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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 December 2006, 12:24 GMT
Pashtuns want an image change
Ahmed Rashid
By Ahmed Rashid, Lahore

Pashtuns feel they are being wrongly demonised
Since 11 September 2001, Pashtuns feel they have become the most vilified ethnic group in the world.

They are angry, frustrated and now want to reclaim their identity from being lumped with the Taleban and as perpetrators of terrorism and suicide bombings.

Most Afghan prisoners held by the Americans in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba or at Bagram air base near Kabul are Pashtun.

Those who have emerged from these - and Afghan and Pakistani-run jails are also Pashtun.

So are the thousands of civilian casualties who have been bombed by mistake or carelessness in southern Afghanistan by US and Nato pilots during military operations since 11 September.

US soldiers who knocked down doors and interrogated women, alienating the population, did so largely in the Pashtun south, where American forces have been accused by locals of treating all Pashtuns as the enemy - an association that Nato is now trying to change.

Around the world we are accused of being terrorists, but tolerance is in our blood
Mehmood Khan Achakzai
Pashtun politician

All the 80 dead victims of the Pakistani air force bombing of a madrassa in Bajaur tribal agency in Pakistan in late October were also Pashtun.

The pace of promised development, reconstruction and money spent by Western donors is slowest in Afghanistan's Pashtun south.

Pakistan's Pashtun belt is one of the most deprived regions in the country, even though it holds immense resources and generates nearly 50% of the country's hydro-electric power.

Cross-border movement

The tragedy for the Pashtuns has been their association with the Taleban.

The Taleban were a majority Pashtun cross-border movement which, in 1994, enlisted support from Pakistan's 40 million Pashtuns and Afghanistan's 10-12 million Pashtuns.

Their bitter, brutal war against the non-Pashtun former Northern Alliance helped create long-lasting ethnic feuds in Afghanistan.

Pashtun mourners
Pashtuns mourn the death of their kin in the recent Bajaur bombing

But it was the Taleban's association with Osama Bin Laden and the protection they gave al-Qaeda after 1996 that first associated the Taleban with terrorism in the eyes of the international community.

Even then many Pashtuns resisted the Taleban.

Among them was Abdul Haq - who was gunned down by the Taleban for leading a revolt in 2001 - and Hamid Karzai, who is now president of Afghanistan.

In Pakistan, secular and democratic-minded Pashtuns have long resisted the idea that the 3,000-year-old Pashtun culture and language should be Talebanised.

Now, for the first time, hundreds of political leaders and tribal chiefs from the Pashtun tribes inhabiting Pakistan's border with Afghanistan have held a Pashtun Peace Jirga, or tribal council, demanding an end to Taleban violence in both countries.

Restore traditions

They accused Pakistan's military regime and its intelligence agency, ISI, of giving clandestine support to the Taleban and other extremist groups and demanded an end to it.

Clean-shaven tribal chiefs with large turbans, religious scholars with long scraggly beards and young political activists sat together in a large hall in Peshawar in late November demanding that the peaceful traditions and values of the Pashtun tribes be restored.

"The world is asking 'who are you Pashtuns?'" said Mehmood Khan Achakzai, the leader of a moderate Pashtun party in Balochistan province?

"Around the world we are accused of being terrorists, but tolerance is in our blood - it is taught by our mothers. We do not hate people just because their noses are long or they speak in foreign tongues. We demand all the world respect our values, culture and the dignity of our people," he added.

Hamid Karzai
Mr Karzai is a Pashtun who has always resisted the Taleban

The jirga was organised by the Awami National Party (ANP) - a democratic, secular Pashtun nationalist party that has been marginalised in the past decade due to its strong criticism of Pakistan's military regime and the wave of Islamic extremism that has flooded the Pashtun tribal belt on both sides of the border.

However, the ANP and other democrats are now regaining popularity because of deepening fears within the tribes about the Taleban enforcing their writ among all Pashtuns.

"The Taleban are not the creation of Pashtun society, but the creation of the Pakistan army," said Afsandyar Wali, the head of the ANP.

"Pashtuns stand united for peace, but the fire of war is burning our land and we have to find the means to extinguish it. We are caught in the middle of warmongers, extremists and militants," he added.

The Jirga also heard from Taleban supporters such as Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a cleric who heads the radical Jamiat-e-Ullema Islam party that is presently ruling the two border provinces of Balochistan and the North West Frontier and openly aids the Taleban insurgency in Afghanistan.

Drowned out

Rehman claimed that the Taleban were resisting foreign occupation and aggression.

But for the first time, such appeals to violence by a Pashtun mullah were drowned out by voices which said that the Taleban were a threat to peace and a total negation of Pashtun values.

Part of the problem is the army and the ISI.

Before 11 September, when Pakistan openly supported the Taleban, the intelligence services (ISI) literally re-wrote Afghan history.

The Taleban were largely illiterate, but a special ISI cell wrote articles and books, and paid for seminars in an attempt to show that the extremism of the Taleban was part-and-parcel of Pashtun identity.

Afghan Pashtuns such as Mr Karzai, Abdul Haq and former King Zahir Shah resisted this, but they were voices without access to the Pakistani media.

Pakistani Pashtuns who resisted this labelling were called traitors and anti-national by the ISI.

Now democratic Pashtuns say that in recent statements, President Pervez Musharraf is also trying to demonise Pashtuns.

"Musharraf is describing us as barbarians who shed blood and that the Pashtun are violent," Mr Achakzai told the jirga.

Much of the debate focused on defining the two traditional centres of Pashtun values - the masjid, or mosque, and the hujra, or the seat of the tribal chief.

In other words, the power of religion and secular political power.

While clerics defended the Taleban saying they had united the two, others insisted they must be kept separate if the Pashtuns were to survive as a nation.

The debate on Pashtun identity has just begun and it will be further enhanced when a grand Pashtun jirga is held among both the Pakistani and Afghan Pashtun tribes next spring.

If you would like to send a comment about this story you can use the form below.

The tragedy is that all this extremism has no roots in Pashtun society which is predominantly secular, liberal and based on certain universal traditions. The roots of this religious extremism in fact lie somewhere else.
Farhad khan, Pakistan

Very interesting, enlightening article. It counters the tendency of reacting to reports from the region by painting an entire group with the same brush. To be informed, we need this kind of nuanced reporting.
Luis Alvelais, USA

Who is aiding the Taleban who have become a formidable fighting force against the most modern Nato forces? The fact is that there is a proxy war between Pakistan military and the Nato forces. Pakistan military is behind the arms supply and military training of the Taleban. Unfortunately, the Bush administration cannot see between the white and the black, a sheer attribute of extremism in American psyche. The only solution to the present problem is to support real democracy in Pakistan, bring about virtual provincial autonomy which, in turn, will reduce the military clout in Pakistan. Regards.
Hasham Baber, Pakistan

The world knows and it is high time they realise that Pashtuns are people of peace, as is clear from their tradition of jirgas. For as long as the Americans, the west and the ISI will keep trying to banish us from the earth, we will keep emerging stronger and stronger. It is the only nation in the region that has not been ruled by the west and I can understand why they are killing us in hundreds each day. As a nationalist Pashtun, let me clearly state here that every move to bring peace to the region without winning the hearths of the Pashtun majority will not succeed.
Maiwand Majboor, Kabul, Afghanistan

Being a Pashtun myself, I find it disgusting to label a race as being terrorist. Our blood is becoming cheaper than water in Pakistan and Afghanistan, with the US and Pakistani Army butchering us like cattle. This is not going to get them anywhere. To subdue a Pashtun, respect him and give him honour!
Taimoor, Australia

It is true that that the Taleban do represent not the values of Pashtuns. But today now many moderate and secular Pashtuns support the Taleban because of foreign occupation. It is in the blood of Pashtuns to resist everyone who invades their land. I have never liked the Taleban, but the day the US dropped the first bomb on Afghanistan, I started to love them.
Ibrar Yousafzai, Swat, Pakistan

We Pashtuns and Pakistanis are Muslims and if we had the choice between Islam or secularism - secularism would go down the drain. The same is true whether its Pashtuns, Punjabis or Kashmiris - we all want an Islamic state. The tribal customs of Pashtuns has been mixed with Islam, and that has created some problems such as women's rights - but let us be clear: the Taleban are not anti-women even though the media want to portray them that way.
Zeeshan Zahid, UK

As a Canadian, I'm glad to hear that there are movements among the Pashtuns for peace, as Canadian soldiers are presently fighting the Taleban insurgency in Afghanistan. To date, 44 Canadians have lost their lives doing so. My heart goes out to Afghans. The decades of war have been a terrible tragedy for a people with such an incredibly rich and beautiful culture.
Rory Dickson, Canada

Being a Pashtun, I would like to make it clear that Pashtuns are very proud, peace loving and religious people. Their religious sentiments are often exploited by the clergy. Militancy among Pashtuns can be checked by doing two things. 1. The Pashtun areas should be developed so that the people get more opportunities and improve their life standards. 2. More schools and colleges must be opened in Pashtun areas.
Muhammad Hamayun, South Korea

I am a Pashtun. It is true that the Taleban and al-Qaeda do not represent Pashtuns. They have hijacked the Pashtun identity. And it boils my blood to every time I read the news that the Pashtuns and the Taleban are associated. Pashtuns have very strong ethical values including great tolerance, hospitality, respect for other religions, ethnic groups and races. I am very pleased that some Pashtuns have started to take bold and courageous steps in restoring the Pashtun identity.
Mahmood Khan, Afghanistan

Rashid's commentary is spot on. To brew trouble in Afghanistan in order to have Strategic Depth as soon as the allies leave, the military establishment needs the religious parties and the clerics (and their Taleban mercenaries) to stay in control of the border provinces. They rooted out the secular Pashtun leadership in the tribal areas by killing them, so they don't pose a threat to the military's strategic designs and to bring an end to the Pashtunistan issue once for all.
Aurangzaib, Pakistan

Our political Pashtun leaders from all backgrounds are corrupt and rotten to the bone. This is why all the neighbouring countries are playing the 'Great Game' and we the Pashtuns are killing and squabbling with each other.
Aziz Ullah Khan, England

It is a golden opportunity for Pashtuns on either side of the border. And in general it is going to help the whole region. This jirga can help Pashtuns to make it clear to the world that we condemn violence and at the Taleban movement as well.
Ajmal Jabarkhail, USA

Yet another example of the anti-military sentiments of A Rashid. He should have the decency to stop and think for a minute or two. Who left Pakistan holding the baby after the defeat of Russians? The Pakistan Army did not have a choice but to somehow manage a war torn country where everybody is fighting everybody else and most of all the Pashtuns. The Pakistani army and the ISI did a commendable job given the circumstances. I think Mr Rashid should be ashamed of his verbal attacks on the country.

I do not know on what payroll you are on or who you are writing for Mr Rashid, but blaming the Taleban for Pashtun population demise is totally naive.
Jawad Mahmood, Pakistan

I find myself in agreement with Mr. Rashid's views. Pashtuns have sadly been depicted as war loving and xenophobic. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Yes, Pashtuns do have a splendid history as far as wars and fighting are concerned, but people have to remember that it has always come in the form of resistance outside forces like Soviet Union. People are oblivious to the fact that dancing and drinking were an integral part of the Pashtun culture, especially during weddings. But things started to take a downturn when General Zia ascended to power. With the onset of the Soviet occupation, Zia and the CIA used the Pashtuns in the name of Islam and jihad against the Soviets. By the time the Soviets left, Pashtun society had transformed from a relatively open society to a strictly conservative one. Until the Pashtuns themselves get together and decide not to become mere pawns in somebody else's game, militancy will be difficult to wipe out from the Pashtun society.
Shahid, Pakistan

I agree 100% with this article. The ISI, the Pakistani army and Pakistani politicians are responsible for destruction of Afghanistan. The Taleban is the creation of Pakistan that has brought so much misery, death and destruction not only to Pashtuns but to the rest of the world. The US, UK and the rest of the world are stupid not realise this and admit it.
Akbar Ahmed, USA

Very well written article. Good details about moderate Pashtuns who do not want to join the extremists.
Farhan, Australia

The world must acknowledge that Pashtuns are not terrorists. Anyone can see that by studying the brilliant history of Pashtuns. I think it is crucial for divided Pashtuns to be united, and to say" no" and "enough is enough" to regional powers and their so-called friends. I think the time is near when all Pashtuns from divided parts should come together in a greater Afghanistan.
Katawazai, Afghanistan

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