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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