Pashtun Identity and Geopolitics in Southwest Asia: Pakistan and Afghanistan since 9/11

Pashtun Identity and Geopolitics in Southwest Asia: Pakistan and Afghanistan since 9/11

by Iftikhar H. Malik

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‘Pashtun Identity and Geopolitics in Southwest Asia’ brings together Pakistan and Afghanistan as two inseparable entities by investigating areas such as the evolution and persistence of the Taliban, quest for Pashtun identity, the ambivalent status of the tribal region and the state of civic clusters on both sides. In addition to their relations with the United States and the EU, a due attention has been devoted to regional realties while looking at relations with India and China. The study explores vital disciplines of ethnography, history, Islamic studies, and international relations and benefits from a wide variety of source material. The volume takes into account the salient subjects including political Islam, nature and extent of violence since 9/11, failure of Western policies in the region, the Drone warfare, and the emergence of new regimes in Kabul, Islamabad and Delhi offering fresh opportunities as well as new threat perceptions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783084968
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 07/18/2016
Series: Anthem Middle East Studies
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 286
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Iftikhar H. Malik is Professor of History at Bath Spa University and a historian of South Asia, Political Islam, and Muslim Diaspora communities.

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Pashtun Identity and Geopolitics in Southwest Asia

Pakistan and Afghanistan since 9/11

By Iftikhar H. Malik

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2016 Iftikhar H. Malik
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78308-496-8



'The Afghans were known to be a "race of Tigers" who had already shown their teeth in 1838–42, a hard, warlike people toughed by a harsh, dry, mountainous country, passionately nursing their independence, family loyalty, courage, and a highly developed sense of personal honour and hospitality, but conversely regarded by unwelcome visitors as "robbers and cutthroats."'

Rodney Atwood

'The most notable traits in their character are unbounded superstition, pride, cupidity and a most vengeful spirit [...] They despise all other races [...] They cannot deny the reputation they have acquired for faithlessness.'

Henry Bellew

'The Indian subcontinent – and the Frontier in particular – is littered with half-forgotten graveyards filled with the bones of unlucky lives extinguished before they had a chance to shine.'

Charles Allen

Gandhara, the ancient name of the upper Indus Valley – which makes up most of present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan – is the historic gateway to the subcontinent where cultures, creeds, communities and languages mingle, although not often without violence. Over the past two decades, we have witnessed here numerous trajectories of violence, owing to external and internal forces, which have claimed countless lives and resources of the Af-Pak region and beyond. The violence has often been nihilistic, and continues to be perpetrated and retribution carried out mainly by Pashtuns across the Durand Line in addition to its larger remit in these two countries. Without singling out Pashtuns as perpetually violence-prone tribes and as resistant to modern nation building, more recent and enduring developments such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO's) struggle against the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan military operations in Swat and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) certainly necessitate a broad understanding of questions about Pashtun identity, highlighted in the later portion of this study.

In the Eye of the Storm

Following the torching of more than 400 girls' schools, the closing down of numerous video and music shops and the public executions of men and women incriminated under all kinds of charges without any recourse to public review or accountability, Swat had by 2009 turned into a Taliban-controlled state within Pakistan. The area had been one of the most scenic, glacial and forested valleys in Southwest Asia. Teachers were forbidden to run their modern schools; young men were ordered to grow beards of a specific size; women were strictly ordered to stay indoors and the police and other civil officials were either compelled to obey the orders of the superior committee (shura) or be prepared for public wrath. The committee comprised some senior clerics who were led by Maulvi Fazlullah, the son-in-law of Maulana Soofi Muhammad, who is the leader of Tehreek-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Muhammadi (TNSM) and a senior religious-political leader who had descended on Swat from the neighbouring Dir in the 1990s and spearheaded demands for the implementation of sharia. During the 1990s Pakistani political authorities such as Mian Nawaz Sharif, in order to avoid any new confrontation in the Pashtun region, entered into an agreement with Soofi Muhammad, but after September 11, the latter took it upon himself to send in thousands of volunteers to fight the Americans across the Durand Line. Many of them were killed or ended up in Afghan and American jails, or were never heard from again until, in several cases, their local captors began demanding ransom. But following Musharraf's hasty decision to use force against the Islamists taking shelter in Islamabad's Red Mosque in 2007, Soofi's son-in-law and the future TTP leader began exploiting local grudges against the administration and landlords, and came up with the idea of creating an emirate through iron-cast policies, justified in the name of sharia. Stragglers from other Pashtun areas and returnees from Afghan jihad joined Fazlullah, who began issuing edicts through an FM radio station in addition to coercing and even executing local clerics and civil servants. These hasty punishments, often recorded on camera and posted online for wider impact, soon created a state of terror in an area always known for better schools, a comparatively prosperous economy and a more cosmopolitan outlook due to the annual influx of tourists from across the Indus land. Swat was not an isolated downtrodden tribal agency in the backwaters of tribal territory and was quite a distance from the Durand Line, where the displacement of official writ caused serious apprehension, especially when Fazlullah's followers, by now closely aligned with the TTP, took control of Dir, Buner and Changla districts, with the entire Malakand Division under their control.

The questionable examples of the Taliban-style of government, based on unilateralism and the prompt execution of accused individuals, especially women, became a major issue for the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) administration in Islamabad as well as for the provincial regime led by the Awami National Party (ANP), the secular nationalist Pashtun organization. Following the elections in February 2008, the PPP had eased out Pervez Musharraf, and with Asif Ali Zardari as the president and Yousaf Raza Gilani as prime minister, reestablishing official writ in Swat was a new and even more daring challenge. The Taliban had begun to summarily execute ANP activists along with engaging in daredevil attacks on girls attending schools in Mingora and Saidu Sharif, minutely recorded in a BBC blog by Malala Yousafzai, whose father, Ziaud Din, ran an English-medium school. Pakistani civil society and the military stood by the political authorities in undertaking a prompt military operation in 2009 which temporarily displaced about two million inhabitants of Swat, yet met with local approval. Militants were either arrested or pushed out of the region, with Fazlullah seeking refuge among Afghan tribals in Kunhar, while Soofi was put under house arrest in Peshawar. The operation rolled back the rapid encroachment by Pakistani Taliban and re-energized the critique of this version of political Islam, which fiercely opposed modern education and women's empowerment and even conducted witch hunts against the medical staff administering polio drops to children. Most Pakistanis, including a vast majority of Pashtuns, abhorred this form of exclusive and even repressive Islamization of their lands, which to them was essentially criminalization in the name of religion and politics. It is true that the local complaints against a tardy administration in Swat coalesced with anti-Westernism and zeroed in on Pakistani political and civil echelons but appeared to have been hijacked by a militant rhetoric, as had been seen in the FATA. Pashtuns in and around Swat who supported or worked for the regime in Islamabad sought modern education for their daughters and had voted for a Pashtun nationalist party that ran the provincial administration in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). However, they were now viewed as worthy of a severe reprimand including sheer elimination by the Taliban, who themselves overwhelmingly happened to be Pashtun. Such fratricide neither reflected the familiar parameters of tribal- or clan-based rivalries nor could it be interpreted solely on the basis of a new class formation in which the have-nots, especially the landless peasants, could have taken up arms against local influential persons and intermediaries. The othering of Pashtuns centring on arms, revenge and violence is certainly not an indigenous discourse and has its own complex geopolitical origins. This violence cannot be explained as Pakistan's Islamist utopia, the counterpart of India's Naxalbari defiance, nor can it be understood through traditional Orientalist views of Pashtuns being inherently violent and revenge-seeking medieval groups who had been unnerved by the onslaught of modernity. Crucial developments spewing violence of various types in Malakand and the FATA are similar largely because local inhabitants happen to be predominantly Pashtun, and Pakistani Taliban leadership itself comes from Pashtun cadres. However, concurrently there have been significant differences as well in which crucial denominators such as external intervention and local chasms have underwritten mass dislocations and intermittent military operations.

While Malakand showed a spectre of militant encroachment on the civil population and institutions in the name of sharia in predominantly Pashtun districts, otherwise known as 'the settled zones', the turbulent situation in all the seven agencies of the FATA has been even more complex. Here, other than the issues of local power contestations between the 'old' (landlords/khans) and 'new', post-1979 (jihadi rhetoricians/mullahs) stakeholders, the intra-jihadi strife and resistance against the ISAF and NATO presence across the Durand Line and Pakistan's perceived surrogacy to the West underpinned militancy. At one level, this was the traditional form of jihad, which, as against British colonialism, would stipulate support for the Afghan Taliban fighting NATO and the Kabul regime. At another level, various clusters within the TTP pursued their own agendas against authorities in Islamabad and Peshawar for undertaking military operations in the FATA, besides facilitating the 80 per cent of NATO supplies through Pakistan. The TTP and their supporters believed that both Pakistan and the Kabul regime were working as surrogates for non-Muslim forces. The former blame Islamabad for undertaking military operations in the FATA. They have also accused Pakistani authorities of facilitating most of NATO's supplies into Afghanistan by leasing out country's road and railways infrastructure. Pakistan's tacit support for drones, although often denied; arrests of all types of jihadi and resistance groups by the authorities; and the perception of the Pakistani state system as being non-Islamic also underpinned this TTP-led defiance. At the third level, some groups like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), fired up by anti-Shia sentiments and not entirely Pashtun by ethnicity, sought training and shelter in the FATA to carry out attacks in Kurram, Hangu, Peshawar, Chilas, Quetta, Karachi and across the country. At the fourth level, the TTP supported specific groups of non-Pakistani stragglers from across the Muslim world and China by sheltering them so as to make the struggle umma wide. At another level, the TTP provided help to some of its own favourite groups fighting against pro-regime khans and clerics forming forces (Lashkar) in their respective agencies. Sustained warfare and defiance in Afghanistan and the attendant escalating costs, along with grudges against Kabul and Islamabad in a kind of exceedingly taxing status quo on both sides of the Durand Line without any major political breakthrough over the years guaranteed a ready supply of recruits and fighters for all the above strands of violence. The NATO troops undertaking multiple land-based and aerial campaigns, and similar operations by the Afghan army and Pakistani troops certainly turned the Pashtun regions into hotbeds of several forms of enduring warfare and escalating violence. Following war fatigue and confronted by other regional and global issues, the eventual decision by the United States and other NATO nations to withdraw most troops from Afghanistan, as affirmed through a treaty between the Obama administration and the recently elected Kabul regime led by President Ashraf Ghani, did not lessen the militarist defiance by the Afghan Taliban. Instead, they appeared to intensify their attacks on military and civil installations to convey their kind of triumphalism against the various odds since October 2001. Since assuming the presidency, Ghani chose China for his first official visit given Beijing's growing influence in the region along with a steady interest in the minerals and gas reserves in Afghanistan. In the same vein, despite efforts for peace parleys by Islamabad initiated by the newly installed Nawaz Sharif, the TTP refused to relent in its campaign across the Indus Valley until Islamabad decided to pursue a long-awaited military operation in North Waziristan in 2014, which certainly fragmented the Pakistani Taliban and their allies but fell short of their total elimination. The most dramatic proof of this was conveyed through a spectacular suicide bombing on 2 November 2014 at the Indo-Pakistani border, just outside Lahore, killing around 60 Pakistani spectators at a military parade. More assaults were yet to come, such as when the TTP attacked the Army Public School in Peshawar on 16 December 2014, killing 145 schoolchildren and their teachers. Jundullah, a TTP associate spearheading a campaign against the Shias, perpetrated three major attacks in early 2015. On 30 January, TTP militants attacked a Shia mosque in Shikarpur, killing 61 worshippers, followed by a similar attack on 13 February in Peshawar, which claimed 21 fatalities and several casualties. On 13 May, six Jundullah militants – university graduates and members of Karachi's burgeoning middle class – boarded a bus and killed 47 Ismaili Shias en route to their schools and jobs.

The post–September 11 entanglement of the Musharraf regime on several fronts in a closer alliance with Washington, operations by Pakistani army units and the Frontier Constabulary, the fiasco of the Red Mosque in 2007 and the congregation of foreign and Pakistani Jihadi groups in North Waziristan collectively led to the evolution of the TTP. Numerous punitive operations in the FATA by Pakistani troops in the post-Musharraf era in South Waziristan, Bajaur and Mohmand – like the large-scale campaign in Swat in 2009 – had apparently weakened the TTP and its affiliates, yet failed to eliminate them. Instead, these groups filtered into North Waziristan – the most populous of all the seven agencies forming the FATA – and even after the intermittent deaths of their top leadership in drone attacks, they persisted with their suicide missions and other such attacks across Pakistan. The Pakistani army, as often reported in the Western media, was hesitant to undertake a comprehensive military operation in North Waziristan because of the presence of the pro-Islamabad Haqqani group in the agency, in addition to being apprehensive about the displacement of 800,000 local inhabitants. In addition, General Pervez Kayani's own vacillations in mounting another major onslaught also allowed North Waziristan to become the de facto TTP emirate until the blatant attacks on Karachi's airport in June 2014, when the Pakistani civilian and military leadership lost their patience and hesitancy. Consequently, Pakistani troops led by General Raheel Sharif, Kayani's successor, initiated a holistic aerial and land-based operation – 'Zarb-e-Azb' – in the agency, which was commented upon positively both in Pakistan and abroad, while the TTP bided its time in seeking its own revenge to mark its resilience.

Although the Pakistani Taliban and even Osama bin Laden always acknowledged the ideological leadership of the late Mullah Muhammad Omar of the Afghani Taliban as the ultimate emir or mentor, the TTP since its inception in 2007 has been mainly focused on Pakistani security and civic targets with some occasional ventures across the Durand Line. Its past and present leaders such as Baitullah Mehsud, Hakimullah Mehsud and Fazlullah often operated autonomously from the remit of their Afghan counterparts, who avoided getting embroiled in Pakistani issues. Midnight missions by Western special forces and drone operations by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in these Pashtun areas escalated resentment against the West, Kabul and Islamabad, the latter two viewed as mercenaries of the former 'non-Muslim' 'crusading' occupier. Although most of the initial suicide bombers happened to be Pashtun, and especially young and poor, subsequently, younger, slightly educated volunteers from Punjab and Karachi – called Punjabi Taliban – began to provide the TTP with a steady stream of militants. Predominantly Pashtun mentors and experts on preparing suicide vests and improvised explosive devices conducted training programmes in the FATA and Kunhar, while comparatively most of their early targets happened to be in the KP as well. Thus the Pashtun factor seemed to be operative in different forms in various geopolitical developments in which local, regional and global congruities and proclivities began to converge. The Pashtun dimension of this imbroglio has been quite equally evident in bickering between the United States and Pakistan, especially with several high-profile border attacks costing the lives of numerous Pakistani citizens and troops in the FATA. In addition, violence in Karachi in its recent incarnation has involved the Urdu-speaking Muhajireen and Pashtun groups based in localities like Sohrab Goth. The emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2014 and its declaration of a Sunni caliphate proved quite attractive to some TTP leaders, who already under pressure and hotly pursued by Pakistani troops and the CIA-operated drones, were in a state of disarray. Their leaders, seeking new hideouts in the Tirah Valley or in Afghanistan, faced desertions and disillusionment since some of them began to support ISIS, while the rest still followed Fazlullah. Unlike the earlier groups, which collectively followed Mullah Omar as the ultimate emir, the ideological cracks became more acute during 2014, often leading to intra-TTP escalations.


Excerpted from Pashtun Identity and Geopolitics in Southwest Asia by Iftikhar H. Malik. Copyright © 2016 Iftikhar H. Malik. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents


Chapter One Gandhara Lands: Wrestling with Pashtun Identity and History,
Chapter Two Imperial Hubris: The Afghan Taliban in Ascendance,
Chapter Three Masculinities in Conflict: Western Pedagogy and the Return of the Afghan Taliban,
Chapter Four Understanding Pakistan: Geopolitical Legacies and Perspectives on Violence,
Chapter Five Understanding Civic Sentiments and Movements in Pakistan: Stalemated Cycle, or a Way Forward?,
Chapter Six The United States and Pakistan: Friends or Foes!,
Chapter Seven The European Union and Southwest Asia: Perceptions, Policies and Permutations,
Conclusion: Pashtun Troubled Lands, Uncertain Southwest Asia or a New Beginning!,

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"Tied together by policy making circles for strategic purposes and referred to in modern day geo-political parlance as Af-Pak, the region widely known as South West Asia has a rich cultural past and civilizational commonalities which have been aptly brought out in this important new contribution by one of Pakistan's most accomplished and prolific scholars." —Ali Usman Qasmi, Lahore University of Management Sciences

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