The Magazine

Pashtuns and Pakistanis

A not-so-great game, but one America can't give up.

Sep 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 01 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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But there are many compelling reasons to keep fighting in Afghanistan. Most important among them is that an American withdrawal would return Afghanistan to civil war and reinforce frightful trends in Pakistan. In an Afghan civil conflict pitting the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Shiite Hazaras against the Pashtuns, the United States would have to choose the anti-Pashtun, anti-Pakistani side to protect against the possibility that the Taliban, a Pashtun-based movement, would again gain the upper hand. Remember Western insouciance about Afghanistan between 1994 and 1996, as the Taliban gradually gained ground? This time around, Washington would be obliged to intervene. It could not simply assume, as many suggest, that Pashtun jealousies, tribal differences, and powerful competing warlords would be enough to thwart a neo-Taliban advance. But successfully intervening in Pashtun politics from "over the horizon," with American troops no longer significantly deployed in Afghanistan, would be impossible. The Taliban currently have the offensive advantage throughout most of the Pashtun regions with U.S. forces active in the country; imagine U.S. forces gone.

Choosing sides would immediately thrust us into conflict with Islamabad, which remains a staunch and, at times, nefarious defender of Afghan Pashtun interests. Such a collision between Washington and Islamabad would be awful, fortifying Islamic militancy within Pakistan and placing al Qaeda and its allies, more clearly than ever before, on the same side as the Pakistani military establishment, which is only now getting serious about countering the radical Islamic threat at home.

The terrorist ramifications of this for us and for India could be enormous. Britain's domestic intelligence service, MI5, is working around the clock to monitor and thwart terrorist plots emanating from Muslim militants on the subcontinent. Great Britain does not receive the credit it deserves for doing the heavy lifting in building a security barrier against subcontinent Muslim radicals and their militant brethren resident in Europe. Even more than the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency, MI5 is America's frontline defense against mass-casualty terrorism.

Pakistan, not the Arab Middle East, is where extreme Islamic militancy probably has the most growth potential. And Britain's intelligence officers are quick to confess that they could not do their work without cooperation on the Pakistani side, which today, even after Islamic militants have lethally targeted members of Islamabad's intelligence and security services, remains complicated and problematic. Pakistan has been loath to sever long-standing ties to the Afghan and Pakistani Pashtun militant groups with which it has dealt for years. This is particularly true for those who come under the Taliban umbrella. Mullah Omar, the Taliban's divinely anointed founding father, is more or less an honored guest of Islamabad, holding court in Pakistan's western province of Baluchistan. Imagine scenarios where the Pakistanis receive requests for help from the British and the Americans, even as Western powers are aiding Afghanistan's bitterly anti-Pakistani non-Pashtun minorities against pro-Taliban Pashtuns.

We should never underestimate the potential for Pakistani recidivism. Even the most secular, pro-Western Pakistanis viewed the American invasion of Afghanistan with trepidation, if not hostility. Afghanistan was their backyard: A broad Pakistani consensus backed Islamabad's support of the Taliban. Even Pakistanis who serve Johnnie Walker Black at parties can like the idea of Muslim holy warriors in Afghanistan abetting the anti-Hindu jihadists of Kashmir. The Muslim identity is really all that Pakistan has as national glue. During the Soviet-Afghan war (1979-89), Afghanistan became a revered place for devout Pakistanis, some of whom crossed the border to fight with their coreligionists. For the secularized civilian and military elite, Afghanistan became an escape valve--someplace for religious Pakistanis to focus their attention. This attention was reciprocated north of the border.

Representing between 40 percent and 45 percent of the Afghan population and convinced of their right to political preeminence, Pashtuns have never lost their ties to their ethnic kin across the artificial, British-imposed border with Pakistan. The Soviet-Afghan war and the rise of religious militancy in the Pashtun community--which predates the Soviet invasion--further cemented ties and gave the Pashtun identity a sharper ideological edge. The long-standing cooperation among the Pashtun Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI, where Pakistani Pashtuns have served influentially), and the Pashtuns of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, North-West Frontier Province, and Baluchistan is natural.