Pashtuns May Demand Own State

Officials in Islamabad are concerned that the defeat of the Taleban may prompt Pashtuns in Pakistan and Afghanistan to demand their own state.

Pashtuns May Demand Own State

Officials in Islamabad are concerned that the defeat of the Taleban may prompt Pashtuns in Pakistan and Afghanistan to demand their own state.

Islamabad fears that unless America helps to secure a broad-based government in Afghanistan, Pashtuns will side with their ethnic kin in northern Pakistan and revive calls for their own state.

The Northern Alliance, although supported by a small Pashtun faction, is wary of a government comprising representatives of the majority Pashtuns whom they regard as supporters of the Taleban.

The Afghan Pashtuns, in turn, will not accept being ruled by a coalition of minority ethnic groups.

This problem is set to be talked through in Bonn on November 26 when the UN and the Northern Alliance are scheduled to meet. The arrangement suggests that the latter are keen to make progress in the establishment of a broad-based government. But many Afghans expect the talks to break down.

The Northern Alliance argues that as they already represent a Pashtun faction, they can provide representative Afghan government. The majority of Afghan Pashtuns, meanwhile, suspect those members of their community who've sided with the Northern Alliance will not accept them as "true" Pashtuns.

Without representation in government for the majority of Pashtuns, the idea of an independent state of Pashtunistan, uniting members of the ethnic group in Pakistan and Afghanisatan, could be resurrected.

Islamabad is already concerned that a united cross-border Pashtun group could ignite ethnic conflict in the country, particularly with the Punjabi majority.

Pakistan is a federation of four provinces, the largest of which is Punjab - home to 63 per cent of the country's population - with Pashtuns mainly inhabiting North West Frontier Province, NWFP. Relations between these regions have never been smooth.

Habib Ullaha Khan Kundi, a former senior provincial minister in Pakistan, believes the division of Afghanistan between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns would have serious consequences for his country. "The Pashtuns in Afghanistan may wish to join Pakistan. It would not be acceptable to Punjab," said Kundi.

To prevent Pakistan from being drawn into ethnic conflict, the Islamabad government is urging America to establish a broad-based administration in Afghanistan. If Washington can secure a system of rule whereby the Afghan Pashtuns are represented alongside the Northern Alliance, Islamabad believes the Pashtunistan issue will be put to bed.

"The US can influence the Northern Alliance to accept Pashtuns, the main ethnic group in Afghanistan," former Pakistani foreign minister Agha Shahi told IWPR.

"We don't have any vested interest in Afghanistan but we also don't want problems in our society. A large number of our people are Pashtuns, who have cultural and historic links with the Pashtuns of Afghanistan."

The idea of Pashtunistan has played an important role in Pakistani politics since the formation of the country in 1947. Kabul had long sought to annex NWFP, claiming it was part of Afghanistan.

The influential Pakistani military - fearing this would lead to the disintegration of the country - countered by attempting to promote divisions between the Afghan Pashtuns.

During the war against the Soviets in the Eighties, Islamabad encouraged the emergence of rival political parties. It then distributed funds to them unevenly to exacerbate their mutual suspicion.

Subsequently, the Pakistani authorities supported the Taleban who were mostly Pashtuns opposed to a Pastun state - the student militia had more of a religious than a national identity which suited Islamabad's aims perfectly.

But Paskistan's ability to dictate events north of the border have diminished with the military collapse of the Taleban, as many Pashtuns, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, are now turning against the student militia.

"They gave important positions to foreigners such as Bin Laden, how can they be Pashtuns when they imposed Arabs and Africans upon Afghans. These foreigners brought destruction to the land of Pashtuns," said Haji Muhammad Adeel, one of the leaders of Pakistan's Pashtun Nationalist Party, ANP, and a former speaker of the NWFP assembly in Peshawar.

Some of the community's leaders now believe the time has come agitate once again for a Pashtun state.

If talks with the Northern Alliance next week prove to be successful, Pakistan government fears may be eased. But if the Northern Alliance continues to seek control over Afghanistan, Afghan Pashtuns may feel that their future lies with their brothers in northern Pakistan.

Shiraz Paracha is South and Central Asia editor for a London-based news service. Between 1987-1998 he reported from Peshawar on Afghanistan, North West Frontier Province and the Tribal Areas of Pakistan.

Support our journalists