The South Asia Channel

The Pashtuns and the Taliban

Abubakar Siddique, The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan (London: C. Hurst and Co., 2014). Hassan Abbas, The Taliban Revival: Violence and Extremism on the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014). In these two well-written and comprehensive academic press books, Abubakar Siddique and Hassan Abbas attempt to ...


Abubakar Siddique, The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan (London: C. Hurst and Co., 2014).

Hassan Abbas, The Taliban Revival: Violence and Extremism on the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).

In these two well-written and comprehensive academic press books, Abubakar Siddique and Hassan Abbas attempt to deal with two different questions.  Siddique asks about the future of the Pashtun people on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, while Abbas muses on the return of the Taliban in the same region.  However, the two books end up covering remarkably similar ground.  At least at this point in history, it appears it is impossible to talk about the future of the Pashtuns without discussing the Taliban, and impossible to discuss the future of the Taliban with talking about the Pashtuns.

While almost all general readers will have at least some conception of who the Taliban are (though both of these books will give more nuance), the identity of the Pashtuns may be less clear.  The Pashtuns are a tribal people of about 40-50 million who occupy the largely mountainous space in the East and South of Afghanistan, and the North and West of Pakistan.  In an interesting twist, while the majority of Pashtuns live in Pakistan, they are an ethnic minority in a population of about 170 million, while the minority of Pashtuns who live in Afghanistan constitute the ethnic majority in that much smaller country.

Both authors move seamlessly over the Durand Line between Afghanistan and Pakistan (as often do their subjects), stretching from the Mughul and Safavid empires of the sixteenth century through both the recent history of Afghanistan from Soviet invasion through post-9/11 as well as Pakistan’s difficult history of military government, fragile democracy, and assassinations.  In short, neither of the two countries has provided a particularly stable home for the Pashtun people, now or in the past.  Further, the mere existence of the Durand Line remains an issue (or an ignored non-issue) for many Pashtun.

Both authors agree that the Pashtuns have paid the highest price for global jihad, while conceding that they are also in some respects among the instigators.  Both the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan and the Pakistani ones in the Pashtun frontier regions have caused tremendous collateral damage, falling almost exclusively on this one ethnic group, though Abbas in particular highlights the effectiveness of drone strikes in putting al Qaeda and its affiliates "on the run."

But both authors also highlight the lost opportunity that might have been had shortly after the fall of the Taliban, when Pashtun Taliban leaders in Afghanistan offered peaceful terms to the new Karzai government.  Siddique details the letter sent jointly to Karzai by key Taliban leaders, Mullah Obaidullah and Mullah Baradur, in late 2001, while Abbas relates that even the al Qaeda allied Jalaluddin Haqqani sent his brother to Kabul in 2002 to seek terms.  Both offers were rebuffed –and Ibrahim Haqqani physically beaten for his troubles.  This lost opportunity would allow the Taliban to — in Abbas’ term –revive itself through a series of factors, though slightly different on each side of the border.  Abbas highlights tribalism, regenerated criminal networks, incompetent international contractors and regional power politics on the Afghan side of the border, while blaming the largely stateless Pashtun areas, disproportionate use of force, and religious radicalization for the Pakistani Taliban’s return.

At the end of the day, both Siddique and Abbas are looking for the same thing: a solution for the Pashtun people that permits them to live peaceably in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Lamentably, even two of our best informed scholars seem unable to find workable alternatives.  Abbas hopes for an educated and aware population, with robust rule of law and viable revenue sources for both countries.  However, any educated reader knows the status of education and rule of law in both countries (though worse on both counts in Afghanistan), and independent revenue for Afghanistan, at least, remains decades away until more robust infrastructure exists to move what is projected to be abundant mineral resources to markets and help transit goods to the Far East via what is often referred to as a "New Silk Road."  But even in the absence of security and political concerns (which are abundant), creating this infrastructure through the imposing terrain occupied by the Pashtun would be challenging.

Siddique, on the other hand, engages the political question head-on, stating that:"[T]rue stability will not be possible without a comprehensive settlement between Afghanistan and Pakistan," then adding that: "[s]ooner or later, the two countries will have to come to terms over the question of the Durand Line."  Both statements are true enough, but while the current ambiguous border does create instability, fixing it may require more internal stability than either country will have in the near future.  It is probably no accident that, as Siddique concedes, multiple generations of political leaders have tried to ignore, wish away, or propose impractical fixes to this problem.  While the proposals Siddique makes are eminently practical (opening the Durand line to cross-border traffic, Afghan accommodation on Durand Line negotiations), it is difficult to see a politically viable path that either country could legitimately travel.

In short, neither author — despite being among the real experts in the region — is able to provide viable, scalable policy solutions.  In his book’s penultimate paragraph, Abbas is reduced to admitting that the "massive expansion" of the Fulbright Scholar Program for Pakistani applicants is the best thing the United States has done for the country.  While quite plausibly true (and I applaud Abbas’ attempt to highlight non-defense/security programs), it is also damning by faint praise.  While bringing roughly 200 Pakistani graduate students to the United States each year is most assuredly not nothing, it cannot plausibly be described as high-impact.

The Pashtuns, and its Taliban movement that will continue to impact both sides of the border, remain a key demographic for both stability in South Asia and in the fight against the global jihad of al Qaeda and its fellow-travelers.  The emergence of both these books is a welcome step in a better understanding.  It’s important to note that the lay reader need only read one of these two books in order to gain familiarity with the issues involved (though those working in or studying the region professionally simply must read both).  Abbas and Siddique have done great work for us in laying out the dilemma of the Pashtun people and the Taliban movement with which it remains intertwined.

Douglas A. Ollivant is a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, as well as a Managing Partner of Mantid International, LLC.  A retired infantry officer, he served two tours in Iraq, was the senior counterinsurgency advisor to the Regional Command-East commander in Afghanistan, and was a Director for Iraq on the National Security Council of both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.  He holds a doctorate in political science from Indiana University.  Follow him on Twitter at @DouglasOllivant


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