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Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Great Game And The Suffering Of Pakhtuns

The Great Game And The Suffering Of Pakhtuns

Fatima Ahmed

An analysis of the dynamics of the current Pak-Afghan relations and conflict in the region is a difficult and sensitive issue. Tall claims of friendly relations based on a shared history, common religion and intermingling culture notwithstanding, the strain in relations has very deep and entrenched roots. Most politicians, military leaders and intelligentsia alike choose to overlook history when they attempt to tackle this issue. The same ignorance of understanding history translates into wrong policy formulation at regional and national level with devastating effects for the Pukhtuns as well as the broader region. As some sage said, ‘If we don not know our history, we will never be able to master our future.’ Recourse to history might give us clues how to deal with the current issues for the benefit of both the countries, the wider world and more importantly the people that inhibit these borderlands - the Pukhtuns. Sadly it is the 42 million Pukhtuns, one of the largest ethnic groups in the world that are the worst sufferers of this conflict. And their suffering started that fateful year, 1839 when the Colonial British Empire crossed the Suleman Range in an attempt to extend their Empire to Central Asia before the Tzarist Russia could swallow it. The ‘Great Game’, as it was called; has been played over and over again ever since and continues to define the politics of this region. During the two hundred and fifty years since then, the players and the nature of the game has changed and so has the prize; the only constant factor has been the playground and suffering of the Pukhtuns. That attempt by the British Empire failed to enslave the Pakhtuns completely, but it started a chain of events that bedevils them till today, strain the relations between various states in the region, particularly Pakistan and Afghanistan and draws in external powers. That fateful attempt was also historic, because it represented a change in a centuries old phenomenon. For millennia, countless people and races from Central and South West Asia had been coming southwards, passing through the lands inhibited by the Pukhtuns in the hope of capturing the Indian treasures. Among them were the Greeks under Alexander the Great, Tamerlane, the Mongol hordes, Ghaznavids, the Mughuls to name a few. The British Empire’ through this action reversed that process. For centuries the flow of cultures, languages, traditions and social values had been southwards. This act beside its political implications also introduced the process of flow of social and cultural values in the opposite direction. On the political side the first round of the Great Game in the 19th century resulted in the division of the Pakhtun nation into three zones of British political influence, the fully controlled settled areas, the semi-autonomous tribal areas and the independent Afghanistan, sowing the seeds for the subsequent conflict that continues even today.The second round of this great game, which started with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 70s with the intension of reaching the warm waters culminated in the destruction of the social fabric of the Pukhtuns on both sides of the Durand Line by introducing fundamentalism, religious extremism, obscurantism, violence and drugs. This also left them the company of a plethora of various brands of Jihadies, chief among them Arabs, Uzbeks, Chechens, Turkmen, South East Asians and even some westerners – a conglomerate of freelance mercenaries with no allegiance to any state or religion, collected by the CIA and its clients for the purpose of defeating communism. The ideological weapon given to this terrorist conglomerate was ‘Jihad’, and the ammunition was religion. These phenomena, over a period of time shifted the political control from the traditional liberal political leadership to the fringe clergy which culminated in bringing the hardliner Taleban in power. This also resulted in their association with the terrorists of the world exemplified by Osama Bin Laden and his shadowy organisation Al-Qaeeda. These wrong policies set in motion a chain reaction of radicalisation of the Pakhtun society, the effects of which are still spreading as proved by the events in FATA and even some settled areas of NWFP. The third round was a logical consequence of this phenomenon and was apparently triggered by the events of 9/11 but had at the core other motives too; the emergence of China as a potential contender for global power, the world’s second largest oil and gas reserves in Central Asia and perceived western objective of bringing democracy to the Muslim world. This game is still being played out in the deserts, valleys and hamlets of Helmand , Kandahar and Kabul but also in the tribal areas and NWFP, though at a different level. One wonders where this round will leave the Pakhtuns? The hapless Pakhtuns can only wish it ends in something positive, hopefully democracy, peace and social development. The chances may seem remote, given the current sequence of events, however, the hope lies in the fact that this time around the players are global and so are the stakes. However, unfortunately, the global players this time around too, are not letting the Pukhtuns; the worst sufferers to have a say in what is to be their future. If past history is any guide, the solution lies in letting this proud nation to unite and decide for themselves, what is best for them. If they are in peace, the whole region is likely to enjoy peace and prosperity. A failure this time around will be catastrophic not only for the Pakhtuns but also for the entire region and even the world as proved by the events of September 11, 2001.That the regional and global policy makers either ignore to acknowledge or continue to sweep under the carpet the fact that Pukhtuns lie at the heart of the conflict and also hold solution to it, is an understatement. Whatever way, we might approach it, the one thing which history suggests is that unless the wrongs done to this poor but proud nation, during the past two and a half centuries are addressed; no long term solution can be found to the conflict which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, mostly Pakhtuns. Till the sufferings of the unfortunate Pakhtun nation on both sides of the Durand Line are mitigated; no one in the region is likely to live in peace. The question arises, how this suffering can be mitigated. This question demands answers which no one seems to want to answer. It is in fact a fundamental dichotomy in the relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as the political division of the Pakhtun lands and people within Pakistan which make the basis of the conflict and suffering in this region. The existence of the Durand Line which divides the Pakhtun nation unnaturally without any consideration of humanity coupled with the divisions of their polity within Pakistan, ensures that we the Pukhtuns will continue to suffer and the region will remain mired in conflict. Historically, all divided nationalities, particularly those inhabiting buffer regions between major powers, as is the case of Pakhtuns, have been victims of conflict, abuse, manipulation and at times being used as proxies. Kurds who are divided between Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran are another case in point. Add to this the complexities of competing political ideologies, language, culture, tribalism, backwardness and illiteracy and to top it all an influx of religious extremism and you find yourself in a quagmire like the Pashtuns find themselves. The solution lies in making the Pukhtun body whole - once again.

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