By Asad Ismi
Much has been written and broadcast in the Western media about U.S. drone attacks in northwestern Pakistan, but little about the main targets of these drones: the Pathan people.
I grew up with Pathans (called Pashtuns in Afghanistan) in northwest Pakistan, where I attended high school with them. Pathans comprise 48% of Afghanistan’s population and 15% of Pakistan’s. The Durand Line (named after Mortimer Durand, a British official) which demarcates Pakistan and Afghanistan divides the Pathans who live on both sides of the line. The line is not an actual border between the two countries because the British never conquered the Pathan tribes living on the Pakistani side. This tribal area remains independent, and includes Waziristan where the drone attacks are taking place today. The area is not controlled by Pakistan, which inherited only the territory seized by British colonialists when they ruled India.
Because Britain never conquered the northernmost areas of Pakistan, the Pakistani state has no authority over the Pathans living in these areas, which means that there is no real border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. These northern regions, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), are autonomous and are ruled by their own legislatures known as Jirgas or tribal councils. The Pathans are a tribal people. Waziristan, for instance, is populated by three Pathan tribes.
The Afghanistan government does not recognize the Durand Line as a national border, and the line was not negotiated as such by Britain and Afghanistan in 1893. The line merely signifies “spheres of influence” of the two countries, and is “a line of control beyond which either side agreed not to interfere unless there were an expedient need to do so. Memoranda from British officials at the time of the Durand Agreement incline towards this view.”
The Pathans have therefore freely moved between Afghanistan and Pakistan, not recognizing state boundaries in an area never conquered by Britain or Pakistan. So, when the Taliban, who are Pathan, move into northern Pakistan from Afghanistan, they are not invading Pakistan but rather travelling in independent Pathan territory where they are seeking refuge with their Pathan relatives and friends — something they have every legal right to do.
The U.S. drone attacks on the people of Waziristan, whom the U.S. accuses of harbouring Taliban, are, in sharp contrast, completely illegal and may constitute war crimes according to the United Nations. The Pathan code of hospitality, known as “Pakhtunwali,” also prevents them from denying help to any guest requesting it. A famous saying among the Pathans states: “It is your honour to have a guest.”
There is little doubt that the Pakistani state is complicit in the U.S. drone attacks on Pathan territory. This is because Pakistan wants to control its northern border areas with Afghanistan, which so far it has never been able to do. All Pakistani military invasions of these Pathan areas have been repulsed. The Pakistani military, which dominates the country’s state and government, hopes that the U.S. drone attacks will serve to weaken Pathan tribal resistance. But the opposite has happened, with the drone attacks intensifying Pathan anger and resistance to Pakistan, which has become increasingly delegitimized in Pathan eyes as an American puppet.
The Pakistan army, always a U.S. vassal, has frequently attacked the country’s ethnic groups: the Bengalis, Sindhis, Baluch, and Pathans. The military and civil service are dominated by a fifth ethnic group, the Punjabis. With U.S. backing. the Punjabi army killed up to three million Bengalis in East Pakistan in 1971. This horrific genocide led to East Pakistan seceding from Pakistan and becoming Bangladesh. At the time, Bengalis constituted 55% of Pakistan’s population. Soon after, the Pakistan army attacked the Baluch people in the province of Baluchistan, massacring 5,000 of them. Today, Baluchistan is once again in a state of civil war, with Baluch guerrillas trying to stop the Pakistan army from continuing to attack and kill more Baluch civilians.
Similarly, the Pakistan army has invaded the independent Pathan areas near the Afghan border and is encouraging and collaborating with U.S. drone attacks in an effort to subdue the Pathans. There are thus two civil wars now raging in Pakistan, whose army has learned nothing from having lost half the country when East Pakistan seceded.
The Pathans have a proud history of resistance to colonialism in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the latter case, the Afghan Pathans humiliated the British empire in a major military defeat in 1842 when it recklessly invaded Afghanistan. The British invaded again in 1878, achieving some geopolitical objectives, but again were unable to annex Afghanistan as part of its global empire.
On the Pakistani side, the Pathans have not only maintained their independence, but have also displayed a progressive spirit. Their most popular leader was the venerable Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (also known as Bacha Khan). An ally of Gandhi during the 1930s and ‘40s, Bacha Khan was renowned for launching an “epoch-making non-violent movement” against British imperialism. The British killed 240 of Khan’s followers in a single massacre, but he refrained from retaliation.
Sher Zaman Taizi, an eminent Pathan scholar, wrote: “Very rarely does the world see leaders who raise their society from the ignominious depths of ignorance and obscurity to the heights of enlightenment and glory. Abdul Ghaffar Khan was one of this rare breed of leaders.”
When Pakistan was being created in 1947, largely as an imperialist plot of the British to divide India, Bacha Khan refused to become part of it. Elections were supposed to be held in British India’s Northwest Frontier Province (where most people were Pathans) to decide whether it would become part of India or Pakistan. Under the leadership of Bacha Khan, most Pathans boycotted these fraudulent elections. The creation of Pakistan has therefore never been recognized by the Pathans in its north, and they never agreed to become part of it. The Punjabi-dominated Pakistani state reacted by jailing Bacha Khan for close to half his life (he lived until the age of 98 and died in 1988).
In contrast, India honoured Bacha Khan with its highest award, the Bharat Ratna, in 1987, and the Indian Congress Party (which has ruled India for most of its post-independence history) asked him to become its national leader. Bacha Khan was also nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Before and after Pakistan came into being, Bacha Khan called for the implementation of socialism, including land reforms, equal economic opportunities, and free education. His son, Wali Khan, joined the National Awami Party (NAP), a left-wing party, and later formed his own socialist party, the Awami National Party (ANP) that to this day rules the Northwest Frontier Province, now called Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province (KPP). Since its formation, the ANP has dominated the politics of the KPP, testifying to the absolute and enduring popularity of Bacha Khan and his family. Leadership of the party has been passed on to Wali Khan’s son and Bacha Khan’s grandson, Asfandyar Wali Khan.
In the Western media, the Pathans are usually portrayed as violent Islamic fundamentalists, but in fact their most popular leaders on the Pakistan side are socialist pacifists, and socialism continues to be the leading political ideology among them. Of course, many Pathans have also taken up arms to fight for their independence when attacked, and this form of resistance is fully justified.
In Afghanistan, too, most Pathans are not Islamic fundamentalists. The most popular leader of the Afghan Pathans was King Zahir Shah, who ruled Afghanistan for 40 years (1933-1973). His was a liberal regime which successfully balanced Western and Soviet influence and tried to use both to benefit Afghan national interests.
This delicate and crucial political balance was destroyed, not by the Soviet Union which was happy with Zahir Shah, but by the U.S. and its puppet Pakistan who were determined to dominate Afghanistan and so fomented a coup against Zahir Shah, placing his cousin Mohammed Daud on the throne in 1973. This coup destabilized Afghanistan and started the country’s and the Pathan people’s nightmare of war and displacement that continues today.
To satisfy his American masters, Daud tried to execute senior officers in the Afghan Army, which was trained by the Soviet Union and was pro-Soviet. Before he could kill them, the army officers shot Daud and handed over power to two Afghan communist parties known as Parcham and Khalq.
When Khalq and Parcham were unable to rule effectively, the Soviets invaded in 1979 to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a Western base on their border. Zbigniew Brzezinski, U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, declared in an interview later that in 1979 the U.S. had set a trap for the Soviets in Afghanistan and that they had fallen into it. Washington then financed one group after another of fanatic Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan in order to shatter Afghan nationalism and control the country. The fundamentalists were Pan-Islamists, not nationalists, and so easier to dominate. In addition, they had no popular base among the people, a deficiency which also made them more amenable to foreign influence.
However, despite lavishing $6 billion on the fundamentalists (known as the Mujahideen), the U.S. was unable to control even these fanatics and had to create the equally fundamentalist Taliban (in league with Pakistan) to counter them in 1996. Once in power, however, the Taliban also slipped out of Washington’s grasp, unleashing the Western occupation of Afghanistan and the U.S. drone attacks on the Pathans of northwestern Pakistan.
Throughout this vicious 32-year conflict, the Western people have been told by their governments that the Pathans are fanatical Islamic fundamentalist terrorist extremists, who helped attack the U.S. in 9/11 and whose territory has to be occupied and inhabitants killed to keep them pacified.
In fact, to the extent that religious extremism among Pathans now exists, it has been provoked and highly financed by Washington, partly in order to give it a pretext to intervene in an area of strategic and geopolitical importance. The most popular leaders of the Pathans have been socialists, pacifists, and liberals who have tried their best to bring enlightenment, true independence, and stability to their people. For such commendable efforts they have been overthrown, jailed and killed by Western imperialism and its local agents.
Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, March 2013
Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent. He is an expert on U.S. foreign policy who has published more than a hundred articles on this subject and is the author of the book Informed Dissent: Three Generals and the Vietnam War which is available from ten booksellers on the internet.