Counter-Terrorism: The Perils Of The Pushtun


November 27, 2009: The Afghan and Pakistani branches of the Taliban are becoming increasingly divided over means and objectives. What is going on here is Pushtun politics. The Afghan Taliban believe  their war is one of "Pushtun Liberation", in which the foreign troops are expelled and the country once more comes under Pushtun rule (preferably with a religious dictatorship, but any form of government will do as long as the Pushtuns are in charge.) The Taliban have got some traction with this. While the Pushtun tribes are only 40 percent of the Afghan population, many Pushtuns insist that they are actually the majority (51-60 percent of the population), and thus should run the nation. In the past century or so, it has been customary for Pushtun tribal leaders to dominate the central government (the king was almost always a Pushtun). But the Pushtuns were often greedy, leaving the majority tribes with hardly any power in the central government. Since the Taliban defeat in 2001, this has been reversed, with the non-Pushtun tribes now having a majority of government posts (although the president, and many key officials, are still Pushtun). Many Pushtuns resent the additional clout the majority tribes have, and want a return to the days of Pushtun domination. The majority does not agree. In the past, the Pushtun tribes got their way because of the implicit threat of support from the Pushtuns in Pakistan. That is no longer an effective threat.

The Pakistani Taliban also want a religious dictatorship, but many of these Pushtun warriors have bought into the al Qaeda idea of a global Islamic dictatorship. As difficult as that goal might seem to be, the Pakistani Taliban have a more pressing problem. Although two-thirds of the Pushtuns in the region live in Pakistan, those Pushtuns are, for the first time in their history, being invaded by the Pakistani army, and are asking for help from the Afghan Pushtuns. Since the two branches of the Taliban can't agree on much, there is not a lot of enthusiasm for getting involved with each other. The problem is one different goals. The Pakistani Taliban are a relatively new phenomenon. It was with al Qaeda help and urging that the Pakistani Taliban factions joined together in the Tehrik-i-Taliban organization two years ago. Since al Qaeda was already at war with the Pakistani government. Soon the Tehrik-i-Taliban were as well, with the al Qaeda goal of world domination..

In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Taliban are supported by a few million of the 40 million Pushtuns in the region. Meanwhile, there are bigger problems with the Pushtuns, especially their support of the heroin trade, and ignoring the Afghan/Pakistan border, but the overriding one is the inability of many Pushtuns to settle down and get along with their neighbors. The majority of the Pushtun in both nations want no part of all this violence. But the eternal tribal divisions, and unwillingness to go to war, prevent a united effort to suppress the Taliban.

A unique feature of Pakistan is that it's 165 million people are all minorities, although the Punjabis (44 percent of the population) are the dominant one (not just in numbers, but in education and income as well). Closely allied with the Punjabis are the Sinds (14 percent), and together these two groups pretty much run the country. What these lowland people have not been able to run are the Pushtun and Baluch tribes up in the hills. This has been a problem for thousands of years. The hill tribesmen are fearless warriors, but the lowlanders are more numerous, disciplined and, in the end, more than a match militarily for the tribes. The hill people can threaten and raid, but they can't conquer.

Since Pakistan was created in 1947, the policy towards the tribes was largely one of live-and-let-live. That has fallen apart with the growth of Islamic radicalism (originally seen, in the 1970s, as a cure for the corruption and poverty of the nation). This religious fervor calls for more violence throughout the country, with the goal of establishing a religious dictatorship. The Islamic radicalism never caught on, in a big way, among the Punjabis and Sinds. There are plenty of Islamic radicals in the lowlands, but they are split into many factions, and some of the factions (especially Sunni and Shia) are at war with each other. The tribal radicals can make a lot of noise, carry out terrorist attacks and threaten all those who disagree with them (including many Pushtuns and Baluchis). But they can't take over the country. It's been tried before, and this time around the lowlanders have something their ancestors didn't, aircraft and helicopters that can go after the tribesmen in the mountain redoubts. That's already happening, and more and more of the tribal leaders are figuring out the implications. If the lowlanders get really mad, especially if the Taliban and al Qaeda try to set up their own little terrorist kingdom up in the hills, there will be lots of blood.



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