

“Let’s be clear I lead about 400 Pashtuns all of whom are ready to die for Pakistan. In the future more will join from our schools. As you know Nationalism is fused within the minds of our children in our schools.”

“But surely there may be some who don’t share your views? I have heard Pashtuns from our beloved Pakhtunkhwa talking about the division of Pakistan.”

“I don’t know what crowd you are hanging around with but a traitor has no place in Pakistani society whether a Pashtun, Punjabi or whatever. In Pakistan we are only Pakistanis not Sindhis, Balochs, Punjabis and Pathans. Almost all (Pashtuns) have the brains to understand that and will proudly hunt down such a traitor. I will also tell you that the one who believes in such idiotic ideas is probably sitting in the west and the Americans are shoving money in his mouth.”

“So you believe that this concept is rather a foreign concept? A concept being imposed by the Afghan or the Americans?”

“Absolutely. With the Afghan we may share culture and history but that doesn’t mean we want to divide from our country, something which the Afghans have never understood. I feel Afghans are ungrateful to the hand that has fed them.”

Of course that means just as many Afghans blame Pakistanis for their problems many Pakistani Pashtuns hold Afghans responsible for creating a problem where none exists.

“If you go to our Tribal Areas you don’t need to do much to notice the hatred of people for the Afghans. People dislike Afghans very much. Pakistanis share a bond of nationhood together which should be strong. The urdu speakers should abandon the Indians and the Pashtuns the Afghans. This is the way forward.”

I took a critical approach in Alamdar’s interview and pushed him with some tough questions to find out if there was any rough patch in his theory. “But Afghans say how can Pashtuns be part of a 60 year old nation while they have a 1000 year old culture?”

Alamdar is annoyed now. He believes I have become a puppet of the Afghan. He is already aware of my slow attraction to the Pashtun cause. “The Afghans lack insight. Only a desperate man can apply such a concept. People die in 60 years and they believe we should not take part to make a stronger Pakistan just because our country is young?”

“How much or how little do you agree with the fact that Afghan and Pashtun are one?”

“I refused to acknowledge this. I apologize to the ANP and all the groups advocating this but our leaders shouldn’t try to keep selling our people to others.  Selling the Pashtuns to Afghanistan is as foolish as Altaf selling the urdu speakers to India. I don’t care about what the Afghans pull out of history. The day Pakistan was born our ways diverged and today we are not Afghan but Pakistani. Afghan is only a national of Afghanistan and Pakistani of Pakistan. We are Pakistani only.”

Alamdar Yousafzai is an Ultra-Nationalist from a movement that tries to ensure members aren’t led by ethnic bias and a feeling of racial superiority, something that puts them at odds with groups such as the Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz, Baluch National Party or even the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, all parties formed for a particular ethnic group. In fact in the past there have been rules forbidding members from speaking about their ethnic identity in the fear it may fuel divisions.

However unlike Alamdar Yousafzai other Pashtuns have a more sympathetic approach towards the Afghans.

When you’ve suffered years of civil war you will (naturally) be suspicious of your neighbours. This is what’s happening. I don’t think we should blame the Afghans,” Gul Mohammed says.

“But some Afghans have been advocating an independent Pashtunistan? Does the Pakistani Pashtun want a Pashtunistan?

“We are one when it comes to our culture, language and religion but that’s about it. You can’t blackmail us with that. Pashtunistan for us is every region where ethnic Pashtuns live. There’s no need tearing up the land to claim we are brothers. They own our land, we own theirs. You don’t need to write that in blood to make it a fact.”

“Many Afghans believe they own the Southern lands and the only solution is for the Pashtuns in the south to divide from Pakistan.”

Maybe there are a few Afghans who believe no Pakistani can be a Pashtun and all the lar (southern) lands belong to them but so what? It doesn’t affect us one bit. But it’s still important to treat them as people who have lost much in war rather than people who are greedy to take our lands. With time when they see lar Pashtuns are happy they (these thoughts) will disappear.”

Gul Mohammed still believes in peace and brotherly relations with Afghanistan which he considers the land of his ancestors.

I concluded that Gul Mohammed is the best representative of how Pakistani Pashtuns feel about the Pashtunistan issue or the Afghans. He is neither an extremely Nationalist Pakistani, a soldier nor is he disenchanted with Afghan behaviour on Afghan forums.

It proves that the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan can develop strong ties and understand that peace between the two states ultimately helps strengthen Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand line-provided Afghans can forget the Pashtunistan issue.

Alamdar Yousufzai confirms this. “The Pashtunistan issue is a dead issue and it would be great if the Afghans understood this. The Pakistani Pashtuns will die but will not let their land be divided. The idea comes from a discarded CIA map that shows a divided Pakistan which has lost Pakhtunkhwa to Afghanistan and Balochistan as an independent state. Pashtuns will stand against each aggressor, whether American, Indian or Afghan.”

The author is Havi Sultan who is working on a fiction novel called Badal which is about Pashtuns and the war on terror. He is also an independent journalist. You can follow him on his twitter account @HaviZSultan. Alternatively you can visit his website.