Mr. Tilak Devasher, the author, knows the Pakistan-Afghanistan region extremely well and one can judge his scholarship and understanding of that region through the books he has written. Three of his earlier books are - Pakistan: Quoting the Abyss; Pakistan at the Helm; and Pakistan-The Baluchistan Conundrum. Discussion today is on his book-The Pashtuns: A Contested History - a book on a very significant group of people and a title that very aptly describes their journey.
Pashtun identity brings to mind, a people who are fiercely independent, with a high sense of honour and bound by the Pashtunwali code of conduct. Inhabiting a tough and rough terrain, they are fierce warriors with a proud history. The land they inhabit, lies in the Suleiman range which is between Hindu Kush Mountain and the Indus river. Their land is a natural barrier between Central Asia and South Asia, along a route that has been used from Alexander to Nadir Shah to enter India. While there are several Pashtuns tribes, constantly fighting with each other, yet when it comes to collective Pashtun issues there is unity amongst them, however, short lived.
I will mention three historical events have left deep impact on the psyche of the Pashtuns. One the foundation of the Afghan nation by Ahmad Shah Abdali in 1747 which gave them a concept of a country. Two, their constant battles with the Sikhs since 1748, which around 1823 saw the Sikhs take control of Peshwar and Jamrud, and hence the control of Khyber Pass cutting their access to the plains. Third, the signing of the Agreement on Durand Line in 1893 by the British Government with the Amir of Afghanistan. This Line was to serve the British purpose of creating a buffer zone between the British Empire and the Russian Empire but in fact divided the Pashtuns. They have never accepted the partitioning their homeland and for this reason they are against the Durand Line and raise the Pashtunistan issue. For example, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a tall Pashtun leader, speaking in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, said ‘We want to see all the Pathans on this side of the Duran Line joined and united together in Pakhtoonistan.’
Afghanistan was the only country that did not vote in favour of admission of Pakistan to the UN in 1947. Afghan representative stated that it is due to the fact that Afghanistan cannot recognise North West Frontier as part of Pakistan as long as the people of the NWF have not been given an opportunity free from any kind of influence to determine for themselves whether they wish to be independent or to become part of Pakistan. Clearly, Afghanistan as a nation state did not accept Durand Line as the boundary between the two countries since the creation of Pakistan and this position continues till modern date.
Living both in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Pashtuns have influenced politics of both countries.
There are 15 million Pashtuns in Afghanistan where they are the biggest and dominant ethnicity. In Afghanistan, the Pashtuns have largely held power in Kabul except for short periods. The question there always has been and, even today remains, how there can be stability in Afghanistan by formation of a Government that includes all other Afghan ethnic groups - Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras.
In Pakistan, there are 31 million Pashtuns where they are an important minority. But it was only in 2010 that the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was established reflecting the Pashtun identity of a province even though the other groups Punjabis, Sindhis and Baluchis had provinces- named after them since the formation of Pakistan.
The Taliban are a recent phenomenon in history of Pashtuns. They are children of Afghanistan refugees who were living in camps in Pakistan, after Soviet invasion of 1979 and studying Madrasas in Pakistan. It is a fact that, Afghan Taliban is predominantly Pashtun but it is also important to recognize the all Pashtuns do not identify with their world view.
When the Taliban first appeared in the 1990s, they were welcomed by many common Afghans who hoped that this movement would bring an end to the insecurity and violence caused by the civil war. The resurgence of Taliban post 2021 has been a notable development in the region along with the presence of ISIS in Afghanistan, that is worrying. It would therefore, be important that the territory of Afghanistan does not become a source of radicalization, terrorism and insecurity both regionally and globally.
The book Pashtuns covers several of these aspects and so will our discussion today. I now invite Mr. Tilak Devashar to introduce his book.