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Can Pashtun Belt Be Stabilised By Imran Khan’s Popularity?

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Umer Farooq writes about bringing stability to the Pashtun belt and eliminating religious extremism and militancy from Pashtun areas on both sides of the Durand Line. He argues that Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman’s popularity among Pashtuns should not be underestimated and the government should take it into account when he marches on Islamabad this month.

Pashtuns are an ethnic group of about 50 million people, who occupy much of southern and eastern Afghanistan and north-western Pakistan.

Pashtuns do have some fully developed urban centres, most of which are located on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line. In the post-9/11 situation, this ethnic group has been at the centre of international conflict, diplomacy and politics in this part of the world.

In Afghanistan, a religious movement of madrassah students comprising mostly of ethnic Pashtuns – the Taliban – occupies a central place in the politics as well as in the future security architecture of that country. Several international estimates indicate that currently, this ethnically Pashtun movement controls majority of the territory of Afghanistan. All the powerful regional players are in the process of wooing Taliban into their security orbit, much to the chagrin of the Afghan government, which is ethnically a mix of Pashtuns and other ethnic communities of Afghanistan.

In Pakistan, the centrality of Pashtuns to the country’s politics could not be overestimated – the country’s prime minister is an ethnic Pashtun – the religious leader, Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, who is actively engaged to bring down the prime minister’s government, is a Pashtun. And the political group, Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), which is causing ripples in the political arena of the country, is purely a Pashtun movement.

The international security establishment presently led by Washington is overly focused on happenings, events and political currents in this part of the world, comprising Southern and Eastern Afghanistan and North-western Pakistan, and dominated by ethnic Pashtuns.

The international community wants a stable Pashtun belt, where religious extremism doesn’t flourish, where militant groups don’t find a sanctuary and where there is at least a modicum of economic development and progress so that socio-political stability could be achieved.

Inside Afghanistan, the international community, which is mostly comprised of United States, European countries, and Russia and China, is in contact with both Afghanistan’s government. Afghanistan’s government is partially Pashtun and is a recipient of largesse of the international community. The Taliban, which is completely composed of Pashtuns, has been granted legitimacy by the international community. The tensions between these two entities of Afghanistan are so great that they are not willing to sit across the table with each other.

In Pakistan, the situation is no different – Prime Minister Imran Khan started to feel the softer touch of Washington’s diplomacy immediately after coming to power in Islamabad after an avalanche of praises was showered on him as the honest political leader committed to the economic uplift of his country.

His arch-rival, Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, is a fundamentalist by ideological inclinations but as a practical politician, feels no qualms in inviting the American ambassador over to lunch at his place in a bid to secure for himself the prime minister’s slot, as he did in 2002. But as far as their mutual relations are concerned, Imran and Fazl are at loggerheads, absolutely unwilling to sit together and evolve some rules of the game on the political chessboard of the country.

It would not be an overstatement if someone says that stability of the Pashtun belt is the prime concern of Pakistan’s security managers in the present situation, a concern which is reflected in their harsh reactions to any possible unrest caused by a PTM-led agitation in the Pashtun belt. This is a concern they share with their erstwhile allies in Washington, which not only wants to leave Afghanistan but wants a stable functioning state in Kabul after its military presence in the war-torn country is reduced to a minimum. Hence, we see the joint efforts of intelligence services and diplomatic corps of Washington and Islamabad to bring Taliban to the negotiating table with the Afghan government.

This effort will ensure firstly that there will be no civil war in Afghanistan between Taliban and the warlord-packed government in Kabul after the US military leaves the country. Secondly, it will ensure a stable and functioning government in Kabul which will be effective in curbing the activities of new terror groups like the ISIS in Afghanistan.

Unsurprisingly, it is not without reason that Washington didn’t object to any diplomatic efforts on the part of China, Russia and Iran to accord legitimacy to the Taliban movement by inviting their leaders to their respective capitals. In the process, these capitals also encouraged direct dialogue between the Pashtun-led Taliban and Afghan government.

Many security experts and political analysts point out that Imran Khan’s popularity in the Pashtun belt is one of the strong reasons he finds himself sitting comfortably in the prime minister’s chair. Many in Islamabad were pleasantly surprised to receive reports that cricket is fast gaining popularity in Afghanistan and that Imran Khan (and Shahid Afridi) is still regarded as the best cricket star in southern Afghanistan.

Imran Khan’s popularity in the Pakistani part of the Pashtun belt is unprecedented as no popular political leader in recent history has gained such acceptability among the Pashtuns of Pakistan. Security experts say that Imran Khan is military establishment’s best bet to ensure stability in the Pashtun belt, especially, in the face of high anti-military sentiment in Pashtun areas which recently saw military operations, as reflected in the rise of PTM.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, PTI broke the past record of the incumbent not getting re-elected. The party has surprised most pundits by sweeping all the four regions of KP, winning 30 seats and surpassing its performance in 2013, when it won 17.

Equally significant was the victory of two of the leaders of the PTM who fought as independent candidates. The victory in North Waziristan and South Waziristan of the PTM leaders is a testimony to the traction the movement has gained in the Pashtun community. Despite the PTM having announced that it would be neither supporting nor nominating any candidate in the elections and would remain a non-political movement, two of its main leaders won. It is a nascent sign of the revival of a neo-Pashtun nationalist movement which is causing enormous disquiet within the ‘establishment’.

Where does Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman fit into this scheme of things? Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman’s popularity among the Pashtuns should not be underestimated. The majority of Pashtun population in Pakistan consists of peasants and religiosity of Pashtun peasants is part of Pashtun folklore. Besides, Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman could cause a lot of trouble in Islamabad using his highly-trained and highly-motivated seminary students from Khyber Pukhtunkhawa. It is not surprising that Pakistan’s security planners are describing Maulana’s call to march on Islamabad in the last week of October as a ‘security threat’.

Maulana’s belligerent attitude is not at all surprising, as he has been kept out of any role in the power arrangement in Islamabad for the first time since 2002. There was a time when he used to mediate between Pakistan’s powerful military and Pakistani Taliban in the conflict in tribal areas. That era and role ended after the Pakistani Taliban became more suspicious of his role and there were two attempts on his life.

Can the military solely rely on Imran Khan’s popularity in their efforts to stabilise the Pashtun belt? Can Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman and PTM be excluded from any type of role in the political arrangement in this region? These are the questions that are not very difficult to answer if we take a realistic view of the political realities in the north-western part of the country. But any trouble in Khyber Pukhtunkhawa can and will adversely affect Pakistan’s efforts to stabilise the Pashtun belt on either side of the Durand Line.


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