It is in the interest of all countries that concerted efforts are made to bring peace in the Pakhtun region of Pakistan and Afghanistan, which has become a breeding ground for jehadis.
On Tuesday, in South Waziristan, a clash between pro-Pakistan government tribesmen and Taliban-backed foreign militants left 17 people dead. Militants in this area have killed dozens of pro-government tribal elders, government officials and those they accuse of spying for the United States. In some ways, this has become a typical scene in the vast and volatile region of Afghanistan and Pakistan where Pakhtuns reside.
Pakhtuns are an ethno-linguistic group with populations primarily in eastern and southern Afghanistan and in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Balochistan provinces of Pakistan. Pashtunabad, a vast slum near Quetta in Balochistan, is the de facto headquarters of the Pakhtun insurgency.
However, Pakhtuns were not always extremists and fundamentalists. Between 1920 and 1947, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a pacifist and Gandhian, held sway over the NWFP region. It was only because of the manipulations of Olaf Caroe, British administrator, and Muslim League leader Khurshid Anwar that the Congress lost the referendum in 1947. British policy divided the Pakhtuns by drawing the Durand Line, a poorly marked 2,640-kilometre border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Till date the line is not recognised by any Afghan government or the Pakhtuns themselves.
The Pakhtun region also witnessed the proxy war between the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union. Pakhtuns were caught between the two big powers and they had to pay with their lives and resources. Pakistan took advantage of the turmoil in the region and its intelligence wing, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), pushed the Taliban into the region.
The Taliban is a product of Pakistan’s madrasas and its regressive policies. There were just 137 madrasas in Pakistan till 1947, and today there are more than 20,000 with 1.7 million students. Pakistan-based madrasas like the Darul uloom Haqqania at Akora Khattak and Binori Masjid in Karachi have aided the jehadi movement. These seminaries have often been described as “jehad universities”. In fact, their rise coincided with the anti-Soviet uprising in Afghanistan. These Islamic schools provided refuge to anti-Soviet Afghans and trained them for the ‘Holy war’.
Bringing peace to the land of Pakhtuns is in everyone’s interest. The process of stabilising the region and eliminating radicals will require a systematic and coordinated effort on the part of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Countries like the US and India need to provide all the help they can.
But the first and obvious question is whether Pakistan really wants peace in the region. Successive Pakistani governments have exploited the conflict in Afghanistan for strategic gains. Even today, when those gains are proving to be illusory, they have not given up the hope of manipulating the situation for their own selfish ends.
Symptomatic of this is the lassitude of the Pakistan ministry of religious affairs in dealing with madrasa reforms. Not surprisingly, the minister in charge is Ejaz ul-Haq, son of the former Pakistan President, Zia-ul-Haq, whose policies had ruined Pakistan. The Pakhtun region needs electricity, schools and public health centres. But, before everything else, it needs security. Islamabad needs to reflect on the turbulent Pakhtun history and understand that meddling in their affairs will prove costly for Pakistan in the long run.
PN Khera is Editor, Asia Defence News International.