The Pulse

Pakistan, Islamism, and the Fear of Afghan Nationalism 

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The Pulse

Pakistan, Islamism, and the Fear of Afghan Nationalism 

Pakistan’s long history of undermining Afghan and Pashtun nationalism and promoting pan-Islamism instead.

Pakistan, Islamism, and the Fear of Afghan Nationalism 
Credit: U.S. Armed Forces/ Staff Sgt. Teddy Wade

Since the partition of the Indian subcontinent, Pakistan has lived in fear of the rise of ethnic nationalism in Pakistan and Afghan nationalism in Afghanistan. The elite Pakistani think tanks and power houses see these two trends as a threat to Pakistan’s geographical integrity. The fear gains credibility when viewed against the backdrop of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh)’s  separation from West Pakistan (the current Pakistan) and the waves of insurgency in Pakistan by socialists, Balochs, and some Pashtun nationalists who received support from Afghanistan. Therefore, Pakistan strives to use religion as a unifying tool to undermine ethno-nationalists at home and Afghan nationalism abroad.

During the Cold War, Pakistan’s General Headquarters and the prime minister’s house tried to curb the influence of all ethnic political parties in Pakistan by arresting and jailing their top leaders and heightening propaganda against them. For instance, the Pashtun nationalist parties in Pakistan, who call themselves Afghans, had been labeled as parties that rejected Pakistan’s independence. Government propaganda dubbed these parties “red Congressy (a reference to the Indian National Congress) and called their behavior as anti-Pakistani.

The government bases its narrative on three factors. First, Pashtun parties had links with the Indian Congress and rivalries with the Muslim League in the past, precisely during the independence struggle. Second, Pashtun nationalists rejected the referendum in 1947, which asked peoples from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP, today’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) to decide whether they wanted to be a part of Pakistan or India. In fact, Pashtun nationalists argued they didn’t want Pakistan or India but a separate and independent “Pashtunistan,” composed of Pashtun-dominated areas currently under Pakistani sovereignty. Finally, when Pashtun nationalists recognized the reality of Pakistan, they then called for provincial autonomy and sovereignty within the Pakistani federation. This is another factor which impacted relations initially with the Muslim League and later with other major Pakistani political parties. Although in the 1973 constitution, provinces were given autonomy and sovereignty on paper, but nationalist parties still argue such autonomy doesn’t exist on the ground.

On the foreign policy front, Pakistan continuously feared being sandwiched between Afghan nationalism and India, a rival and enemy. Added to this fear was Kabul’s “Pashtunistan” policy and non-recognition of the Durand line. With Kabul giving shelter and support to Pakistani ethnic nationalists, such as members of National Awami Party (NAP) and others, Pakistan was hoping for a similar opportunity.

That chance came when Afghan Islamists escaped to Pakistan during Sardar Mohammed Daud Khan’s presidency. Nasserullah Babar, who was the inspector-general of Frontier Corps (FC) at that time, was contacted by Maulvi Habibur Rehman, one of the 12 founders of  Nuhzat-e-Islami-Afghanistan (The Islamic Movement of Afghanistan). Rehman asked “about setting up a resistance movement in Afghanistan with active military assistance of Pakistan,” as Babar later recalled in an interview. According to Babar, he conveyed that message to Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and in return was given a green light to “organize training of Afghans,” which according to Babar consisted of assistance in “basic infantry weapons [and] specialized training in how to conduct guerrilla warfare” under a Pakistani SSG team. This was just the beginning of Pakistan’s playing the Islamic Afghan card to counter Afghanistan’s nationalist Pashtun card. Between 300 and 700 Afghan Islamists were trained in Pakistan and then sent to Afghanistan for the “1354 Amalyat” (Operation 1354). The military uprising was a disaster for Afghan Islamists and many of its top leaders were arrested and later hanged (including Habibur Rehman).

This was the beginning of Pakistan’s typical Afghan policy. Islamabad used Afghan Islamists as a bargaining chip to persuade Kabul to leave its policy of supporting Pakistani ethnic nationalists and separatists. At the same time, to undercut Afghan nationalism and put an end to the future issues related to the Durand Line and Greater Afghanistan, Pakistan tried to bolster Afghan Islamists by providing them with more resources.

During the Afghan Jihad, Pakistan once again sheltered Afghan refugees, but this time in the millions as opposed to the hundreds seen in the 1973-1975 period. Pakistan trained and gave sanctuaries to Mujahideen and later used these militiants as a proxy for its own interests. Pakistan’s goal was de-Pashtunization or de-Afghanism; it instead supported and backed an extreme form of pan-Islamism. It should be noted that Afghan Islamist political parties like Nuhzat-e-Islami-Afghanistan weren’t created by Pakistan’s ISI or otherwise an injection into Afghan political landscape by an outside force (though ideologically these Islamists were influenced by Muslim Brotherhood and Jamat-e-Islami and its thinkers). However, the role of Pakistani support in the movement’s rise, growth and evolution is also undeniable fact.

Of course, not all the refugees that poured into Pakistan during the Afghan jihad were militants. Some were Afghan thinkers and nationalists who had served under King Zahir Shah and Sardar Daud Khan. Many of these figures, however, were either assassinated or forced to leave Pakistan. Thinker and a writer Aziz Ulfat, former minister and philosopher Bahauddin Majroh, father of Hamid Karzai and former member of Afghan parliament Abdul Ahad Karzai, and some members of the Pashtun nationalistic party Afghan Millat were assassinated in Pakistan, with the killers never found. Moreover, former president of the UN General Assembly Abdurahman Pajhwok and many others were pressed by by Pakistani and jihadi parties to leave Pakistan for other countries. All the assassinations and exiles of Afghan nationalists, who were experienced and professional, served to make room for the inexperienced mujahideen. The role of Afghan jihadi parties in attacking and diffusing the power of Afghan nationalists is not deniable and Pakistan’s role cannot be ruled out in this regard.

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who himself was a mujahid and a leader of Sibghatullah Mujadadi’s party, also believes that during the Afghan jihad Pakistan used Islamists to fight Pashtun or Afghan nationalism. Hamid Karzai, in a meeting with U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher in April 2003 whose details were later released by WikiLeaks, said that:

“Pashtun nationalists were generally secular. Pakistan had created the Taliban to fight against Pashtun nationalism. When Pakistan was created 50 years ago, the area inside Pakistan containing Pashtuns was divided from the Pashtuns on the Afghan side of the border. This Pashtun-dominated region was called Pashtunistan. Fearing secession, Pakistan set out to destroy Pashtun nationalism by Islamizing Pakistani Pashtuns and killing Afghan Pashtun nationalists. Pakistan’s goal was to have Afghanistan dominated by radical Islam.”

Karzai still believes that Pakistan fears Afghan nationalism. In a recent speech given at the Raisina Dialogue in 2017, he said that during the Afghan jihad, Pakistan wanted to take away the “Afghanness” of Afghans and instead tried to give them a more “Pan-Islamist” shape, solely to put an end to Afghan claims over Pakistan ruled Pashtun regions.

It is also very interesting to note that in the post-Cold War period, Pakistan has always supported “Pashtuns” in Afghanistan and sees the insurgency and continuous war in Afghanistan as a result of Pashtun alienation or disparities in power between Tajiks and Pashtuns. Pakistan hence asked for more Pashtun participation in Afghan government. Normally, however, the so-called “Pashtun participation” has always referred to larger roles for the pro-Pakistan Pashtun Mujahideen or Pashtun-dominated Taliban, not the other Pashtuns whom Pakistan fears, the nationalists.

This Pakistani strategy is failing. Those Islamists who Pakistan once considered to be more pro-Pakistan are becoming more anti-Pakistani upon returning to Kabul after taking refuge in Pakistan. Former members of Taliban who are living in Afghanistan are now more more anti-Pakistani (for instance, see the books of Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef: Da Guantanamo Anzoor in Pashto and My Life With the Taliban in English). Moreover, the effects of “Pashtunwali” are also seen in the Taliban; for instance, they didn’t recognize the Durand Line during their rule. Pakistan does not grasp this hidden correlation between Islamism and Afghan nationalism.

Supporting Islamized groups like the Taliban hasn’t actually served to lower Pakistani concerns. Former Pakistani ambassador to Washington Gen. Mahmud Ali Durrani once summed this fear up perfectly: “I hope the Taliban and Pashtun nationalism don’t merge. If that happens, we’ve had it, and we’re on the verge of that.”

The author is thankful for Hallimullah Kousary, acting director of Conflict and Peace Studies, and Rafiullah Niazi, director of Regional Studies Center of Afghanistan (Academy of Sciences, Afghanistan) for reading the first draft of this piece.

Ahmad Bilal Khalil is a researcher at the Center for Strategic and Regional Studies, Kabul (csrskabul). He follows Afghan foreign policy, Islamists, regional geopolitical and geoeconomic matters, and Kabul’s relations with its neighbors (especially China, Pakistan, and India). He is working on a book on Sino-Afghan relations from 1955-2015 in Pashto and tweets at @abilalkhalil