The Pathans

The very name Pakhtun spells honour and glory,

Lacking that honour what is the Afghan story?

In the sword alone lies our deliverance,

The sword wherein is our predominance,

Whereby in days long past we ruled in Hind;

But concord we know not, and we have sinned.

(Khushal Khan Khattak)1

One way of looking at the Pathans of Pakistan is as eighteenth-century Scots without the alcohol.2 Here we have a people with a proud history of independence, often bitterly resentful of their incorporation in a new state – and yet many of whom at the same time draw tremendous advantages from membership of that state, most of which is much richer than their own stony pastures. The already poor province has been impoverished still further in recent years, first by the war with the Pakistani Taleban, then by the floods of 2010 which hit this region worst of all. A Pakistani Dr Johnson could well say of his Pathan compatriots that ‘the noblest prospect a Pathan ever sees is the high road that leads him to Punjab.’

Not that many Pathans would admit that, even the ones actually living in Punjab. Pathan ethnic pride is notorious. Just as completely integrated Scots in the British establishment have often at heart remained proud and even resentful Scots, so I heard a senior Pakistani civil servant in Peshawar railing against the Punjabis whose industrialists, he said, were sucking the North West Frontier Province dry and who had blocked his own advancement within the central civil service. And yet this man would as soon have wished for an independent Pakhtunkhwa linked to Afghanistan as he would have wished for a union with Pluto. Nor indeed was his own family united on this: his daughter, employed in Islamabad, growled in response, ‘And what have Pashtuns ever done for themselves? They just sit there asking Islamabad for subsidies.’

It should be noted that every single senior civil servant, serving or retired, whom I met in the province was himself an ethnic Pathan, and an attempt has been made to ensure that the most senior military commanders in the province and FATA are also usually ethnic Pathans. This marks a major difference from Balochistan; and from this point of view at least the notion of the NWFP as a Punjabi colony is quite wrong.

On the other hand, at a dinner party in Peshawar, I listened to two members of the Pathan elites, a retired army colonel and a senior local journalist for a Pakistani TV channel, discussing the possibility of Pakistan breaking up into its ethnic regions. Neither of them wanted this outcome, and both would suffer from it very badly indeed; but they were prepared to discuss it with a cool detachment which you would never find among Punjabis of their rank and position.

The complexity of Pathan links to Pakistan is illustrated by an anecdote told me by a leading politician for the nationalist Awami National Party (ANP), Bashir Bilour. The Bilours are strong Pathan nationalists, but have also sided at different times with all Pakistan’s national parties, as part of factional fighting within the ANP. All the same, I was quite surprised to learn that his family has intermarried with that of the late Ghulam Ishaq Khan (1915 – 2006), veteran Pakistani bureaucrat, President from 1988 to 1993 and an ardent Pakistani patriot. Nonetheless, when in 1993 Ghulam Ishaq appealed to Bilour to support him against Nawaz Sharif, he did so with the words, ‘After all, we Pashtuns should stick together, not go with the Punjabis!’

Along similar lines, a retired Pathan officer, Brigadier Saad, described to me how his uncle, an ANP veteran, over dinner one day had cursed the Afghans as savages. ‘How can you say this, Uncle?’, he asked. ‘Haven’t you been saying for years that they are our Pashtun brothers and we should unite with them?’

‘Oh, that wasn’t serious! It’s just a way of frightening those damned Punjabis so that they don’t beat us up.’

In the Pathan highlands, an insurrection is raging against the national government, fed in part by Pathan national sentiment. Yet as with the Scottish rebellions of 1715 and 1745, the motivation of this rebellion is not nationalism as such, but a mixture of ancient clan unrest against any government with religious differences; and the stated goal is not Pathan independence, but a change of regime in Pakistan as a whole.

Of course, the parallel is very far from exact. It does not include the crucial importance of developments in neighbouring Afghanistan for the affairs of Pakistan’s Pathans. Equally importantly, the society of the Pathan areas, and the tribal areas in particular, is rougher by far than that of eighteenth-century Scotland, and this in turn produces a much rougher kind of religious radicalism. Alas, there is no great modern Enlightenment culture to produce a contemporary Pathan Adam Smith or David Hume.

A young, highly educated Pathan woman of my acquaintance, from an elite background, described to me in 2008 how a girlfriend of hers from a similar background had recently called off her arranged marriage at the last moment in order to marry instead a former suitor: ‘There was a terrible scandal of course, but in the end the parents saw that there was nothing to be done, and agreed.’ I said that I found this an encouraging sign of progress, if only at the elite level. ‘Yes,’ she replied, looking aside with an extremely bitter face, ‘but if that had happened in my family there would have been half a dozen deaths by now between us and the other families involved, starting with the girl.’

The provincial office of the Pakistan People’s Party – at the time of writing Pakistan’s ruling party – stands on University Road, Peshawar’s high street, lined with fairly modern-looking shops and offices. Just opposite, a side road leads to the Tehkal quarter – and within a few feet turns into a rutted dusty track, unpaved and lined with filthy-looking shops, barrows with flyblown fruit and vegetables, and concrete shacks roofed with corrugated iron. Every woman on this street when I visited it was wearing a black or blue burqa.

‘You can tell the Afghan girls because they wear a more modern type of burqa than our local women – more fashionable and stylish,’ a Peshawari woman told me; something which one could find tragic, comic or even heroic, according to taste. ‘Was this road ever paved?’ I asked. ‘Once upon a time’, was the answer.

In other words, in trying to create a strict Shariah-based system in the Pathan areas the Taleban are not trying to impose something completely new. They are trying to develop something partly new out of elements that are very old indeed. And the cruelty for which the Taleban are rightly reproached has to be seen in the context of what at the best of times can be a very hard society indeed, especially as far as women are concerned.

Peshawar itself is a hard enough city, and looks it: a sprawl of dusty grey brick and concrete slums interspersed with the extravagant villas of the well-off, shrouded in dust and pollution; searingly hot in summer and grindingly cold in winter. When I think of the city, I often remember the sign for an angiography centre (heart clinic) at the entrance to the road where my usual guest-house is situated in University Town. In the West, such a sign would probably have featured a handsome elderly man, with some saccharine message about taking care of your heart for the sake of your grandchildren. The sign in Peshawar featured a huge colour photograph of a human heart, streaked with blood and rimmed with glistening fat. One of the great charms of the Pathans, acknowledged by all observers, is that they are nothing if not candid. After this, when I saw a sign for ‘Brains School, Peshawar’, I half expected it to be accompanied by a picture of a raw brain.

Peshawar’s only grace-notes are the neat and elegant official military cantonment, the beautiful gardens of its schools and colleges, built by the British on Mughal patterns, and the occasional exquisitely shaped minaret, pointing towards a better world than that of Peshawar. Yet by the standards of the rest of the province, Peshawar is wealthy indeed, with banks, luxury stores, an international hotel, even a halal McDonald’s. Now and then, if you look down a straight street, or over some low roofs, you see the outlines of an even poorer, harder world, which both hates and envies Peshawar – the tawny sentinels of the Frontier mountains, graveyard of armies.


I thought of those mountains when I attended a service at St John’s Cathedral, the old British garrison church of Peshawar. My fellow congregants were not Pathans, but descendants of low-caste Hindus, converted under the British Raj. The memoirs of the Reverend T. L. Pennel attest to the extreme resistance of the Pathans to any effort to convert them to Christianity. In fact it says a great deal for the spirit of missionaries like Pennel that they made the attempt at all.3

So the noses of the congregation were much flatter than those of the rest of the city’s population, the skins darker, and the bodies shorter. In fact, the whole service made a contrast to the dour face of Pathan public life. After three weeks in the NWFP the sight of the unveiled women in their brightly coloured shelwar kameezes and the occasional sari – though for the most part decorously seated apart from the men – was profoundly refreshing.

Although traditionally an impoverished and despised community, and today an increasingly endangered one, the Christians in Pakistan have done comparatively well in recent years, thanks to strong community co-operation, help from international Christian groups and, perhaps most importantly, commitment to education. Many of the men had pens clipped to their front pockets as a sign that they were employed in some literate profession.

The cheerful beat of the Anglican hymns, transformed almost out of recognition by India and accompanied by drums and cymbals, had a fine martial air, appropriate to a profoundly embattled and endangered community in an increasingly embattled city. A tiny girl with an enormous grin sat on the altar steps, clapping her hands in time to the music. Fans waved to and fro in a vain effort to reduce the sweltering heat, for it was August and we were in the middle of one of Peshawar’s eternal power cuts, so the giant overhead fans were still. Outside, a dozen armed police stood guard against the terrorists who have attacked so many Christian churches (and Shia mosques) in recent years. Reassuring, but, as we have seen again and again, alas, in the face of a really large-scale assault not enough to do much more than die bravely – which the poor devils have done often enough, usually unremarked by the Western media.

It was strange to sit in such heat in a red-brick neo-Gothic church below a fine Victorian hammer-beam roof, listening to a fire and brimstone sermon in Urdu; but much stranger to think of the faces that would have filled the church sixty years before – the white (or rather also brick-red) faces of the British garrison, administrators and the tiny non-official British community. Outside the main entrance, one of the greatest of the British in India is commemorated by a tall cross and an inscription which still has the power to move, because it was erected not by a state or government but by a friend, and for no reason save friendship: To Field Marshal Auchinleck, ‘In affection and admiration to the memory of this great gentleman, great soldier and great man. From his devoted friend General Sher Ali Pataudi, 1984’.

Auchinleck’s comrades and predecessors, whose names adorn the walls of the cathedral, might well have been surprised by the congregation and the music, but I doubt that much else that is happening on the Frontier today would have surprised them. The reason is summed up in their memorials: Major Henry MacDonald, Commandant of Fort Michni, ‘cruelly murdered by Afridis, 21st March 1873’; Lt Colonel James Loughan O’Bryen, commanding 31st Punjab Infantry, ‘killed in action at the head of his regiment at Agran, Bajaur, 30th September 1897’; Leslie Duncan Best OBE MC IPS, Political Agent Dir, Swat and Chitral, ‘killed in action near Loe Agra, 11th April 1935’.

Tablet after tablet of this kind stretch along the cathedral walls, commemorating a hundred years of British warfare with the Pathan tribes of the North West Frontier and Afghanistan. These ghosts testify that Pathans do not take kindly to an infidel military presence in their territories. Soviet monuments could have told the same story, if a Soviet Union had survived to commemorate its dead in Afghanistan. The surprising thing, therefore, about the present Taleban insurgency in the Pathan areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan is not that it is happening, but that it was not more widely predicted.

Looking at the attractive, unveiled women in the church, my mind travelled back twenty years to another city under threat from tribal warriors fighting for Islam: Kabul in the summer of 1989, with the Mujahidin (then anti-Communist ‘freedom fighters’ according to the Western media, but in their own presentation warriors for Islam) beginning to tighten their grip after the Soviet military withdrawal. I visited the university there and, talking to the women students and professors, I remembered what a grizzled, middle-aged mujahid from a ruined village in the hills had told me around a camp fire in Nangrahar a few months earlier, when I asked him what he meant to do when the Communists were defeated and the cities fell. ‘I mean to capture an educated wife,’ he had said.

I remembered the narrowed eyes and lean, hard faces of the Mujahidin as they stared into Ghazni from the hills around the town. I remembered them again three years later, when I was a journalist stationed in the Soviet Union during its fall, and read what had in fact happened to Afghanistan’s cities and especially their women when the Mujahidin captured them; and when I returned to Afghanistan after 9/11 and learned at first hand what the Mujahidin victory had meant for the people of Kabul. To be fair to the Taleban, it was precisely because they offered a version of peace and order after the horrors of Mujahidin anarchy that their rule was welcomed by so many Afghan Pathans in the mid-1990s. Yet for the educated classes in the cities, and for many non-Pathans, the cure was even worse than the disease.


The Taleban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan are as of 2010 first and foremost a Pathan phenomenon, with deep roots in Pathan history and culture. Whenever the tribes rose in the past, whether against the British or Afghan authorities, this was for their tribal freedoms but always in the name of Islam and usually under the inspiration of local religious figures. For most of Afghan history, the Afghan kings also called their people to war in the name of Islam – in between launching their own ferocious campaigns against dissident mullahs preaching rebellion against those same kings. The religious theme has therefore long flowed together with tribal yearning for freedom from authority – any authority, but above all of course alien and infidel domination. Or, as a Pathan saying has it: ‘The Afghans of the Frontier are never at peace except when they are at war.’

The Taleban therefore have a rich seam of instinctive public sympathy to mine in the Pathan areas. So far in both Afghanistan and Pakistan they have, however, drawn on Pathan ethnic sentiment without co-opting it completely and becoming a Pathan nationalist force. Indeed, they have not attempted to take this path. The reasons for this relate to Taleban ideology and ambitions, and also to the complicated geopolitical situation in which the Pathan ethnicity has found itself over the past 150 years.

For according to most standard models of modern nationalism the Pathans, like the Somalis, are a paradox or anomaly. They are an ethno-linguistic group with a very strong consciousness of common ethnic culture and identity, and with an ancient ethnic code of behaviour (the pashtunwali) to which most Pathans still subscribe, at least rhetorically. As in Somalia, all the elements would seem to be in place to create a modern ethno-linguistic nation-state; and yet the Pathans like the Somalis have never generated a modern state-building nationalism; and have indeed played a leading part in tearing to pieces whatever states have been created on their territory.

There are thought to be somewhere between 35 and 40 million Pathans in the world today, of whom considerably more than half live in Pakistan. This gives the Pakistani state a vital interest in what happens to the Pathans of Afghanistan. As Pakistani officials and officers have argued to me, it also means that the Pakistani state simply cannot afford to take a line on Afghanistan (for example, actively helping the US presence there) with which a majority of Pathans strongly disagree.

The vagueness of the figures on Pathan numbers illustrates the fact that no reliable Afghan national census has ever taken place, precisely because the issue of ethnic percentages is so explosive. Thus most educated Afghan (and Pakistani) Pathans with whom I have spoken have put the Pathan proportion of the Afghan population at 60 – 70 per cent. Non-Pathan Afghans have put it at 30 – 40 per cent. A Pakistani Pathan army officer described this to me as ‘statistical genocide’ on the part of the other Afghan nationalities – who say the same thing about Pathan figures.

Pathans have always regarded Afghanistan as an essentially Pathan state, and they have some reason. The dynasty which created the Afghan state was indisputably Pathan, and ‘Afghan’ is simply the Persian word for ‘Pathan’. As Tajuddin Khan, General Secretary of the ANP, put it, ‘Every Pakhtun is an Afghan, though not every Afghan is a Pakhtun.’ Throughout modern Afghan history, until the overthrow of the Communists in 1992, the central state and army were almost always dominated by Pathans – and the shock of the four years from 1992 – 6 when non-Pathans dominated Kabul was indeed one factor in generating mass support for the Taleban among Pathans.

And yet the Pathan claim to Afghanistan was always shot through with ambiguities, which have helped cripple Pathan nationalism as a state-building force. The Pathan ruling dynasty in fact spoke a dialect of Persian (Dari), as did the army and bureaucracy. Dari, not Pashto (or Pakhto), was the lingua franca of Afghanistan both formally and informally. As far as the great majority of rural Pathans (i.e. the great majority of Pathans in general) were concerned, loyalty to family, clan and tribe always took precedence over loyalty to the Afghan state.

The tribes could be rallied for a time behind jihads against alien invaders of Afghanistan (or earlier, behind campaigns to conquer and plunder parts of India or Iran); but equally, Pathan tribes repeatedly rose in revolt against Pathan rulers of Afghanistan in the name of Islam and tribal freedom, and those rulers in response carried out some of their most savage repressions in Pathan areas.

Above all, from the early nineteenth century on, the Afghan monarchy never came anywhere near making good its claim to rule over all or even most Pathans. This was due first and foremost to the way in which first the Sikh rulers of Punjab in the first half of the nineteenth century, and then their British successors, had conquered extensive Pathan territories (and especially the most fertile and heavily populated of them all, the Peshawar valley).

It is also because Afghanistan has always been much poorer either than British India or than Pakistan, and since the late 1970s has also been racked with incessant warfare. Or, as an ANP activist admitted to me after a few drinks, ‘Our old programme of union with Afghanistan is dead and everyone knows it, because no one in their senses wants to become part of Afghanistan, today or for all the future that we can see. Pakistan is bad, but Afghanistan is a nightmare, and has been for a generation.’

Until the nineteenth century, the Pathans had also never been united under one effective state, but had rather owed a vague and qualified allegiance to a variety of different dynasties, ruling from India, Kabul and sometimes Iran. Equally, however, they had never been divided between different effective states with real frontiers, let alone ruled by non-Muslim infidels. That began to change with the rise of Sikh power in Punjab in succession to the collapsing Mughal empire, and the fall of Peshawar to the Sikhs in 1823.

In the late 1830s the British appeared on the scene. In an effort to create an Afghan client state to resist Russian expansion in Central Asia, the government of British India sent a military expedition to overthrow the then Afghan ruler and replace him with a British puppet. This led to the memorable Afghan victory of 1842, when a British army attempting to retreat from Kabul to Jalalabad in midwinter was completely destroyed. The memory of Sir Alexander Burnes, a British official whose arrogance was held by both Afghans and British to have contributed to the disaster (and who paid for it with his life), is still commemorated in a Pathan phrase used to someone who is getting above himself: ‘Who do you think you are, Lati [Lord] Barness?’

After a second costly war in Afghanistan in 1878 – 80, the British gave up any ambition to establish a permanent military presence in Afghanistan. Instead, they chose to build up a former Afghan enemy from the Durrani clan, Abdurrahman Khan, as Emir of Afghanistan and bulwark against Russia. A mixture of Abdurrahman’s ruthless ability and British guns and money then consolidated a rudimentary modern Afghan state within the borders Afghanistan occupies today – borders imposed by and agreed between the British and Russian empires.

Meanwhile, the British defeated the Sikhs and incorporated their territories into the Indian empire, and then gradually pushed forward their military power into the Pathan territories lying between Afghanistan and British India. After a variety of experiments (some of them bloody failures), the British opted for a dual approach. The Peshawar valley and certain other ‘settled’ areas were incorporated into districts of British India. In 1901 the Pathan districts of Punjab were grouped in a chief commissioner’s division; and in 1932 this was separated from the province of Punjab and turned into the new North West Frontier Province (NWFP). This province was placed under regular British Indian administration and law. Until 2010, when it was renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the province retained its British geographical name, much to the irritation of Pathan nationalists.

Today, the NWFP covers 29,000 square miles and has a population of some 21 million, some 13 per cent of Pakistan’s total population. Apart from the 3 million or so Hazara (who speak Hindko, a language more closely related to Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu), the great majority are Pathan and Sunni. Peshawar city has ancient minorities of Shia and Hindko speakers, though these have been greatly reduced in terms of proportion over the past generation by the influx of Sunni refugees from Afghanistan. Ethnic divisions are in any case somewhat blurred compared to religious and tribal ones. Many Hindko-speakers in Abbotabad are descendants of Pathans who adopted the language after they migrated to the area, while in other parts tribes originally believed to be Hindko-speaking adopted Pashto.

Other Pathans live in the territories which after Pakistani independence became the province of Balochistan, the northern parts of which are overwhelmingly Pathan and which overall may be as much as 40 per cent Pathan in population. It is here that much of the leadership of the Afghan Taleban is thought to have based itself since 2001. Balochistan is Pakistan’s poorest province, and the NWFP the second poorest, with much lower rates of literacy and health care than in Punjab. As recorded in Chapter 8 on Sindh, a Pathan community thought to number between 1 and 3 million lives in Karachi, making that city the third largest Pathan city in the world.

Smaller Pathan communities are scattered across Pakistan, with members often employed in some branch of the transport industry or as security guards. In addition, a number of important tribes of north-western Punjab are Pathans, though they now mostly speak Punjabi. The family of the famous cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan comes from one of these tribes, the Niazis, settled around the Punjabi town of Mianwali. He is an MP from Mianwali, but his Pathan origins and condemnation of the US presence in Afghanistan gives him some popularity in the NWFP as well. As of 2010, however, this has not led to his party, the Tehriq-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) being able to make any serious progress against the long-established parties of the province – because, as many ordinary people who admire him but will not vote for him have told me candidly, they do not think that he will ever have any favours to distribute.

After partition in 1947 some Pathans moved to Pakistan from territories in India, such as Rohilkand, which their ancestors had conquered centuries before. These, however, though very proud of their Pathan origins, speak Urdu at home and are mostly to be found in Punjab or Karachi. They include the famous Pakistani Foreign Minister under Zia and Benazir Bhutto, Sahabzada Yaqub Khan.

In addition, there were the three Pathan princely states of Chitral, Dir and Swat, whose princes owed allegiance to the British but otherwise ruled their territories independently, in accordance with a mixture of local custom and personal whim. These three states were incorporated into the NWFP in the late 1960s as ‘provincially administered tribal areas’. The judicial system in these territories has never been definitively settled, and the Pakistani system has never been fully accepted as legitimate by the population. This has helped provide fertile soil in recent decades for Islamist groups demanding the full implementation of the Shariah.

In the case of Swat, the personality of the last ruler Miangul Jahanzeb was so impressive that the memory of his rule continues to undermine Pakistani rule to this day, and to boost support for the Taleban. The past remoteness of these areas is also worth remarking. The beautiful Swat valley in the 1960s and 1970s was a famous hippy destination, and since then developed as a holiday spot for the Pakistani elites; and yet the first European had set foot in Swat fewer than eighty years before. In 1858 and again in the 1890s, Swat and the adjoining areas were the sites of major tribal jihads against the approach of the British Raj to their borders.


Swat and Chitral apart, the focus of armed Islamist revolt in British days, as since 9/11, has always been in the tribal areas of the mountains along the border with Afghanistan. The tribes living between British India and Afghanistan were formally cut off from Afghanistan in the 1890s by the frontier drawn by Sir Mortimer Durand, and named after him. In the British conception, however, this was meant to be a good deal less than a regular international frontier with Afghanistan, and that is still how the tribes themselves see it. In the words of a British report on Waziristan of 1901, ‘The Durand Line partitions the sphere of influence [my italics] of the two governments concerned, and is not intended to interfere in any way with the proprietary and grazing rights of the tribes on either side.’4

The tribes of the frontier were considered by the British to be too heavily armed, too independent-minded, and too inaccessible in their steep and entangled mountains to be placed under regular administration. Instead, the British introduced a system of indirect rule, which was inherited by Pakistan and remains officially in force today in the seven Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) – though in practice it has largely collapsed in the face of the Taleban insurgency. Limited administrative and judicial authority is still exercised by the local Political Agent and his subordinates. The PA is appointed by the government, and rules largely through local councils (jirgas) of tribal notables (maliks).

This system was intended not to govern, but to manage the tribes, and contain both their internal feuds and any potential rebellion against the central government. The British usually responded to tribal rebellions and raids not with attempts at permanent conquest, but by a strategy cynically described by British officers as ‘butcher and bolt’, or ‘burn and scuttle’; punitive expeditions would enter a given territory, burn down villages and the forts of maliks and religious figures held to be responsible for the attacks, kill any tribesmen who resisted, distribute subsidies to allies, and then return again to their bases. Some British officials denounced this in favour of an intensified ‘forward policy’ of extending direct British rule up to the Afghan border; but in general ‘the issue on which almost all administrators and soldiers agreed was that a permanent military presence inside tribal territory was not a feasible option.’5

In 1947 – 8, the new state of Pakistan, believing that the Muslim tribes would not revolt against a Muslim state, withdrew regular troops from the tribal areas. Security there was left to the locally recruited Frontier Corps, a system that remained generally in place until the launch of the campaign against the Afghan Taleban in Waziristan in 2004. The new Pakistani state felt that the tribes had demonstrated their loyalty by the enthusiasm with which many, and especially the Mahsuds of Waziristan, had joined in the ‘jihad’ in Kashmir in the autumn of 1947.

The population of FATA is overwhelmingly Pathan with a few Hindko-speakers. Apart from the Turi tribe in the Kurram Agency, who are Shia, the whole population of FATA are Sunni Muslims. FATA covers 10,500 square miles, and has a population of some 3.5 million. Its development indices are far lower even than those of the NWFP, with only 30 per cent male literacy and 3 per cent female. These miserable figures have been widely blamed on FATA’s peculiar system of government (or non-government) – which is doubtless true; but they can also be attributed to the inaccessible nature of the territory and the intense conservatism and xenophobia of its people.

An ANP dissident, Juma Khan Sufi, summed up the problem for FATA and Pathans more widely in words which are harsh but which are also a necessary antidote to the endless self-pity, self-praise and paranoid conspiracy theories that I heard during my time on the Frontier:

Pukhtoons are happy with their archaic tribal culture. A large part of our society is content living in its tribal particularism, which people cherish as freedom ... The attitude of the ordinary Pukhtoon does not at all tally with the modern world. Illiteracy and poverty are common. Most of us don’t send our children to school. Female education is still disliked by a majority of Pukhtoons ... The empowerment of women is anathema. They have no rights in their society. During elections, village elders belonging to opposing parties try to reach a consensus on not allowing womenfolk to exercise their right to vote ...

We take pride in these things, which in reality should be a cause of shame. Hence the claim of most Pukhtoons: whatever good is found, is there because of us and whatever bad is found in society is the creation of aliens.6

Or as Noman Wazir, CEO of Frontier Foundries, put it with deep bitterness: ‘There is all this talk of helping bring Pashtuns into the twenty-first century, but this is nonsense. It’s too much of a leap. What we need to do is bring them from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age.’ Admittedly, he is a steel manufacturer.

The Political Agent rules in FATA – or used to – through the maliks, a term usually translated as tribal chiefs but better understood as tribal notables. These are not chiefs in a traditional sense, but are chosen by the government, and are very numerous: some 35,000 in all throughout FATA. They include many local religious figures. The theory behind the system is that government would pick men of real moral and political authority in their tribe, but there are many stories of Political Agents appointing men who had bribed them, or even appointing their own servants. Political parties are banned from standing for election in FATA, and full adult suffrage in national elections was introduced only in the 1990s.

Legally, the Political Agent governs on the basis of the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), which are themselves drawn chiefly from the pashtunwali. These differ greatly from the British-derived state code of Pakistan, especially in providing for collective punishment of clans and tribes for crimes committed by one of their members. This provision sounds and indeed is harsh, but is also a traditional and logical response to a situation in which ties of tribal solidarity mean that criminals can always be assured of refuge among fellow tribesmen.

The demolition of the houses of enemies as a reprisal is an old Pathan custom; it degrades the prestige of an enemy but because it does not involve killing it does not automatically lead to blood feuds. In the past, it was widely employed both by the British and by many of the leaders of Islamist revolts against the British. The FCR are often pointed to as a key obstacle to progress and development in the tribal areas, and doubtless this is true; but deciding what to replace them with is another matter. On one thing the great majority of inhabitants of FATA with whom I have spoken are united: they do not want to come under Pakistani state law in its existing form.


The political culture of the Pathan areas of Pakistan is related to that of other parts of the country, but with particular local features which are in part bound up with the pashtunwali. The first, especially marked in FATA, is a much stronger tradition of revolt and war, not just against outside invasion, but against government in general. This is related to the greater role both of religion and of tribes and makes Pathans – even to some degree in the ‘settled areas’ – very different from the much more docile populations of Punjab and Sindh.

It was a Sindhi superintendent of police who told me that the police in the NWFP committed the fewest abuses against the population, and especially against women, of any of the Pakistani forces,

because up there, if you rape a woman she has relatives who will avenge her with a bullet through your head – not just brothers, but even distant cousins. Whereas in Sindh and even more Punjab, people are far more beaten down, and much more accepting of whatever the police do, and kinship bonds are weaker.

The key cultural importance of clan solidarity and collective revenge (badal) in the pashtunwali is obviously of key importance here.

The second, closely related feature is the greater egalitarianism and individualism of the Pathans – once again, chiefly in the tribal areas, but to some extent throughout the province. As a friend in the FATA Secretariat told me:

In Balochistan, people owe unconditional obedience to one hereditary Sardar. That has never been true among the Pashtuns. Here, there have always been lots of lesser chiefs within one tribe. Even in the settled areas and Swat, where the power of the khans was traditionally much greater, people could and did often switch allegiance from one khan to another. As for the tribal areas and especially Waziristan, there have been no longstanding political dynasties, and even the greatest malik was always only a first among equals.

The lesser importance of hereditary loyalty compared to Punjab and Sindh increases the importance of personal prestige (in Pashto, nom, or literally ‘name’, as in ‘reputation’, or as we would say in English, ‘having a name’ for something), which may initially be inherited, but which then has to be constantly renewed by the individual leader. This is where the Taleban’s targeting of maliks in FATA and political leaders in the NWFP has been so frighteningly effective. As my FATA acquaintance put it:

So many maliks have been killed by the Taleban that they are scared, and with good reason. In public, they denounce military actions against the Taleban, while in private they beg us to continue them. The problem is that everyone knows they are scared, and if you are scared, you cannot be a malik in anything but name. You know how this society values physical courage more than anything else.

The same is true of the politicians in the NWFP, who have to keep running in national or local elections, and therefore to keep appearing at public rallies. If they have opposed the Taleban, then such appearances are standing invitations to suicide bombers – who have indeed claimed several political victims. The problem is that even if the politicians can afford bullet-proof glass screens like the leading politicians in Pakistan and India, that makes them look scared. I was told that the nom of Asfandyar Wali Khan, leader of the ANP, suffered a terrible blow when, after an assassination attempt against him in Charsadda in October 2008 which killed one of his guards, he left town immediately in a helicopter and did not attend the guard’s funeral.

Finally, and related to the individualism of the Pathans, is the even greater fissiparousness of Pathan politics, even within the same family. So universal is rivalry between cousins that it even has a formal name: taburwali. In Swat, Fredrik Barth studied how the rigid institutionalization of faction permeated local politics. In the past, and to some degree up to the present, this rivalry often spilled over into violence, which the pashtunwali acted to mediate and restrain, but never could and never was intended to prevent. The pashtunwali, in other words, is not a code of law, but rather a set of guidelines for regulating what is known in anthropology as ‘ordered anarchy’.

Feuds between families (or, rather, often rival bits of the same family) are not often as violent as in the past, but the possibility is always there. Above all, however, this tradition means that parties in the NWFP are even more likely to split and split again than is the case elsewhere in Pakistan. Several local leaders of the ANP and PPP whom I visited spent much of the interviews abusing not their party’s opponents, but their own party colleagues.

In Afghanistan in the 1990s, the Taleban succeeded in crushing local feuds with their own harsh and rigid version of the Shariah – though only after these feuds had assumed a really monstrous character in the wake of the collapse of the Communist state and the triumph of the Mujahidin. If the Taleban in Pakistan can succeed in binding their tribal followers together through the discipline of their version of the Shariah, they will have gained a frightening advantage over their mainstream political opponents in the Pathan territories.

The social and cultural difference between most of the tribal areas on the one hand, and the Peshawar valley and Swat on the other, can be summed up in the nature of their hujras. This absolutely central Pakistani social, cultural and political institution is hard to translate, having elements of the feudal audience chamber, the men’s club, the village hall, the debating society, the barracks for political workers, and the guest-house.

In a sexually segregated society where it is out of the question for any men but the closest relatives to attend mixed gatherings within houses, the hujras are where the men of a given area meet to discuss everything under the sun. Occasionally they are collectively maintained, but usually they are owned by some local big man, and attendance at his hujra is to a greater or lesser extent a sign of allegiance or at least deference to him.

In the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan that I have visited, hujras are generally part of the house itself, though firmly separate from it. As far as I can see from the very few family quarters I have been allowed to visit, the hujras generally do not differ in style from the family quarters: guests and host all sit on carpets on the ground, leaning on cushions arranged in a rectangle round the walls. Of course the quality of the carpets, the stove and the roof will differ according to the wealth and power of the host, and everyone there will know that wealth and power very precisely; but cultural norms dictate an appearance both of equality and of common culture.

It is quite otherwise with the hujras of the big political landlords and bosses in the Peshawar valley and Swat. These tend to be clearly distanced from the main house, and clearly poorer, and they have broken chairs and sofas, not carpets and cushions. This marks the social, economic and to some extent cultural differentiation of the Pathan elites in the ‘settled areas’ and Swat, which the Taleban have used to increase their support among the poor. Anecdotal evidence suggests that big landlord politicians spend less and less time in their hujras, preferring to stay in the luxury of their family quarters.

This somewhat resembles the process in England between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries by which first the nobility, then the lesser gentry and finally the bigger farmers ceased to eat in halls or kitchens, together with their servants and followers, and ate instead in their own dining-rooms. However, in those days the English gentry did not need to appeal to their followers for votes, and were not faced with a popular revolt against their rule.


Hereditary members of the landowning elites dominate the Awami National Party (ANP), the moderate Pathan nationalist party of the region; and class hostility to their dominance has fuelled support for the Taleban in Swat and elsewhere and may in the long run help to destroy the ANP. The party has alternated in government and opposition since independence, and in 2008 for the first time formed the NWFP government on its own (though with PPP support) after winning the provincial elections of that year. The ANP’s political ancestors came together on the basis of resistance to British rule. It has been led from its beginnings by yet another South Asian political dynasty, the Wali Khans, a landowning family from the Peshawar valley.

Neither the ANP nor the Islamist JUI can be said to dominate NWFP politics, because no party has been able to do this. The main national parties – the PPP and Muslim League – also have a strong presence in the province, and with help and patronage from Islamabad have often been able to lead coalition governments. To judge by my interviews with ordinary people in the NWFP in 2008 – 9, it is possible that the Muslim League, with its greater Islamic identity and dislike of the US, may improve its vote in the Pathan areas, despite its close identification with the province of Punjab. In part this is because it retains a distance from the Pakistani army, on which the ANP now depends for protection.

All the parties have, however, been plagued by one of the perennial curses of Pakistani politics – an endless tendency to split when particular leaders do not receive enough patronage to reward their kinsmen and supporters, or when they clash with other leaders over issues of status and prestige. Thus the politician who was the mainstay of the Musharraf administration in the province, national Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao, was leader of what had been a famous local PPP political landowning dynasty in the province, and had been chief minister of a PPP-led government in the early 1990s. Sherpao split from the PPP and founded his own PPP (Sherpao) either because he was not rewarded sufficiently by the party during its periods of government in the 1990s, or because he had lost faith in Benazir Bhutto’s leadership, or both. The ANP has also repeatedly split along lines of family allegiance and advantage.

Compared to the PPP and Muslim League, however, the ANP’s Pathan nationalism, ostensibly left-wing, populist ideology and deep roots in local society should make the ANP a principal obstacle to the spread of the Taleban among Pakistani Pathans. Indeed, its victory over the Islamist parties in the February 2008 elections was portrayed by most Western observers in precisely this light.

Perhaps, after Western forces leave Afghanistan, the ANP will indeed be able to play this role. So far they have been crippled in this regard by a range of factors. Firstly, the ANP has always been dominated by landowning khans from the Peshawar valley. Of course, this allows them to rely on support from the traditional followers of those khans, but it also puts them at a disadvantage when faced with the egalitarian and even socially revolutionary message of the Taleban. Moreover, while the Taleban can at least appeal to Pathan nationalist feeling in the struggle against the hated American presence in Afghanistan, the ANP’s Pathan nationalism has become an increasingly threadbare rhetorical fiction.

Above all, the ANP were long hindered in confronting the Taleban by the views of the vast majority of their own supporters and activists, who, to judge by my interviews with many of them, regard the US presence in Afghanistan as illegitimate and who see ANP support for a military crackdown on the Taleban as essentially launching a Pathan civil war on the orders of the United States. As Fakhruddin Khan, the son of the ANP General Secretary, said to me, ‘one main reason for sympathy for the Taleban is that every Pashtun has been taught from the cradle that to resist foreign domination is part of what it is to do Pashto’ – in other words, to follow the Pathan Way.

Part of the ANP’s problem in fighting the Taleban is that to be seen to help even indirectly the US military presence in Afghanistan goes against its own deepest instincts, both Pathan nationalist and anticolonialist. The party’s founder, Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890 – 1988), whose grandson leads the party today, was ostensibly a Gandhian pacifist, but his poetry is more reminiscent of the warlike Khattak:

If I die, and lie not bathed in martyr’s blood,

None should this [Pashtun] tongue pollute,

Offering prayers for me.

Oh mother, why should you mourn for me,

If I am not torn to pieces by British guns?7

The history of the origins of the ANP under British rule illustrates both the power of Pathan nationalism and its weakness in the face of appeals which mix nationalism with religion. Thus, remarkably, Abdul Ghaffar Khan was able to found a Pathan mass nationalist movement, the Khudai Khidmatgars, or Servants of God (popularly known as the Red Shirts, from their uniforms), dedicated to alliance with the overwhelmingly Hindu Indian National Congress and, in principle at least, committed to Gandhian principles of non-violence.

No more unlikely product of Pathan culture can easily be imagined. The explanation is, however, obvious. So deeply did most Pathans loathe British rule that they were prepared to ally with the main Indian force struggling against that rule, the Congress. They opposed Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League, which, though made up of fellow Muslims, was regarded quite rightly as much more interested in doing deals with the British in order to safeguard Muslim interests than in seeking to expel the hated alien rulers. This sentiment allowed the Red Shirts and their political allies to dominate NWFP politics in the last fifteen years of British rule, and Ghaffar Khan’s brother, Dr Khan Sahib, became chief minister of the province.

When in 1946 – 7 it became apparent that the British really were preparing to quit, the position of the Khan brothers and their followers quickly collapsed in the face of the religious-based propaganda of the Muslim League in favour of an independent Muslim state of Pakistan. The idea of living in a Hindu-dominated India proved absolutely unacceptable to most Pathans, and the Congress leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, was almost lynched by a Pathan mob on a visit to the province. Undermined by both the Muslim League and the departing British, a last-ditch attempt at an independent ‘Pakhtunkhwa’ linked to Afghanistan also failed.

Thereafter, the relations of Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his movement with the Pakistani state were naturally deeply troubled, since that state and army had good reason to doubt their loyalty. He and his leading followers spent many years in Pakistani jails, with their party banned, under both military and civilian governments, including that of the PPP in the 1970s. In part because of the rigging of elections against them, they never succeeded before 2008 in forming the provincial government of the NWFP, though they several times took a share in government.

The links of the ANP and its predecessor parties to Afghanistan, though dictated by their Pathan nationalism, have also over the years proved a disastrous liability. Afghanistan proved enough of a threat to Pakistan to terrify the Pakistani security establishment and deepen their opposition to enhanced Pathan autonomy within Pakistan; but not remotely enough of an attractive force to win over large numbers of Pakistani Pathans to union with Afghanistan; and from the late 1970s the ANP also became in part hostage to the dreadfully radical and violent swings of the Afghan domestic spectrum.

First, in the 1950s, Ghaffar Khan and his followers became associated with the campaign of the Afghan Prime Minister (and later President) Sardar Daud Khan to mobilize Pathan nationalism so as to bring about the union of the NWFP and FATA with Afghanistan – a campaign which included providing funds and armed support for tribal rebels against Pakistan. Then, after 1979, Abdul Ghaffar Khan became closely tied to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and its Afghan Communist allies. He lived in Afghanistan under Soviet occupation and is buried in the Afghan city of Jalalabad. Because of the ANP’s anti-British legacy, and because the Pakistani state and military had generally been allied with the United States, ANP ideology took on an anti-American cast.

Today, this mutual hostility between the ANP and Washington has of necessity greatly diminished, and the US of course greatly welcomes ANP ties to the Afghan administration of Hamid Karzai. The problem is that – to judge by my own interviews with Pakistani Pathans – Karzai is despised by most of the ANP’s own activists and voters as a US colonial stooge, and the association with him does nothing for ANP prestige among Pakistani Pathans, and weakens the party vis-à-vis the Taleban.

The ANP shares certain features with its main political rival within the province, the Islamist Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI). Both are ostensibly radical anti-establishment parties which nonetheless have involvements in electoral politics stretching back decades, and have often formed part of coalition governments. Both are deeply integrated into Pakistan’s system of political patronage and corruption. Yet both only formed their own governments in the NWFP very recently: the JUI as part of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (United Action Council) Islamist coalition which won the elections of 2002 in the Frontier; the ANP as a result of the crushing defeat of the MMA in the elections of 2008.

In both cases, the victories were hailed as crucial political turning points, for good or evil. In neither case does this appear to have been true. To judge by my own interviews with ordinary voters in the NWFP, the truth was closer to what Sikander Khan Sherpao (a member of the Provincial Assembly and son of the aforementioned Aftab Sherpao), told me in August 2008:

The people who say that the religious parties have been smashed for good and the moderate parties have triumphed are wrong. If you look at the issues on which the MMA got their votes in 2002 and the ANP this year, the most important ones are the same. This year, people voted for the ANP because they were against Musharraf, and too much of the MMA was seen as pro-Musharraf. And they voted for the ANP because, like the MMA before, they are hostile to the American presence in Afghanistan and promised peace with the militants and a bigger role for the Shariah.8

Apart from the issue of Afghanistan and the Taleban, the changes in government in 2002 and 2008 were also part of the rather melancholy cycle of Pakistani political life, in which incumbent governments are voted out because of their failure to fulfil their promises, to be replaced by their opponents – who then also fail. Both the ANP and JUI are deeply divided internally, partly along purely factional and family lines, but also over ideology and strategy. This constant, time- and energyconsuming infighting helps swallow up any potential for reform and good governance that may originally have existed.

Businessmen with whom I talked in the NWFP said that there had been absolutely no difference between the last three governments (PML(Q), MMA and ANP) in terms of corruption. The level of bribetaking had remained the same – in other words extremely high. Indeed, a Western businessman in the security construction field said that even in the Middle East he had never seen anything quite like the level of corruption that he had experienced in Peshawar, under both the MMA and ANP: ‘Everyone wants a bribe. And the worst of it is, the government is so chaotic and faction-ridden that even when you pay half a dozen people you can’t be sure of getting a result, or that some new guy won’t pop up asking for his share.’

The voters have little real expectation of radical improvement, but hope that things will get a bit better, and above all that their neighbourhoods or families may draw some specific benefit. As far as the JUI is concerned, taking over the government proved as much of a curse as a blessing. As a result, many ordinary Pathans have come to see the party and its allies as just as corrupt and incompetent as the Pakistani national parties, and no sort of radical alternative to them.

A common answer on the streets of every NWFP town I visited, when I asked people how they had voted in the last elections, was either that they had not voted at all, because ‘the parties are all the same – none of them keep their promises,’ as Sayyid Munawar Shah, a shopkeeper in Peshawar, told me; or, if they had voted for a given party, it was because ‘my father and grandfather voted for them’, or ‘we are followers of such and such Khan, and so we vote for him’. Any kind of convinced support for any of the parties was extremely hard to find.

This was true even outside the front door of the ANP’s headquarters on Pashaggi Road in Peshawar, where the shopkeepers told me that they had not voted in the last elections. ‘Why should we? They are thieves, all of them. They promise and promise, and then do nothing,’ as one told me. The doing nothing was rather obvious. The street was deeply potholed, without street lamps, and littered with stinking rubbish. The idea that enlightened self-interest and party propaganda alone might have dictated an attempt to improve the neighbourhood did not seem to have occurred to any of the party activists lounging listlessly inside their cavernous headquarters – and the same was true of the other party headquarters I visited. With the exception of the Jamaat Islami and the MQM, this is not how Pakistani parties think.

Looking at the condition of Peshawar, I asked several ANP leaders if they had ever thought of trying to initiate some kind of urban renewal scheme like the Orangi Pilot Project in Karachi. No one even seemed to understand what I was talking about. However, in this they are only reflecting their own society – for, after all, the shopkeepers on Pashaggi Road might have organized themselves to clean up the rubbish from their front doors, and it hadn’t occurred to them either.

As of 2009, the same fate that befell the MMA seems to threaten the ANP. The party stood for election in February 2008 on a platform of negotiating peace deals with the Islamist militants, gaining increased autonomy for the NWFP, changing the name of the province to Pakhtunkhwa (in line with the other four provinces, which all have a name related to that of the chief local ethnicity) and restoring the judges sacked by Musharraf. All of these demands, including talks with the Taleban, were extremely popular with the ANP supporters and activists with whom I have spoken.

However, the ANP set out no detailed or coherent economic policy or plan for social reform – though to be fair that is difficult for any provincial government when the powers of the provinces are so limited. As of 2010, its hopes of extracting more powers from the centre had – as so often in the past – been frustrated by stonewalling in Islamabad. As a result, the party’s programme has in practice been limited to attempts at peace with the Taleban and to the demand that the NWFP be officially renamed Pakhtunkhwa. The PPP-led government in Islamabad agreed to this (in the form of ‘Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’) in April 2010 – a decision which immediately sparked riotous protests by the Hindko-speaking Hazara minority in the NWFP which left seven people dead in the town of Abbotabad. The protesters were demanding a new Hindko-speaking province of their own – another example of the way in which separatism in Pakistan is held in check by local ethnic opposition.

In one respect, however, the position of the ANP altered radically in the course of 2008 – 9: for the first time in its history, the party was forced by the Taleban revolt not just to make a covert deal with the Pakistani army, but to ally with them publicly and explicitly; and, since the ANP leadership is now completely dependent on the army for protection against assassination by the Taleban, this relationship is likely to remain. It represents a complete reversal of the party’s previous Pathan nationalist and anti-military positions, and a key political question among Pakistani Pathans for the next generation will be whether ANP activists and voters stick with the party regardless, or whether they move away to found other parties – or even are drawn by Pathan nationalism to join the Taleban, as the last Pathan nationalist force left standing.


The contrast between public rhetoric and actual addiction to deal-making is if anything even more true of the other mainstream Pakistani party based in the Pathan areas, the Islamist JUI. In its origins this party was not Pathan, but rather a continuation of the tradition of Islamist groups from elsewhere finding fertile soil for growth on the Frontier. The party grew out of the pro-Pakistan wing of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind, the leading Islamist group in India under British rule. The JUH stemmed from the revivalist religious tradition established by the Deoband madrasah in what is now the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, and known as ‘Deobandi’.

For several decades the different branches of the JUI have become more and more overwhelmingly Pathan – unlike the other leading Islamist political party in Pakistan, the Jamaat Islami, which has a much more all-Pakistani character. The JUI also differs from the Jamaat in being far less intellectual and in having a far looser organization and leadership structure. In fact, rather than a modern Islamist party it resembles the ANP in being an alliance of local notables, though in the case of the JUI the notables are religious figures rather than local khans, and there is no hereditary dynasty to hold it together. Instead, there has been a succession of charismatic leaders, which has led to the party splitting into two wings, the JUI(F) led by Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, and another branch led by Maulana Sami-ul-Haq.

As Joshua White writes:

Key decisions by the JUI-F are routinely made by Fazlur Rehman and a traveling coterie of personal advisors, and the party has only recently invested in a well-equipped headquarters. The combination of charismatic leadership and decentralized party structure has led to nearly constant dissension within the JUI-F, most of which is dealt with informally in Pashtun-style shuras and quiet deals.9

The JUI’s Islamism, like the ANP’s nationalism, has – or had – asocialistic tinge, and the party remains strongly committed in principle to spreading development among the poor. In 1972, the JUI formed a brief government of the NWFP in coalition with the ANP (or NAP as it was then known), with a programme of economic populism and of strengthening the rules of the Shariah. Alcohol and gambling were banned in the province, and the JUI attempted unsuccessfully to pass laws forcing women to wear veils in public. At the same time, the JUI often cooperated with the ostentatiously secular Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, leading to a subsequent history of intermittent alliances with the PPP, and charges of hypocrisy, opportunism and treachery from other Islamist parties, and now from the Taleban.

The full ‘Pashtunization’ of the JUI was above all the product of the 1980s and the jihad against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan and their Afghan Communist allies. Support for the Islamist groups among the Afghan Mujahidin, both from the Pakistani state and from Saudi Arabia and private donors in the Gulf, led to a huge influx of money to madrasahs in the Frontier where many of the Afghan Mujahidin were educated and shaped ideologically, and to an enormous growth in the number of those madrasahs. Both the JUI and the Jamaat became heavily involved in various forms of support for the Afghan jihad, and profited greatly as a result.

In one way the ANP and JUI resemble each other. They both began as ‘revolutionary’ parties in a Pakistani context: the ANP for the abolition of Pakistan itself, or at least its transformation into a very loose democratic federation; the JUI for a revolutionary transformation of the Pakistani state and society along Islamist lines. Both, however, have in practice long since become ‘mainstream’ political players, forming coalitions for political and above all patronage advantage. Both in consequence are at risk of being outflanked ideologically and politically by the Taleban.

Thus, despite its deep ideological opposition – in theory – to the US presence in Afghanistan and to Pakistani help to the US, the JUI functioned as a de facto supporter of Musharraf’s administration, and at the time of writing is a partner in government of President Zardari’s PPP – a government whose programme it says it detests for a whole set of reasons, including most of all its alliance with the US!

In July 2009 I asked the JUI spokesman Jalil Jan why in view of his party’s bitter opposition to Zardari’s policies they did not leave the government. He replied:

Our ministers stand in parliament and criticize the government of which they are part. Don’t you think that is brave of us? ... It is not kufr [disbelief, or disobedience to God] that people voted for us in order to get jobs for them. So it isn’t bad that we are in power at the centre and in Balochistan, and are able to give jobs to our people.10

Of course, like everyone else I always knew this about the JUI – but it is nice to have it confirmed from the horse’s mouth. ‘Money doesn’t smell,’ a Peshawari journalist quoted cynically when I asked about this. The JUI’s problem is that American money does increasingly smell in Pathan nostrils – in fact it stinks to high heaven. The victory of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) Islamist coalition in the 2002 elections in the NWFP and the Pathan areas of Balochistan was due in part to favouritism by the Musharraf administration in order to defeat the PPP and PML(N); and in part to the fact that the PPP and ANP simply could not agree to co-operate either against Musharraf or against the Islamists.

To judge by my own observations and public opinion polls, however, by far the most important factor in their victory was mass Pathan anger at the US invasion of Afghanistan and overthrow of the Taleban there. In the succeeding years, the MMA’s de facto support for Musharraf – even as he forged a closer and closer alliance with the US and abandoned the jihad in Kashmir – did not go unnoticed among Pathan voters. Repeatedly on the streets of Peshawar people told me that they had voted MMA in 2002 but not 2008, because ‘the JUI support Musharraf and Musharraf helps the Americans’.

In addition, leading the government from 2002 to 2008 meant that the JUI, like the ANP after 2008, was exposed to the standard accusations against all Pakistani governments: of not having fulfilled their campaign promises of better government and more development; of engaging in corruption; and of not giving my brother/cousin/uncle/ nephew a job, contract, or whatever.

The JUI – a bit like Communists in the past – also suffered from their own inflated promises. They had promised to introduce true Shariah rule in the Frontier, and thereby to transform society. Since by definition the Shariah – being the Word of God – cannot suffer from inherent flaws as far as conservative Pathans are concerned, the explanation of the MMA’s failure in this regard could only be attributed by voters to the failings of the MMA and its leaders.

The MMA had its very origins in Pakistani Islamist outrage at the US invasion of Afghanistan, and took shape in 2001 – 2 as the ‘Pakistan – Afghan Defence Council’. Its six parties included the two wings of the JUI, the JI, three smaller Sunni parties and one Shia party. The inclusion of the Shia and a party belonging to the Barelvi theological tradition (old rivals of the Deobandis) marked the ‘broad church’ nature of the alliance, and also drew a line between the JI and JUI on the one side and extreme anti-Shia Sunni radical groups like the Sipah-e-Sahaba on the other.

The record of the MMA in government between 2002 and 2008 reflected a number of features which say a good deal about the ‘mainstream’ Islamists in Pakistan, about the balance of power between the centre and the provinces, and about Pakistani politics in general. The first was confusion. The government took a long time to put a legislative programme together and, even when it did, no one was quite sure what was and was not a law. Secondly, the only really radical Islamist laws that the MMA government passed (for example, extending the writ of the Shariah in the state legal system) were in any case blocked by the Supreme Court and the government in Islamabad – something that has happened to every provincial government that has attempted serious change.

Lastly, there is the actual content of the MMA’s legislation and governance, which in some respects was very different from the standard view of Islamist politics in the West, and showed an interesting mixture of what in the West would be called ‘progressive’ and ‘reactionary’ elements. The more progressive sides of the MMA government mark the alliance off very clearly from the Taleban, in both its Afghan and Pakistani manifestations. Thus, while on the one hand the MMA tried to bring in a range of measures enforcing public standards of dress for women, and its activists launched vigilante attacks on video stores and other sources of ‘immorality’, on the other hand its government did more than most previous administrations to increase education for girls. This was due not to the JUI, but to the presence in the MMA coalition of the Jamaat Islami and a Shia political party.

When I visited the MMA’s Minister for Local Development, Asif Iqbal Daudzai, in May 2007, he was at pains to emphasize his government’s progressive agenda. This included community participation in developing local infrastructure projects, Rs50 million for improvements in sanitation in Peshawar, and a great increase in primary education, including for girls. While this was doubtless mostly for Western consumption, it did not seem wholly so. He and other government officials laid special stress on their moves to end the negative features of the pashtunwali as far as women are concerned, and in particular what he described as the ‘hateful’ practice of giving girls in compensation as part of the resolution of disputes.

The problem was and is that, as with both previous and later governments, resources are so limited. This was rubbed home by the minister’s own office, which I approached up a flight of broken stairs with hardly a lamp working, barking my shins in the process, to sit on a broken chair in a bleak office with cracked windows and peeling walls. This was in its way impressive, since it indicated that if there was corruption in this ministry the officials had not spent it on their own offices; but it also illustrated the deep poverty of the province and its government.

However, the reputation of the MMA alliance both in the West and with officials in Pakistan was deeply tarnished by its murky relations with the radicals who later went on to found the Pakistani Taleban, and by its ambiguous attitude to jihad within Pakistan. In 2007 the alliance split over this issue, with the JUI condemning the radicals who took over the Red Mosque complex in Islamabad, while the Jamaat Islami supported them (see next chapter). However, the JUI retained close private links to some of the Taleban, who supposedly helped Fazl-ur-Rehman in the February 2008 election campaign, even as other Taleban rejected the electoral process altogether. On the other hand, the JUI was tainted in the eyes of more-radical Muslims, and indeed of much of the population in general, by its continued association with Musharraf – thereby ending up with the worst of all worlds.

In August 2008, after they had been defeated in the elections, the information secretary of the JUI, Abdul Jalil Jan, came to drink tea with me in my guest-house in University Town, Peshawar. Echoing the words of many people in the NWFP (including voters for the ANP and PPP), he asked me:

Why have Beitullah Mahsud and Fazlullah declared war on the Pakistani government and army? Wouldn’t you do so if someone invaded your territory and killed your women and children? It doesn’t matter if it is the US or Pakistan who have done the killing. They have been attacked ... So we support talks aimed at peace. The previous peace negotiations were a success, but then they were violated, and by whom? By the government and army on the orders of America. If there is to be peace, then the government must stick to the terms of peace and not launch new attacks ... As to Afghanistan, that is the Afghans’ own business, but naturally people here have strong feelings about what is happening and what the US is doing there. After all, like many people here, I am an Afghan Pashtun myself by origin: my ancestors came here long ago from Kunar.11

Within the NWFP, both the JUI and JI thus opposed any strong action against the radicals who gained an increasing grip on Swat during the MMA period in government. Indeed, many of the Swat radicals had previously been Jamaat cadres and retained close links to the party. The MMA parties did not favour the more brutal and retrograde actions of these forces (including attacks on police, vigilante executions and floggings, and the burning down of girls’ schools) but seem to have found it impossible publicly to take action against groups claiming to act in the name of the Shariah and the Afghan jihad. This inaction on the part of the MMA, and the failure of the JUI and MMA government to consolidate their support, helped open the way for the rise of the Taleban among the Pathans of the Frontier.

Meanwhile, JUI links to hated governments in Islamabad were also losing it local support. In 2008 I heard this about the party in the context of its support for Musharraf. Even a few days before Musharraf’s resignation, both the Fazl-ur-Rehman and Sami-ul-Haq wings of the party were still very hesitant about supporting his impeachment, as Sami-ul-Haq himself told me in August 2008 – using as his excuse that ‘if Musharraf should be impeached, then so should many of the other politicians. All have committed crimes.’

By 2009, ordinary people in Peshawar were cursing the party’s membership of the government of the hated Zardari. It is highly questionable, therefore, whether the patronage extracted by the party really compensates any more for this growth in unpopularity. The JUI’s alliance with Pakistani national parties and aspirations to share power in Islamabad, either for patronage or to change the Pakistani system, also mean that there are clear limits on how far it can exploit Pathan nationalism. As Abdul Jalil told me:

We support greater autonomy for the NWFP and other provinces, but on one condition: that this demand must not be based on hatred and must not encourage conflicts with Punjabis, Baloch or other ethnic groups in Pakistan. If this plan is based on good relations and agreements with our ethnic neighbours, then we will support it. But ANP ideas create a real danger of ethnic conflict. That is especially true of all this talk of a Greater Pashtunistan taking in huge bits of Balochistan and Punjab. Of course other nationalities will oppose this.

For many years, the thoroughly pragmatic Islamism of the JUI and the equally pragmatic nationalism of the ANP have helped ensure that the great majority of Pathans have lived peacefully and not too unhappily within Pakistan. However, with both these parties now seriously discredited by their association with President Zardari and his alliance with the USA, the future of electoral politics in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is now an open question.

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