Review of “The Pashtuns” by Abubakar Siddique for Open Magazine

I just reviewed “The Pashtuns,” an excellent book by the journalist Abubakar Siddique, for Open Magazine, the Indian publication.

The review is here, but an unedited version is below.

Graveyard of Ignorance
Abubakar Siddique’s The Pashtuns provides a perspective on Afghanistan often lost in world capitals: that of its people and their forgotten humanity.

By Neil Padukone

“I like Americans!” an Afghan once proudly declared to me. “To Americans it makes no difference whether I am an ethnic Hazara, Pashtun, Tajik, or Uzbek.”

Have you ever thought, I asked, that they don’t know the difference?

“Exactly! They don’t even care to find out!”

There’s an old joke that the only way Americans learn about a country is by invading it. But 13 years after the war in Afghanistan began, and just months before the purported drawdown of International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF), has the world moved beyond its clichéd understanding of Afghanistan as a graveyard of empires?

Abubakar Siddique’s The Pashtuns begins with the assumption that, no, despite decades of intermittent involvement in the region, few people truly understand Afghanistan and its largest ethnic group, one that makes up a plurality—40%—of that country and more than 15% of Pakistan. Attempting to dispel the myth that the region’s instability is caused by an inherently ‘martial’ people governed by a fundamentalist code of honor, Siddique takes us on a detailed journey through modern Pashtun history.

Like most of the world, Afghan history is not just one of empires vanquished, but of ideas and values. Through Pashtun language treatises of Sufi philosophers, and political debates between Pashtun nationalists like the pro-democracy Afrasiak Khattak, leftist activists such as Faiz Mohammad, and Islamist thinkers like Mawlawi Younas Khalis, we learn that Pashtun identity has been forged by integrating the religious with the cultural, political imperatives with geographic ones. Siddique provides an almost encyclopedic, but accessible description of nearly every Pashtun-majority district in the region.

Yet, while long the crossroads of the Silk Road, it has been the last half century of globalization, state building, and external influence that have brought the Pashtuns to their current, chaotic state. The Afghans have been casualties of the Americans and Soviets in the 1980s, of Saudi Arabia and Iran in their quest for hegemony over the Islamic world, and most profoundly, of Indian and Pakistani jockeying to exert control of the region.

In particular, Pakistan has repeatedly used the Pashtuns for its own purposes: (1) gaining “strategic depth” in Afghan land in case of war with India, (2) clamping down on ethnic nationalism within its borders, enforced by draconian, imperial-era legal systems like the Frontier Crimes Regulations, and (3) creating a hardline Islamic identity that would both strengthen Pakistani cohesion and distinguish Pakistan from India. It is this last goal in which Saudi money and religious doctrine, and American weaponry have become game-changers.

As a result, the Pashtuns have become synonymous with the Taliban, a word that has come to represent religious extremism in the modern world. And because of the complicated dynamics of the region, Washington and Islamabad have gone back and forth between supporting and attacking these bands of militants and the civilians amongst whom they reside.

Yet the Pashtuns’ autonomy in these struggles has been compromised by the fact that they straddle the Durand Line, the Afghanistan-Pakistan border negotiated by the British in 1893 that has been deemed illegitimate by countless Afghan governments and practically ignored by the Pashtun tribes that must traverse it daily. An old Pashtun proverb says, ‘You cannot separate water with a stick.’ Yet that is exactly what the Durand Line that slices the Pashtuns between the two countries attempts to do. To overcome this and ensure regional stability, Siddique advises that Kabul and Islamabad “permanently open the border.”

At the outset, Siddique tells us that the world will fall short in Pashtunistan “so long as [the] focus remains on short-term security goals and not…development and co-operation.” Indeed, only a long-term economic reintegration of the region can bring true stability. A step in this direction is the presence of millions of Afghans in Pakistan, who have strong links across South Asia—including as far south as the port city of Karachi, which has the highest concentration of Pashtuns in the world.

Yet the book only makes a single, casual mention of the Chabahar Road in eastern Iran. This Indian-constructed road passes from the Arabian Sea to Afghanistan’s western Herat region, and is shorter and more stable than the two other land routes through Pakistan that connect landlocked Afghanistan to the sea. This new route ends Pakistan’s monopoly on Afghanistan’s maritime trade, which has been a key enabler of Islamabad’s pernicious influence in Kabul’s affairs. Broader strategic changes in the region, including a shared energy infrastructure between northwest India and eastern Pakistan, and transit trade between Kabul, Lahore, and Amritsar, moreover, will also play a key role in transforming the Pashtun homeland.

The Pashtuns is at once history, analysis, and policy prescription. As a native of the region with both academic and journalistic experience, Siddique brings a perspective lost in the capitals that have previously determined the fate of the Afghans: that of the people, their diversity, and their fundamental and often forgotten humanity.

As Operation Enduring Freedom comes to a close, NATO is seeking a graceful exit from the region. Similar forces have understood little about the people and places they sought to pacify.

Hopefully this time they will care to find out.

Neil Padukone is the author of “Beyond South Asia: India’s Strategic Evolution and the Reintegration of the Subcontinent,” out in August from Bloomsbury Publications.

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Why is soccer called football? (And vice versa).

As an American, friends abroad have always challenged me on the name of the game that’s played at FIFA’s World Cup. Even before having debates with British folks about the term “soccer,” though, I’ve always found the word confusing and counter-intuitive. So I thought I’d look into it. Here’s what I found.


The word “football” doesn’t actually have to do with the fact that you use your “foot” to kick it. The British aristocrats of a few centuries ago used to play games on horses. Poor British folks, on the other hand, didn’t own horses and instead played games in which they ran around on the field—they played games ‘on foot’. In fact, the FIFA game we know today was just one of the many games that the poor folks used to play “on foot.” In other words, there were a number of different “footballs,” i.e. different rules for playing ball on foot. These came to be called rugby, Australian rules football, Canadian football, Irish football, American football, etc.

In the 1860s, these ‘football games’ were adopted by Britain’s rising middle class and organized by different educational institutions and clubs into associations that codified the rules and standardized the games. Two sets of rules that were codified were (1) ‘rugby’ football and (2) ‘associational’ football.

‘Rugby Rules Football’ was named after the school that codified the rules, Rugby School in Warwickshire. These folks preferred the type of football in which you could use your hands, and apparently beat people up. British folks in the UK kept the name ‘Rugby,’ while British and Irish colonists in America came to call Rugby Football simply ‘football’, hence the later, modified, admittedly watered down “American football” and “Gaelic Football” (both of which are closer to Rugby).

Associational Football, on the other hand, was the more popular one, named after The Football Association in 1863, and was the name of the game whose rules didn’t allow using your hands—the thing that’s played by most countries in the FIFA World Cup today. Its technical name was “Association Rules Football”. Some folks in the UK called it “soc”cer because it followed the rules of ‘associational’ football. These folks later went to America, Ireland, Canada, (South Africa at one point), and other places where the game is called “soccer” today. (Even in Japan they say “sakka” because of the American influence). But most people in the UK shortened the term “associational football” to just ‘football’. What you called it depended on where in the British Isles you were from, and what club/association/school/institution you played with—or who introduced you to the game. (Other football rules were codified by different institutions in different parts of the British Isles and North America).

So while the word ‘soccer’ doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense anymore, the word ‘football’ isn’t really accurate or precise, since it technically includes other games played ‘on foot’ and not on horse. Meanwhile, American Football is football in the same way that association rules football is football; they’re both played on foot, by running around the field.

But since the UK was the imperial power at the time, British sailors and officers went around the world, playing their game with ‘association rules football’ rules and calling it “football.” So the name stuck.

In some places where associational rules football became popular, it doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that the ball is kicked with the foot. “Fútbol” in Spanish, for example, is just an indigenization of the English word “football.” The Spanish words for foot and ball (pie/ped/pata and pelota) don’t sound anything like “foot” or “ball”. Same with Turkish, which also calls it “futbol.” In other places, they calqued the word “football,” translating it as “foot” and “ball”. In Arabic, the word is “kurat al-qadam” (kurat meaning ball, qadam meaning foot); in Greek it’s podosphero (podo= foot, sphero = sphere/ball); and so forth.

International usage of the word “football” for associational football put pressure on places like Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland (where the word ‘football’ conventionally meant ‘rugby’) to adopt the global norm more recently. The word “football” became ubiquitous worldwide when it was standardized by the Zurich-based Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA)—and even there, the French word has nothing to do with a foot or a spherical object.

So there you go, everyone is right!

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South Asia Institute Grant to study Mumbai’s metro system

I’m a few months behind on updating this blog, but in December 2012, I received a grant from Harvard University’s South Asia Institute to study the development of Mumbai’s mass transit infrastructure, in particular the planning and construction of Metro Line One.
Here’s a brief report I wrote for SAI summarizing my research.
This research served as a basis for a chapter I later wrote on Mumbai’s regional transportation infrastructure for a Harvard Graduate School of Design and Volvo Foundations project on “Transformations in Urban Transportation.”
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Paper in the World Affairs Journal – India and Pakistan’s Afghan Endgames: What Lies Ahead?

A few months back, the World Affairs Journal commissioned a piece on Afghanistan. The paper discusses New Delhi and Islamabad’s roles in Afghanistan—and the burgeoning cooperation between the two countries.

For a long time, Afghanistan was a battle ground in which India and Pakistan tussled. But more recently, as the two countries are increasingly focused on new horizons—particularly India, which is looking beyond South Asia for its strategic needs—Afghanistan appears to be less zero-sum than it once was; India and Pakistan are starting to cooperate over trade and stabilization of the region. More than mere political posturing, we’re seeing structural change in that direction. In fact, we may be seeing the beginning of an India-Pakistan detente.

Please see the entire paper at

I eschew any responsibility for the less-than-creative title.

Posted in Afghanistan, Central Asia, Diplomacy, India, Pakistan, South Asia, Strategy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Case for Indian Islam – Article in Pragati

I’ve got a new article in Pragati Magazine that discusses an important form of Indian soft power: Indian Islam.

In The Case for Indian Islam,” I discuss how India’s Muslims have lived under stable, pluralist democracy for decades, and argue that they ought to reclaim their syncretic narrative and project it to the rest of the Islamic world. This narrative is particularly important during this time of tumult, awakening, and recalibration in the Muslim world known as the “Arab Spring”.

The piece is available at and in-text below.

Continue reading

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“India’s Involvement in the Sudan” – Article in Pragati Magazine

I’ve got a new article out in Pragati Magazine that discusses “India’s Involvement in the Sudan.” It argues that India’s engagement in the region—from investments in energy infrastructure to its involvement in a peace process between Juba and Khartoum—demonstrates an important union of New Delhi’s strategic interests and ‘soft’ power.

It explores a potentially important role India is playing in the political and economic development of Africa, particularly South Sudan’s development, burgeoning independence, and peace process. The article is available here and below. Continue reading

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Op-Ed in the Christian Science Monitor – “America’s way out of dependence on Pakistan: Iran”

The Christian Science Monitor recently asked me for an op-ed on US-Pakistan relations.

“America’s way out of dependence on Pakistan: Iran” argues that America’s very dependence on Pakistan is the key source of regional instability, amounting to US support for a Pakistani military-economic complex that churns out militants and is the world’s worst nuclear proliferator. To change the tide, it ought to enlist the support of an unlikely ally: Iran, whose eastern Chabahar Road can help wean the world off its dependence on Pakistan and reorient Afghanistan’s future.

The article’s available here or in full at

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