Bridging the Pashtun Divide
Image Credit: Gustavo Montes de Oca

Bridging the Pashtun Divide


Pashtun lands have long been a battleground for competing interests, but the last 50 years have perhaps been the darkest in their history. Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand Line have been the biggest victims of the great game of the 20thcentury. While the 1980s brought a huge influx of Afghans – mainly Pashtuns – into the north west of Pakistan, today we now see Pashtuns from the federally administered tribal area (FATA) border area of Pakistan being internally displaced in their own country. They are living in camps, where they battle extreme poverty and squalor just like their brethren from Afghanistan have done. In fact, the internally displaced Pashtuns from FATA Pakistan currently occupy one of the largest refugee camps, known as Jalozai, some 35 kilometers from Peshawar, originally set up for their Afghan brethren in the 1980s.

Yet another tragedy for Pashtuns on both sides is their growing divide, driven by animosity and blame, particularly on social media, even though both sides are victims. This is quite aside from the suspicion and mistrust many Afghans feel towards the Pakistani government and its continued meddling in Afghanistan politics.

We can observe recently how social and other media encourages this alienation. The most pathetic manifestation can be observed on social media, for instance in the smug response from within Afghanistan over the Peshawar tragedy, with many so-called educated Afghans taking the opportunity to have a dig at Pakistan.

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Of course, the Pakistan side is not without this particular hatefulness. Immediately after the brutal killing in Peshawar, calls emerged for Afghan refugees to be kicked out of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and for Peshawar (which hosts the bulk of  the1979 migration of Afghans) should be cleansed of all Afghan elements. One clip shown on a Pakistani mainstream TV channel was a parent of one of the Peshawar victims, crying and demanding that Pakistan change its policy and expel Afghans. This was a sad obfuscation of the facts, but the grieving parent could hardly be blamed for not grasping the complexity of the Pakistan-Afghanistan situation. It is the media on both sides that have been building a narrative that molds the views of ordinary people.

Afghan Pashtuns are mostly of the view that Pashtuns from Pakistan have over the years developed an apathy towards Afghanistan’s troubles. Yet the Afghans seem to forget that Pashtuns from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have lost nearly 70,000 people over the last decade or so, with a million displaced from FATA. Pashtun Afghans seem to view ordinary Pashtun in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or FATA as being among their oppressors, completely oblivious to the fact that ordinary Pashtuns on both sides of the border have suffered grievously, whether they are Pakistani or Afghan.

Meanwhile, the Pashtun economy, already reeling under the effect of the Taliban onslaught, will suffer further if Afghan casual labor and business that have been integrated into the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa economy are asked to leave. The contemptuous words of the Pakistani Pashtuns for their Afghan brethren, like mohjair (refugee), and calls to send them home won’t help the faltering economy of this province or the ordinary people on both sides. In the 1980s, Peshawar emerged as a hub of cross-border trade and its commercial sector benefited Pashtuns from both Afghanistan and Pakistan, who were an integral part of this story.

The rising negativity, especially on social media, among Pashtuns could spell disaster if it is not countered by more positive voices, advocating understanding and empathy for ordinary people on both sides of the border. Educated Pashtuns on both sides should play a role here.

These negative voices need to think before they voice their frustration on social media, and ask themselves if Pashtuns who are ethnically, culturally, linguistically, and geographically so close can really afford to pursue an agenda of hatred and bias. How does it benefit the two sides to cling to this hate? Must we stop listening to our great shared artists and their music, from Sardar Ali Takkar to Nashenas? Should Khyber Pakhtunkhwa lay exclusive claim to great Pashtun poets like Ghani Khan, or should Pashtuns from Afghanistan insist that only they can speak Pashto?

In fact, we cannot deny Pashtun interdependence. Peshawar and its surroundings, and the bordering regions of Afghanistan, are virtually a single market. Borders are open not only for the movement of people but also for the movement of goods. These negative voices can only create distance. In Afghanistan’s rehabilitation and reconstruction, ordinary Pashtuns from Peshawar and Quetta have an important role to play. Ordinary people are just people. When a Pashtun child dies in Paktia or another is killed in Peshawar, both are victims. Pashtun solidarity might have died, but humanity at least must survive.

Aziz Amin Ahmadzai is a writer based in Kabul. He tweets [email protected] and can be reached by email at [email protected]. Mona Naseer is from FATA, a political and social commentator on Pak-Afghan region & tweets on @Mo2005

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