Pashtun identity politics in the spotlight

Ayesha Gulalai’s accusations against Imran Khan and an allegedly misogynistic culture inside PTI has spawned a national debate within Pakistan on the way women are treated in public life. For this reason, it has made headlines in international publications such as The New York Times that rarely delve into the serial-esque drama of Pakistani politics absent geopolitical implications. Gulalai also referred to Khan as a second-rate or ‘do number Pathan’ sparking critics to label her a disgrace to her Waziri Pashtun roots. More than a mere opportunistic, use of identity politics this exchange reflects an existing tension between Pashtun and Pakistani identity in the public sphere.

Punjab may be home to the government, military, and indeed the plurality of Pakistanis but it is the tribal belt that most puts Pakistan on the map by captivating international headlines. For many outsiders Lahore is but an afterthought. After all it is the Pashtun areas that the US points to in its pleas with Islamabad to crackdown on terrorism. And it is Pashtun families who are killed in US drone strikes gone wrong.

The same month as Imran Khan’s anti-drone march, Malala Yusufzai was shot by the Taliban. In the Western media she was portrayed as an iconoclast who was challenging a closed-minded Pashtun culture rather than just the Taliban. Meanwhile in Yusufzai’s own words she embraced her Pashtun female identity. In her published diary that led the Taliban to later target her she had adopted the pen name Gul Makai after a female figure in Pashtun folklore. Like Malala, Makai was also a young woman at school when she fell in love with the character Musa Khan. This spawned a war between their two tribes but Makai used the Quran to convince the tribal elders to make peace and permit her to marry Musa. Ironically both the Taliban and the West portrayed the idea of a strong woman standing up to convention as foreign to the patriarchal and tribal orientated Pashtun culture but that’s just not entirely true.

Unlike Gul Makai’s story, war did not evade Yusufzai’s home in the Swat Valley and in 2014, the Pakistani military launched the Zarb-e-Azb operation to retake the stunningly beautiful area from militant groups. Operations in Pashtun areas of Pakistan have been made easier by the prominence of Pashtuns in the military. Pashtuns are the second most represented ethnic group after Punjabis and this is not limited to the enlisted ranks with four of Pakistan’s Army Chiefs having been Pashtun. Pashtuns also played a role in Pakistan’s controversial history of military dictatorships. General Yahya Khan and Field Marshal Ayub Khan were of Pashtun origin. Pashtun culture has even been appropriated into the nomenclature of Pakistan’s most powerful weapons. The Abdali (Haft-II) ballistic missile is named after Ahmad Shah Abdali, the Pashtun king who founded the Durrani Empire. Success in places like the Swat Valley is invariably a product of a military compatible with Pashtun identity.

In contrast to Islamabad’s experience when it seriously confronts terrorism in its tribal belt, Kabul’s efforts in southern Afghanistan have been a disaster. When I served as a Marine in Uruzgan province, Pashtun soldiers from the southwestern provinces near the Durand Line made up only 1.5 percent of the soldiers recruited since 2009. One evening I saw a huddled group of unusually well-equipped Afghan soldiers all of Central Asian descent. When I asked who they were I was told they were Afghanistan’s special forces.

Only in Pakistan are Pashtuns referred to by the antiquated and arguably pejorative term ‘Pathans.’ Stereotyping of Pashtuns is not covert but something done deliberately

Despite the individual contributions of Pashtuns to Pakistan, there are still collective barriers. Only in Pakistan are Pashtuns referred to by the antiquated and arguably pejorative term ‘Pathans.’ Stereotyping of Pashtuns is not covert but something done deliberately.

FATA is still subjected to the Frontier Crimes Regulations derived from the draconian Act of 1867 which gave the British the power to engage in extrajudicial murder of Pashtuns in KP. Today FATA’s residents can still be punished without due process and many Pashtuns must till adhere to tribal justice. Adviser to KP Chief Minister for Transport and Mass Transit Malik Shah Muhammad Khan Wazir even asked for Gulalai’s tribal jirga to demolish her family’s home if she cannot prove that Imran Khan harassed her but the jirga declined.

Imran Khan’s present scandal aside, if PTI manages to overcome entrenched political parties in the next election then Pakistan will have a prime minister of Pashtun descent. But his true heritage is often debated due to his roots in Mianwali and Niazi lineage. Speaking to a crowd of reporters in Karachi he once asked rhetorically whether he is Pashtun or Punjabi? The crowd responded ‘Pakistani’ and erupted in cheers. That answer works for now but as consecutive generations of Pashtuns become urbanised and mobilise politically the question of what it means to be Pashtun in Pakistan will keep returning and the answer will likely keep evolving.

The writer is a veteran of the US Marine Corps and served in Afghanistan. He works as a policy analyst and focuses on South Asia and Iran. He tweets at @AdamNoahWho

Published in Daily Times, August 15th 2017.

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