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- Tuesday, October 23, 2012 - From Print Edition

Barely a week ago, a young girl was brutally attacked by extremists, but her name was not Malala Yousafzai. This nameless victim was an 11-year-old who had acid thrown on her face in the Kandahar district of Afghanistan. While this event went unnoticed, outrage poured out in Pakistan and across the world over news of the attack on Malala.

A bus full of students was attacked en route to Parachinar and a bomb blast in Darra Adam Khel killed dozens. With each incident, the Pakhtun disconnect became even more obvious. While there was anger over all the attacks, there was no uniformity in the outrage among Pakistanis – Pakhtun and non-Pakhtun – and in Afghanistan. In fact, the common thread was how disconnected the outrage was and how difficult it was for Pakhtuns to rally against the attacks. This disconnect can be seen through other examples as well: violence in Karachi, the siege of Parachinar, displacement of people from the federally administered tribal areas (Fata). All these fail to trigger the kind of response from Pakhtun society that other Pan Islamic or state nationalist causes do.

To understand this disconnect one has to first look at the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the spread of Pakhtuns across the Durand Line has left the Pakhtuns divided, and the two countries uncomfortable with each other. So while Afghanistan refused to recognise Pakistan’s independence in 1947, the Pakistani government in 1997 was the first state to recognise the Taliban-dominated Afghan government. The events of 9/11 were a turning point; with the exceptions of Aimal Kasi and Faisal Shahzad, the proportion of Pakhtuns involved in terrorism attacks has been tiny but the consequences have been huge.

The Pakhtun disconnect is not just between Afghanistan and Pakistan but within Pakistan as well. Despite being Pakistan’s second biggest ethnicity, the Pakhtuns are divided among those residing in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa – where they are a clear majority – and those in Fata and Balochistan, with small pockets in Punjab and a large number in Karachi. The divide between the Pakhtuns of Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) has been maintained since Yahya Khan disbanded the one unit and merged the Chief Commissioner’s Province of Baluchistan with the Kalat state to form a new province. They often face a different code of laws, from the mainstream laws in KP to the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) in Fata.

In political terms there is no real representative of Pakhtun society in the way the PPP represents Sindh or the PML-N represents Punjab. This is despite an electoral system that favours Pakhtuns in Balochistan, particularly in the Senate where they can form a plurality because of the same interprovincial split. In fact, if historical trends tell us anything, it is that the Pakhtun voter in KP tends to vote predominantly for national parties, while the Pakhtun voter in Balochistan splits between the national vote and the JUI-F. Fata remains largely driven by other influences since its citizens did not have the right to vote until 1997 and did not have the right to contest openly under political parties until 2010.

To put that in context, until 1997 no Fata MNA had ever sat on the opposition benches until Latif Afridi was elected. The last remaining factor is Karachi, where the vote was divided despite its sizable Pakhtun population. As a result of this political division, there has never been a Pakhtun prime minister or a Pakhtun speaker of the national assembly. Where Pakhtuns have been better represented is within the military establishment and bureaucracy. In terms of the army, recruitment continues to reflect the percentage of the population. In the mid 1990s one Pakhtun served as the chief of army staff, and in the last decade several generals have been a stone’s throw from becoming the COAS. Within the bureaucracy, however, things have changed from the days of Ghulam Ishaq Khan becoming president. On last count, only three out of 49 federal secretaries were from KP, and none from Fata or Balochistan.

The modern Pakhtun voter shares many similarities with the Punjabi voter – for both of them the turning point was Zia-ul Haq’s 1985 election, which reinforced the interests of the business class and established a system of patronage. This ‘class of 1985’, as one writer noted, intertwined its business interests with politics. In Punjab, it led to the election of politicians like Chaudhry Nisar, who have remained undefeated since, and the increasing conservatism of society. By contrast in KP this class was uprooted in the 2002 MMA election sweep – with the notable exception of Aftab Sherpao.

In electoral terms, again the Pakhtun voter tends to be fragmented; so in KP, no single party has ever formed an outright majority. In Balochistan, neither the Pakhtun nationalists nor the JUI-F have been able to claim the chief minister’s seat or the governor’s position. In the 1970 elections, the old National Awami Party’s biggest electoral success was not in the late Wali Khan’s home province, but in Balochistan where the Baloch turned out heavily in favour of the party.

Even the ANP’s success in the 2008 election was limited to KP, in particular to its traditional support base in the Peshawar valley and Malakand agency. The PPP’s support among Pakhtun voters has been consistently strong since 1970, with a vote bank in the 2008 elections in areas ranging from Bajaur in Fata to Dera Ismail Khan in KP. This is also the case with the JUI-F, which has a broad vote bank from Mansehra to Quetta. The Pakistan Muslim League historically had significant support in the region from the old Frontier Muslim League, but with the advent of the PPP has relied heavily on the Hazara belt in KP and on so-called ‘electables’ in Fata, Karachi and Balochistan. As for Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), he polled the most votes in KP, in Malala’s Swat district, during his disastrous 1997 electoral outing.

This political fragmentation of power among the Pakhtuns has had a major impact in economic terms, though this is hard to estimate accurately since most statistics are based on geographical divisions. According to the UNDP’s most recent survey, poverty levels in KP are seven percent higher than the national average. If one discounts the wealthier districts of the Hazara belt (Abbotabad and Haripur) and includes Fata where poverty is double the national average, poverty levels in the Pakhtun belt would be even higher relative to the rest of Pakistan.

This dismal state is also reflected in the decline in Pakhtun presence amongst Pakistan’s business elite. The larger undocumented Pakhtun economy is difficult to calculate – again showing a fragmentation – with interprovincial transport trade, transit trade to Afghanistan, expatriate money from the Middle East and the Karachi Pakhtuns exerting increasing influence. Meanwhile, the presence of 100,000 International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) personnel next door, and the billions of dollars spent by the United States, has created huge distortions in the economies of Afghanistan and Pakistan, shifting power away from traditional centres like Peshawar and Quetta towards Kabul, Islamabad, Dubai and Karachi.

All of this must be taken into account when it comes to addressing the Taliban, lawlessness, insurgency and terrorism in Pakistan. The attack on Malala was not an isolated event. But for the overall climate to change, it is imperative for Pakhtuns to challenge ignorance and extremism – and this cannot be done without looking introspectively and reconnecting with the sense of humanity and identity.

The writer is the founder of He co-manages the twitter account@ qissakhwani