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Pakistan's Pashtuns Feel More Alone Than Ever

  • Shaheen Buneri

Does Pakistan's government devote more effort standing up for Afghanistan's Pashtuns than its own?

Does Pakistan's government devote more effort standing up for Afghanistan's Pashtuns than its own?

Pashtuns straddling the Pakistani-Afghan border face serious challenges to their socio-cultural survival. It's very hard for the estimated 50 million Pashtuns to know whether the world recognizes their numerous sacrifices in the ongoing war, or whether all of them have simply been dismissed by the outside world as Taliban supporters and sympathizers.

From Waziristan to the Swat Valley, the Taliban since 2006 has claimed responsibility for the destruction of hundreds of schools, music shops, and other buildings, as well as the killings of about 700 tribal elders and the kidnapping of university teachers, religious scholars, and aid workers. Taliban suicide-bomb attacks have killed thousands of innocent bystanders.

Until very recently, Pakistan's central government completely ignored the rise of the Taliban. Hundreds of illegal FM radio stations were allowed to spread hatred and bigotry throughout the tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. Locals became convinced that the security and intelligence agencies were preparing a horrible plot that even today has no end in sight.

In the past four years, the Pashtun "jirga" was replaced by the Taliban "shura" through a display of violent force. Traditional Pashtun melodies have been superseded by Taliban chants inciting youths to a life of terrorism. Female dancers have been persecuted and murdered by Taliban militants seeking to impose their extremist religious agenda on a moderate people. In March 2009, the shrine of legendary Pashtun Sufi poet Rahman Baba was bombed and destroyed.

To counter this violent assault, various Pashtun tribes in the tribal areas, Peshawar, Dir, Buner, and Swat formed tribal "lashkars" (militias), but these nascent forces soon came under violent attack from Taliban militants. Again, the security forces failed to provide any significant protection.

The traditional Pashtun cultural value of hospitality was shamelessly exploited by the Taliban and their supporters to create a haven for various militant and extremist formations on Pashtun territory. To this day, the dominant political discourse in Pakistan's governing circles describes the Pashtuns as people who support and shelter the Taliban rather than as the people who have done the most to resist the militants and who have been most brutally victimized by them.

Pakistan Ignores Its Pashtuns

The United States has formed a strategic partnership with the powerful Pakistani military establishment. However, the two "partners" have radically differing views of the Taliban. Washington is urging Pakistan to eliminate the militants who are carrying out attacks on coalition forces inside Afghanistan. But many in Pakistan's elite see the Pakistani Taliban as a strategic asset that will ensure Pakistan's influence in any future arrangement in Afghanistan.

The United States has provided billions of dollars of civilian and military aid but, according to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the central government has provided little money to the province for reconstruction or security. But without the restoration of basic health and educational infrastructure in the region, how can religious militancy be rooted out?

While the military makes plans for a major base in the Swat Valley, the locals in the region are demanding basic amenities like sanitation, clean water, and safe schools. The people of flood-ravaged Khyber Pakhtunkhwa cry out for shelter and food, while the military insists on the need for new high-tech military hardware to continue its endless rivalry with India.

The main media in Pakistan -- especially Punjab-based television channels -- have little time to cover the plight of the Pashtuns. Instead, television talk shows are filled with endless discussions of politico-religious leaders blaming the United States and India for all the problems in the country and the region.

Now everyone is discussing reports of peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban. Much to the bewilderment of Pakistan's Pashtuns, the government in Pakistan has been urging a greater voice for Afghanistan's Pashtuns vis-a-vis the country's ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks. And Pakistan's Pashtuns watch, wait, and wonder what will become of them if the Taliban returns to power in Kabul.

Shaheen Buneri is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal in Prague. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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