Accessibility links

Breaking News

Pakistan: Analyst Discusses Controversial 'Pashtunistan' Proposal

(RFE/RL) January 25, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- For many ethnic Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan, "Pashtunistan" is the idea of an historic homeland that was divided in 1893 by the Durand Line -- a 2,450-kilometer demarcation line drawn by the British through Pashtun tribal lands to suit the defensive needs of British colonial India.

In 1947, the newly created country of Pakistan inherited the Durand Line from British colonial India as its northwestern border with Afghanistan. But Kabul has never recognized the Durand Line as an international border, and mutual suspicions over the so-called "Pashtunistan question" continue to influence relations between the two countries.

Pakistan also inherited the British colonial name for the land on its side of the Durand Line -- the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP). Now, conservative Islamists in Pakistan's parliament want to change the name of the NWFP to "Pashtunistan." RFE/RL spoke with Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan at New York University's Center for International Cooperation, about the significance of the proposed name change.
"I think it indicates there is a lot of ferment involving the various interlinked issues between Afghanistan and Pakistan -- which is partly being provoked by the crisis in those two countries caused by the Taliban insurgency."

RFE/RL: Islamists in Pakistan's parliament say the name of the Northwest Frontier Province should be changed to "Pashtunistan." What is your reaction to this suggestion?

Barnett Rubin: Note that all the other provinces of Pakistan do have ethnolinguistic names -- Baluchistan, Sind, and Punjab. So this would be bringing the NWFP into conformity with what is otherwise the normal practice in Pakistan.

RFE/RL: What does this proposed name change suggest about the political situation for various ethnic Pashtun groups in the NWFP?

Rubin: There is an effort under way in the Pashtun areas of Pakistan to create a common platform for Pashtuns across political differences. In fact, I attended in November what was called the Pashtun Peace Jirga -- which was organized by [Pakistan's] Awami National Party, the Wali Khan group. It was led by Esfandiar Wali Khan but was attended by the leaders of all the parties, including Mulavi Fazel Rahman and some leaders of Jamati-Islami. So it may be that all the Pashtun parties have now agreed on this demand, which is part of their demand for the restructuring of the Pakistani state.

RFE/RL: How does the proposed name change for NWFP fit into the bigger picture of relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan?

Rubin: The changing of the name of the province is part of a larger set of demands which include the integration of the tribal territories into 'Pakhtunkhwa' -- that is, the extension of government law there and the extension of the political parties law there -- so that this kind of "state of exception" which allows militias, including the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, to find the hideouts there would be ended. In addition, they have also stated in their party program that if the ethnic identity of Pashtuns were recognized in Pakistan through such a renaming and integration of the tribal areas, then they would be willing to recognize the Durand Line as an international border, though they want it to be an open border. And they would work with the Afghan government to recommend that it do so as well. So it could be a positive step toward trying to solve the problems between the two countries.

RFE/RL: Could the proposed name change of NWFP have any negative impact upon relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan?

Rubin: On the negative side, of course, it could be seen as escalating the ethnic tension, since the government in Pakistan has tried to portray the Taliban insurgency as an ethnic Pashtun movement.

RFE/RL: What relationship does this proposed name change for NWFP have to the proposed jirgas of Pashtun tribal leaders from both the Afghan and Pakistani sides of the Durand Line?

Rubin: Those jirgas are still the subject of discussion between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Within Afghanistan, the president [Hamid Karzai] very quickly realized after some parliamentary statements about this, that he could not involve only Pashtuns. This is a national issue. So the committee that he has appointed to help organize the jirga from the Afghan side includes several prominent non-Pashtun leaders as well from all the various ethnic groups. It's not clear how the participation will be organized on the Pakistan side. I don't think that this move has any direct bearing on that. But there are a lot of issues that are in play right now that are related to each other. The lack of recognition of the Durand Line is one of the things that has motivated Pakistan's activities to assure that the government in Afghanistan is not hostile and to undermine governments in Afghanistan over the past 60 years. The Pashtunistan demand was one of the reasons that the Afghan government pursued some kinds of policy of confrontation with Pakistan. The lack of recognition of the border makes border security much more complex and difficult to negotiate between the two countries. For the Pashtuns in Pakistan, the issue of their ethnic identity and their representation within a federal Pakistan is closely linked to their willingness to accept fully that border as an international border. And also, the status of the tribal territories is important to them. The status of the tribal territories is equally important to Afghanistan because if they were someday to recognize the border, they would want to be sure that there was a state on the other side of the border that they could cooperate with in assuring security. And now, the Pakistani state is absent from those tribal territories. So they can't rely on that. So at the moment [the idea of changing the name of NWFP] is just a proposal in the legislature. But I think it indicates there is a lot of ferment involving the various interlinked issues between Afghanistan and Pakistan -- which is partly being provoked by the crisis in those two countries caused by the Taliban insurgency.

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

SUBSCRIBE For regular news and analysis on Afghanistan by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report."