It’s 2014 and as promised, the US is withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan. No one knows how many soldiers will stay back and what their role will be, but one thing is clear: after spending over a decade and billions of dollars on their “war on terror”, the world’s most powerful nation will leave behind a fractured nation, forced to somehow pick up the pieces and try to rebuild itself.
Coinciding with this military withdrawal, journalists and strategy analysts/thinkers from across the world, many of whom have spent close to a decade covering the war-torn region, are releasing their tell-all books. But there is a difference between others’ books and Abubakar Siddique’s The Pashtuns – The Unresolved Key to the Future of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As a tribesman from the region — a Pashtun from Waziristan, who has seen the conflict that engulfed both sides of the Durand Line — Siddique gives an insider’s perspective. The book challenges the popular notion that the recent phase of Islamic extremism, violence and support for the Taliban, is rooted in Pashtun culture and history. Siddique skillfully breaks down the complexities of the region, taking the reader through the history of a resilient people, who have been shaped by six centuries of invasion and internal strife.
One of the most striking aspects of his narration is bringing out the contradictions that exist between the perception of the conflict and on-ground realties. For example, it was largely believed that since a large chunk of Taliban leadership comprised Pashtuns, they adhered to Pashtunwali or fundamental Pashtun values and laws — and, hence, had the support of the local population. However, according to the author, the Taliban failed to please anyone, especially the Pashtuns.
Not only were the Taliban opposed to the Pashtun political elite, which predated them, they also brought in Sharia law and opposed important tenets of Pashtun law. Most of the top leadership of the Taliban were moulded by war and proved to be poor administrators, failing to deliver any real form of governance. The book talks about how many of the locals were, at first, happy about the international intervention in Afghanistan post 9/11. But the ‘limited approach’ adopted by the US and NATO — focussing only on security with no development-based outreach — created enemies. Siddique cites examples of battleweary Talib giving up the way of violence only to once again take up arms after witnessing the horrors that befell their families and tribesmen at the hand of government forces. Throughout the book, he remains critical of the policy adopted by the western powers, including their retreat.
Siddique was born in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) belt in Western Pakistan, central to the conflict, and spent years researching in a rather non-conducive political environment. All this gives him a perspective few others have. His crisp style ensures that the narrative isn’t lost in the vast array of facts that are sprinkled throughout the book. Through a careful election of these, he explains Pakistan’s need for strategic depth and its desire to keep Pashtun nationalism in check. The Pashtun leadership claims that since Pakistan was created in 1947, the arbitrary British creation of the Durand Line, which cuts right through Pashtun land, does not apply.
Siddique explains how the Pakistani Army chose to keep Pashtun areas along the Durand Line backward, a policy that compounded the Pashtuns’ suffering. His careful distinction between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, with its global reach and cause, makes for an interesting read. Drawing on his conversations with Taliban leaders, Siddique talks of multiple opportunities presented by the Taliban to the Saudis and then to the US to try and arrest Osama Bin Laden, opportunities that were clearly not taken up. According to the Taliban leaders, al-Qaeda and Osama were like guests, welcomed initially, only to become a burden eventually that the Taliban did not want. In fact, it was 9/11, which led to the end of Taliban dominance in Afghanistan.
The last chapter is probably the most important one. Given the uncertainty that exists around the withdrawal of US troops, Siddique is frank about the role that the US, Pakistan and the people of Afghanistan must play for the region to have any semblance of peace. For him, the settlement of the Durand Line is central, and it’s a settlement that will require compromises from both sides.