A version of this article was published by THE NEWS 23rd October 2012 and can be viewed here here
Barely a week ago a young girl was brutally attacked by extremists, but this young girls name was not Malala Yousafzai, instead this nameless victim was a 11 year old had acid thrown on her face in Kandahar district of Afghanistan. While this event went unnoticed elsewhere outrage poured out in Pakistan and across the world as news about the horrific attack on Malala spread.
In a month where a teenaged young girl was brutally attacked in Swat, a bus of students was attacked en route to Parachinar and a bomb blast in Darra Adam Khel killed dozens, the Pashtun disconnect has become even more obvious. While there was outrage at these attacks amongst Pakistani’s both Pashtun and non-Pashtun, as well in Afghanistan there was no uniformity in the outrage. In fact what was a common thread was how disconnected the outrage was and how difficult it was for Pashtuns to rally against it. This disconnect is further reflected by other examples, violence in Karachi, the siege of Parachinar, large scale displacement of people from the Federally Administered Tribal areas that does not trigger as much a response from Pashtun society as other Pan Islamic or state nationalist causes do.
To understand this disconnect one has to first look at two major outside factors, Afghanistan and Pakistan’s relationship and the events of September 11th 2001. What happens in Afghanistan is intertwined with happenings in Pakistan and vice versa. So while Afghanistan refused to recognise Pakistan’s independence in 1947, the Pakistani government in 1997 was the first state to recognise the Taliban dominated Afghan government. It was also around the same time sixteen years ago, that the former Afghan President Najibullah was murdered and horrifically tortured by a Taliban mob. It was an event that attracted little attention amongst Pashtuns in Pakistan but it was a sign of things to come. The events of 9/11 were another turning point, with the exceptions of Aimal Kasi and Faisal Shahzad the proportion of Pashtuns involved in terrorism attacks has been tiny but the consequences have been huge.
So why is there such a Pashtun disconnect? Geography, history and even law are some of the key reasons. Despite being Pakistan’s second biggest ethnicity they are divided into those residing within KP (Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa where they are a clear majority), in FATA, Balochistan, small pockets in Punjab and a large number in Karachi. The divide between the Pashtuns of Balochistan and KP has been maintained since Yahya Khan disbanded the one unit and merged the Chief Commissioner's Province of Baluchistan with the Kalat state to form a new province. Legally each area is influenced by a different code of law, with KP being governed by the same laws as mainstream of Pakistan, Malakand agency was governed by the old provincially administered tribal areas which was then replaced with a variation of Islamic law. Similarly the recently reformed Frontier Crimes regulation govern FATA and essentially put the people of the region in a legal grey area open to abuse.
In political terms there is no real representative of Pashtun society in the way the PPP does in Sindh or the PML-N does in Punjab. This is despite an electoral system which eschews in favour of Pashtuns in Balochistan and particularly in the senate where because of the same inter provincial split they can form a plurality. In fact if historical trends tell us anything it is that the Pashtun voter in K-P tends to vote predominantly for national party’s, while the Pashtun voter in Balochistan splits between the nationalist vote and the JUI-F. FATA remains largely driven by other influences being that the citizens did not have the right to vote till 1997 and did not have the right to contest openly under political party’s till 2010. To put that in context till 1997 no FATA MNA had ever sat in the opposition benches until Latif Afridi was elected. The last remaining factor is Karachi which despite its sizable Pashtun population the vote was divided until the new middle class came of age. This divide reflects in many other ways, there has never been a Pashtun prime minister, nor a Pashtun speaker of the national assembly. Where Pashtuns have been better represented is within the military establishment and bureaucracy. In terms of the Army recruitment and representation remains reflective of the percentage of the population, in the mid 90’s one served as COAS, and in the last decade several generals have been a stone’s throw from becoming the Chief of the Army staff. Within the bureaucracy however things have changed, from the days of influential bureaucrats like Roedad Khan to Ghulam Ishaq Khan becoming President; on last count, only three out of 49 Federal secretaries were from KP, none from FATA and no Pashtun secretaries from Balochistan.
The modern Pashtun voter shares many similarities with the Punjabi voter, for both the turning point was Zia-ul Haq’s 1985 election, which reinforced the business class interests and established a system of patronage. This ‘class of 1985’ as one writer noted, intertwined its business interests with politics. In the Punjab, this manifested in the election of politicians like Chaudhry Nisar who have remained undefeated since 1985 and the increasing conservatism of the society. By contrast in KP this class was uprooted in the 2002 MMA election sweep. The only notable exception electorally in the Pashtun belt is Aftab Sherpao, with the exception of 1985 election which he did not contest, has been winning since 1977 consistently.
In electoral terms, again the Pashtun voter tends to be fragmented, so in KP, no single party has ever formed an outright majority. In Balochistan, neither the Pashtun nationalists nor the JUI-F have been able to claim the Chief Minister’s seat or the Governors position. In the 1970 election the old National Awami Party’s biggest electoral success was not in the late Wali Khan’s home province but in fact in Balochistan where the Baloch turned out heavily in favour of the party.
Even the ANP’s success in 2008 election was limited, winning 13 out of over 40 pashtun dominated seats nationally was limited to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and in particular their traditional support in the Peshawar valley and Malakand agency. The PPP’s support amongst the Pashtun voters has been consistently strong since 1970, with a vote bank in the 2008 elections in most areas ranging from Bajaur in FATA to Dera Ismail Khan in KP. This is similarly the case with the JUI-F which has a broad vote bank from Mansehra to Quetta. The Pakistan Muslim League historically had significant support in the region from the old Frontier Muslim League. Several famous leaders attained senior party and political positions, ranging from the late Aslam Khattak to Nawaz Sharifs close associate Sartaj Aziz. With the advent of the PPP, the Muslim League has relied heavily on the Hazara belt in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa , is now dependent on so called ‘electables’ in FATA, Karachi and Balochistan.
Hailing from Pakistan’s seraiki belt the cricket star turned politician Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf, has remained consistently more popular in K-P than in Imran Khan’s home province. In fact it was K-P was where Imran Khan polled the most votes, in Malala’s Swat district, during his disastrous 1997 electoral outing.
This political fragmentation of the power amongst the Pashtuns has had a major impact in economic terms. The problem with estimating this accurately is that much of the statistics used are based on the geographical divisions mentioned earlier on. So according to the UNDP’s most recent survey poverty levels in KP are 7% higher than the national average. If one discounts the wealthier districts of the Hazara belt (Abbotabad and Haripur) and includes FATA where poverty is double the national average, poverty in the Pashtun belt poverty levels are much higher than the national average ( conversely it means the Baloch poverty levels are even higher if adjusted for the Pashtun districts).
This dismal state is also reflected in the decline in the Pashtun presence amongst Pakistan’s business elite. While several Pashtun families were mentioned by Dr. Mahbub ul Haq in 1968 list of twenty two families; by 1990 that list had changed dramatically showing a clear relative decline. The larger undocumented Pashtun economy is difficult to calculate, again showing a fragmentation, with the interprovincial transport trade, transit trade to Afghanistan, expatriate money from the Middle East and the Karachi Pashtuns having increasing influence. An even bigger factor is the presence of ISAF personnel 100,000 next door and hundreds of billions of dollars being spent in an impoverished area. This has led to huge distortions in the Afghan and Pakistan economy which has anecdotally led to a shift in power away from traditional centres like Peshawar and Quetta towards places like Kabul, Islamabad, Dubai and Karachi.
What all this tell us about the TTP and the Taliban in Pakistan? It tells us that the terms insurgency, or terrorism, or lawlessness are all right and wrong in different situations and different settings.
More importantly it suggests that the attack on Malala is not an isolated event and it remains to be seen whether the backlash against it will be. For things to change, it is imperative for the Pashtuns to challenge ignorance and extremism which itself cannot be done without introspectively looking and reconnecting.