Friday, December 08, 2006

The politics of the Afghan war in western Pakistan (Graeme Smith via Terry Glavin)

A very interesting story, to which I was alerted by Terry Glavin ("A Look at the 'Anti-War' Left in Pashtun Quetta"). First, some background:

One factor that complicates the conflicts going on in Afghanistan today, including the renewed Taliban insurgency in parts of the country, is that their dynamics are not confined to Afghanistan. The main base of the Taliban is not in Afghanistan itself, but across the border in the "tribal" areas of the Northwest Frontier region of Pakistan (and in part of Baluchistan). These areas are only loosely under the control of Pakistan's central government in Islamabad, a fact that the Musharraf government uses to disclaim responsibility, but it also seems pretty clear that the Taliban are getting various kinds of assistance--ranging from calculated forbearance to direct support--from at least some elements in Pakistan's military & intelligence establishment (as Fareed Zakaria and others have indicated). The Pakistani government was the major backer of the Taliban from its origins in the 1990s, and a majority of Pakistanis (like a great many Muslims elsewhere, but unlike most Afghans) still regard the overthrow of the horrifying Taliban regime in 2001 as a cause for grievance and an attack on Islam--which is morally appalling, but a fact of life--so there is still a good deal of generalized sympathy for the Taliban even among Pakistanis who are not rabid Islamist reactionaries.

As many readers will be aware, there is an important ethnic dimension to this picture. Afghanistan is a very ethnically complex society--and in some ways is even religiously diverse, even though almost 100% of Afghans are devout Muslims, since the Hazaras and some other groups are Shia rather than Sunni Muslims. There are two major languages, Pashto and Dari (a variant of Persian), as well as a range of others. Northern and western Afghanistan has an ethnic mix dominated by Tadjiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Hazaras, and others. Southern and south-eastern Afghanistan, on the other hand, are predominantly inhabited by Pushtuns (or Pashtuns, or Pukhtuns, or Pathans). Demographic estimates are all approximations (for a few examples, see the roundup toward the end of this Wikipedia entry), but most estimates seem to agree that the Pushtuns are the largest single ethnic group, without constituting a majority--somewhere in the 40-45% range, according to most accounts.

During the Afghan civil wars of the decade before 2001, the Taliban emerged in the Pushtun south of the country and drew most of their active support from Pushtuns (and from the Pakistani government, their major patron). By the time 2001 came around, the Taliban regime was resented or passionately hated by all the other ethnic groups, and a number of Pushtuns seem to have become more or less disillusioned by it, too--which helps to explain why, after a brief period of US bombing supplemented by fairly small amounts of assistance to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, the Taliban regime collapsed and its leadership fled the country. (The current President of Pakistan, Hamid Karzai, is a Pushtun, but Afghanistan is no longer ruled by a straightforwardly Pushtun-dominated regime.)

This brings us to the next complication, which is that almost all these Afghan ethnic groups spill across official national borders. Broad areas in western Pakistan are also inhabited by Pushtuns, and many Pushtuns on both sides of the border have always regarded it as an artificial division. Many of the Taliban's fighters, both Afghan and Pakistani, were trained and recruited in Pakistani madrassas. And since 2001 the Taliban's headquarters have been in the city of Quetta, one of Pakistan's regional capitals.

So far, everything I've said is pretty much common knowledge. However, according to a recent article by the usually well-informed journalist Graeme Smith (to which Terry Glavin has alerted us), Pushtun politics in western Pakistan is not unanimously behind the Taliban, either. Significant political forces there oppose the Taliban, resent being dragged into its war against the Afghan government, and direct their anger at Islamabad rather than Kabul (and Washington, DC).
The war in Afghanistan colours everything in Quetta. Just across the border from the battlefields of Kandahar, over the mountains into Pakistan, down in the ramshackle suburbs of this frontier city, the bloody conflict plays out more like an election campaign than a war.
Drab urban blocks are festooned with bright flags of the two sides: Those who want to destroy the Afghan government and those who favour protecting it. Black and white stripes mark the homes, vehicles, and even children's kites of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, a political party that openly supports the Taliban insurgency.
Not far away, spray-painted on a rock or worn proudly on a baseball cap, the red, white and green colours of Pashtoonkhwa indicate the supporters of Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's President. [....]

If it seems strange to a visitor that the biggest debate in a Pakistani city could be over the future of the government in a neighbouring country, it's entirely natural for the residents of a city that acknowledges itself as the Taliban's headquarters.
"Our society has been hijacked," said Douran Khan, 25, a geology student at a local university, sipping tea after classes. "The mullahs have imposed their war on us." On a recent afternoon, Mr. Khan joined hundreds of other Pashtuns as they gathered on the outskirts of the city for a rally against the war. The cars, motorcycles and intricately painted trucks made a boisterous parade along the highway, honking and flying the flags of Pashtoonkhwa.
Officially known as the Pashtoonkhwa Millat Awami Party, the left-wing nationalist party draws support from the Pashtun ethnic group that dominates southern Afghanistan and the tribal belt of Pakistan's northern Balochistan. [....]

Given their anti-government stand, Pashtoonkhwa leaders say, it's not surprising that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency quietly supports their rivals.
"They are saying Islam is fighting against America [in Afghanistan]," said Usman Khan Kakar, Pashtoonkhwa's provincial secretary, his voice rasping over cheap loudspeakers. "This is a lie. This is not the real fight. This is a fight between the Punjab and Kabul." His audience sat on a vast dusty field, listening in respectful silence. "The ISI has started a war in Afghanistan," Mr. Kakar said.

Although the Pashtoonkhwa calls for peace in Afghanistan, the party is not pacifist. Like the Baloch separatists whose rebelliousness makes this province one of the most unstable corners of Pakistan, the Pashtun nationalists call for resistance against the government of President Pervez Musharraf.
I must confess that this political polarization in Quetta was news to me, though I was aware that the kind of left-wing Pushtun nationalist politics that the Pashtoonkhwa Millat Awami Party appears to represent have significant historical roots in the Pushtun areas of western Pakistan, and apparently these roots have not entirely atrophied. If so, this sounds potentially important and in some ways even potentially encouraging (though I say that hesitantly and with qualifications). If pro-jihadist parties do not have a total lock on politics in this part of Pakistan, that would accord with a larger pattern in the rest of the country--despite everything, ultra-Islamist parties have not actually been able to win anything approaching majorities in free (or semi-free) elections.

At the moment, however, the Pashtoonkhwa Millat Awami Party's Islamist opponents seem to be on the winning side politically in Quetta and the rest of Pushtun Pakistan.
For now, Pashtoonkhwa is losing the fight. The party remains in opposition, while its nemesis, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, is a member of the ruling coalition in Balochistan.
Maulvi Noor Mohammed, an open supporter of the Taliban and a senior leader of the JUI in Quetta, says that he cannot keep track of how many madrassas, or religious schools, his organization runs. The number has grown into the thousands, he said, with at least 400 to 500 around the city of Quetta itself. [....]
"All of these young men are mujahedeen," Mr. Mohammed said, using a word increasingly popular among the insurgents, who view themselves as holy warriors of the kind who defeated the Russians two decades ago. [....]
Still, it's enlightening to know that these forces still have active political opponents, even in Quetta.

--Jeff Weintraub
====================
Toronto Globe & Mail
December 5, 2006
Afghan conflict incites Pakistani border town
Known as the headquarters of the Taliban, Quetta's streets throb with anger at Kabul and Islamabad, GRAEME SMITH reports

QUETTA, PAKISTAN -- The war in Afghanistan colours everything in Quetta. Just across the border from the battlefields of Kandahar, over the mountains into Pakistan, down in the ramshackle suburbs of this frontier city, the bloody conflict plays out more like an election campaign than a war.

Drab urban blocks are festooned with bright flags of the two sides: Those who want to destroy the Afghan government and those who favour protecting it. Black and white stripes mark the homes, vehicles, and even children's kites of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, a political party that openly supports the Taliban insurgency.

Not far away, spray-painted on a rock or worn proudly on a baseball cap, the red, white and green colours of Pashtoonkhwa indicate the supporters of Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's President.

Those two symbols dominate the landscape in Quetta more than any other visual cues, overwhelming the clutter of mobile phone billboards and advertisements for gun stores.

If it seems strange to a visitor that the biggest debate in a Pakistani city could be over the future of the government in a neighbouring country, it's entirely natural for the residents of a city that acknowledges itself as the Taliban's headquarters.

"Our society has been hijacked," said Douran Khan, 25, a geology student at a local university, sipping tea after classes. "The mullahs have imposed their war on us." On a recent afternoon, Mr. Khan joined hundreds of other Pashtuns as they gathered on the outskirts of the city for a rally against the war. The cars, motorcycles and intricately painted trucks made a boisterous parade along the highway, honking and flying the flags of Pashtoonkhwa.

Officially known as the Pashtoonkhwa Millat Awami Party, the left-wing nationalist party draws support from the Pashtun ethnic group that dominates southern Afghanistan and the tribal belt of Pakistan's northern Balochistan.

Pashtun nationalists agitate on behalf of a group that feels marginalized by Pakistan's government and business elites, which are dominated by Punjabis from the country's northeast. Those same angry Pashtuns, their numbers swollen by the millions of Afghan refugees, fill the ranks of the Taliban supporters and, as they filter back and forth across the border, the insurgency itself.

The difference between the Taliban supporters and the Pashtun nationalists is that the latter's anger is directed at Islamabad, calling for either a Pashtun homeland inside Pakistan or recognition of Kabul's historical claim that Quetta as well as other territory belongs to Afghanistan.

Given their anti-government stand, Pashtoonkhwa leaders say, it's not surprising that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency quietly supports their rivals.

"They are saying Islam is fighting against America [in Afghanistan]," said Usman Khan Kakar, Pashtoonkhwa's provincial secretary, his voice rasping over cheap loudspeakers. "This is a lie. This is not the real fight. This is a fight between the Punjab and Kabul." His audience sat on a vast dusty field, listening in respectful silence.

"The ISI has started a war in Afghanistan," Mr. Kakar said.

Although the Pashtoonkhwa calls for peace in Afghanistan, the party is not pacifist. Like the Baloch separatists whose rebelliousness makes this province one of the most unstable corners of Pakistan, the Pashtun nationalists call for resistance against the government of President Pervez Musharraf.

"We will fight the Punjabis," Mr. Kakar said, to applause. "This is the duty of every Muslim."

For now, Pashtoonkhwa is losing the fight. The party remains in opposition, while its nemesis, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, is a member of the ruling coalition in Balochistan.

Maulvi Noor Mohammed, an open supporter of the Taliban and a senior leader of the JUI in Quetta, says that he cannot keep track of how many madrassas, or religious schools, his organization runs. The number has grown into the thousands, he said, with at least 400 to 500 around the city of Quetta itself.

"There is no data, because we are building more every day," Mr. Mohammed said.

The white-bearded leader denied that his party, or the Taliban, are helped by Pakistani authorities. Just the opposite, he said: Recent arrests of Taliban prove that Pakistan has turned against the insurgents. (Critics say these arrests are staged roundups of ordinary Pashtuns.) When asked to name Taliban leaders captured in Pakistan, Mr. Mohammed said he could not give any examples. Instead, he lashed out at the Pashtoonkhwa, saying the party makes baseless accusations.

"Pashtoonkhwa and others are opposing the Taliban and the religious parties," Mr. Mohammed said. "They are supporting the Americans, so they blame us, or the ISI, saying we support the war in Afghanistan.

But they don't have any proof. They can't prove the JUI or the ISI is involved in the jihad."

But Mr. Mohammed didn't bother to hide his sympathy for the insurgents. A few metres behind the cushion where he sat, one of his followers had painted a U.S. flag on a parking area, so the JUI party faithful could drive over the stars and stripes as they parked their motorbikes. A young JUI member, seeing a journalist's camera, rushed to pull out a another crudely painted U.S. flag and demonstrate how it could be used as a shoe mat. In case the point hadn't been understood, he crouched down and pretended to burn the flag with a pocket lighter.

"All of these young men are mujahedeen," Mr. Mohammed said, using a word increasingly popular among the insurgents, who view themselves as holy warriors of the kind who defeated the Russians two decades ago.

"They are fighting for their homeland against the Americans, against the American policy. The U.S. came here to capture countries and impose policies on Muslims.

"But the Muslims aren't willing to accept this," he continued. "They want to push back, by force, as is happening now in Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan."

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