SPEAKING FREELY Pashtuns rue militant image
By Ajmal Shams
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A careful look into the tragic events and misfortunes of the past three decades in Afghanistan, beginning with the communist coup of April 1978, reveals clearly that Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand Line separating Afghanistan from Pakistan have been the prime victims.
It is true that Afghans in general have suffered tremendously from a perpetual bloody conflict that has shattered lives in varying
degrees. However, Pashtuns in both Afghanistan and across the border in Pakhtunkhwa have been the most severely impacted by the ongoing strife.
As a consequence of the armed resistance against the Soviet occupation forces, almost 2 million Afghans, mainly Pashtuns, lost their lives. Spy agencies of the communist regime in Kabul continued to perpetrate terrorist activities in Pakhtunkhwa, which killed hundreds of Pashtuns - both local and refugees from Afghanistan. Similarly, after the collapse of Mohammad Najibullah's regime, when the mujahideen came to power, the major battle grounds of the civil war were the Pashtun areas.
Now, after decades, the legacy of this virtual massacre of Pashtuns still rages in the form of the ongoing insurgency on both sides of the Durand Line.
The Taliban emerged in the early 1990s in the country's south and gradually grabbed power, taking complete control in 1996. Since an absolute majority of the militants were Pashtun, this triggered international propaganda against the entire Pashtun ethnicity. Pashtuns were portrayed as being against civilized culture and as believing only in extremism. Whatever actions the Taliban committed were associated with the Pashtuns.
Regrettably, this character assassination has been sustained to this day in one form or another, despite the fact that the Taliban rarely committed actions that favored one ethnic group over the other and never identified themselves with being Pashtuns.
Members of the Taliban from Badakhshan Province, ethnic Tajiks, were actively involved in the movement with some holding high-ranking positions. The perception of identifying Pashtuns with the Taliban or vice versa has no logical grounds.
The story of the non-violent struggle against British rule led by the legendary Pashtun freedom fighter Khan Abdul Ghafar Khan, well known as Bacha Khan, offers a more apt lesson in the history of Pashtun political movements. Often called "the non-violent soldier of Islam", 80 years ago he called upon the Pashtuns to stand up for their rights and struggle through peaceful political means without resorting to violence.
Thousands of Pashtuns associated themselves with the non-violent method of uprising seen under his charismatic leadership. Bacha Khan and his companions spent years in prisons and suffered enormous hardships in pursuit of their enduring peaceful struggle for freedom.
If it were true that Pashtuns only believed in violent methods of political struggle, they would never have united under Bacha Khan's banner of peaceful uprising. Pashtuns' adherence to Bacha Khan's peaceful political movement is proof of Pashtuns' faith in tolerance and peaceful co-existence.
Pashtuns have entrenched principles of resolving conflicts among themselves and with others through dialogue and traditional peace jirgas (tribal assemblies). However, when there is legitimate need for the use of force, they are readily willing to rise up in arms.
The pages of history illustrate Pashtuns' valiant struggle, bravery and courage and portray them also as inheritors of a nearly 5,000 year-old civilization that thrived between the great rivers of Amu and Indus.
Among the many Pashtun heroes, reflection on the life of Khushal Khan Khattak sheds the most light on the character of a typical Pashtun leader. Khushal Khan has been called a man of the sword and of letters. For years, defending the rights of Pashtuns, he fought Mughuls, but he was also second to none in terms of his literary achievements. His works have inspired writers and poets for four centuries.
The re-emergence of the Taliban after being thrown out of power in late 2001 by the US-led international military coalition can be attributed to several internal and external contributing factors. It is nothing but unfair media bias to say that the Taliban-led insurgency has been initiated by the Pashtuns.
The reality is that this violent conflict has been imposed on the Pashtuns whose victims are none but Pashtuns themselves. It is also a pity that the Taliban Insurgency is sometimes termed as Pashtun insurgency. Unfair as it is, there is absolutely no logic in the notion either. Such a characterization portrays a negative image of the Pashtuns worldwide, leading several into believing that Pashtuns are radical extremists who cannot come to terms with attributes of modern society.
It is an open secret now that the ongoing insurgency in the lands of the Pashtuns is mainly driven by regional and global rivalries for gaining political influence and economic superiority. Surprisingly, Afghanistan, due to its geo-strategic location, remains the battleground for such rivalries but neither their owner nor beneficiary. Part of the blame also lies with a fragmented Pashtun leadership that has little or no vision for the future.
It is a crucial moment for the Pashtun political leadership as well as the religious and social intelligentsia to redefine and present the true image of Pashtuns as a tolerant nation having a long cherished desire to live in peaceful co-existence with others, so long as their relationship is based on mutual respect and trust.
However, one must also be mindful of the fact that as long Pashtuns are not given their legitimate political and cultural rights and equal access to economic opportunities, not only will the entire regions remain in the grip of conflict and tension but the world at large will continue to feel the adverse impacts.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Ajmal Shams is President of the Afghanistan Social Democratic Party, known as the Afghan Millat National Progressive Party. He also served as Policy Advisor to the Afghanistan Transition Coordination Commission. He holds a master degree and writes on political and developmental issues.