"Pashtuns are the real victims of terrorism"

March 5, 2017

-- Afrasiab Khattak, former senator, analyst

TNS: How do you look at the recent crackdown and the ethnic profiling of the Pashtuns, especially in Punjab?

Afrasiab Khattak: Actually, discrimination against Pashtuns was going on in Punjab for the last so many years. But it didn’t become a political issue: first, because the media kept a lid on it for obvious reasons and, second, because most of the Pashtuns with their tribal background deem it against their pride to complain against mistreatment meted out to them.

Initially, Afghan refugees bore the brunt of racial discrimination in Punjab. It is pertinent to note that Afghan refugees have lived in a legal vacuum as Pakistan is neither signatory to international conventions on refugees nor has it any national law for dealing with protection of refugees. So, their status depends on the policy of the government of the day which makes them quite vulnerable.

Then came the internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Swat and Fata after the ascendancy of terrorists in those areas followed by military operations. These devastating developments resulted in massive dislocation in Pashtun belt on both sides of the Durand Line. Pashtuns started crossing the Indus in big numbers.

Without making it public, the Punjab government adopted the "policy of containment" towards Pashtun IDPs. There have been standing orders by the deputy commissioners in districts of upper Punjab to the locals to refrain from selling or renting their properties to Pashtuns. They have faced massive arrests and fleecing at the hands of Punjab police. Even their Pakistani CNICs haven’t been of much help as the cards would be blocked immediately.

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Pashtun Parliamentarians have raised the issue in both the National Assembly and the Senate but to no avail. An all Parties Conference was held on the issue but the situation hasn’t changed.

TNS: There is a sense that the discrimination going on against the Afghan refugees in Punjab has shifted to Pashtuns in general after the recent wave of terror attacks. Can you see any specific reason why is this happening?

The state of Pakistan needs to have a clean break with the policy of making distinction between good and bad terrorists. There is need for implementation of the policy of zero tolerance towards extremism and terrorism and not just making pious noises in this regard.

AK: Religious extremism breeding terrorism has existed in Pakistan since Zia’s martial law but the country has lived in denial for too long. The fault lies in the state policy that has used militancy of the so called non-state actors as instrument of policy both at the national security and foreign policy level.

Even when General Musharraf had to grudgingly recognise the existence of terror problem, successive governments have consistently made a distinction between the so called good and bad Taliban.

The National Action Plan could not be implemented for two reasons: firstly, because the state has refused to act against "good Taliban" that includes Afghan Taliban, JuD, JeM and some others. The problem is that terror syndicate is an indivisible body and by not acting against its major part you keep the problem intact. Secondly, both the political government and security establishment have not gone after extremist and terror nurseries in Punjab. Unlike Swat or Fata where full-fledged military operations were conducted involving F-16s, tanks and long range guns, in Punjab the action was confined to the so called intelligence-based operations, which was more or less white washing.

Absolute majority of proscribed organisations that consists of extremist ideologues are based in Punjab but they remain by and large unscathed.

So, after the most recent wave of terrorist attacks when focus on terror bases in Punjab became inevitable, the government decided to externalise the problem by shifting the entire burden to Pashtun/Afghan entities.

It is really painful for Pashtuns, who are the real victims of terrorism and have suffered the most at the hands of terrorists, that they should be demonised as an entity for diverting attention from misguided state policies and terror nurseries in Punjab.

TNS: You have suggested in one of your recent columns that the Afghan jihad was designed and implemented by the Punjabi establishment. As a consequence, the Taliban are believed to have acquired a Pashtun identity in the minds of an ordinary Punjabi. What is your sense about the Punjabi Taliban? What has been the resistance like against Taliban of all hues from the Pashtuns?

AK: Yes, it is quite a twisted narrative. Project Taliban was launched by Punjabi dominated security establishment of Pakistan in 1994 for two objectives. One was to fill the vacuum created by the fragmentation and decline of the Afghan groups known as Afghan mujahideen groomed in Pakistan and the second and more important objective was to create a brutal fighting machine which could implement the policy of "strategic depth" in Afghanistan by demolishing Afghan state and society. The militia was projected as a Pashtun entity, first because most of its fighters were from the Pashtun areas and also because it could get them legitimacy as Pashtuns are the biggest ethnic group in Afghanistan.

But in practice this movement has remained anti-Pashtun and it has targeted Pashtun nationalists in large numbers on both sides of the Durand Line.

Pakistani Pashtun political leadership is kept miles away by the security establishment from framing the country’s Afghan policy.

But, unfortunately, mainstream Pakistani media has generally remained very uncritical of the country’s Afghan policy and has confined itself to reproducing the official narrative. That’s why people in Punjab are mostly uninformed about the Afghan question. It isn’t difficult to manipulate this uninformed public opinion.

Pashtuns have been at the receiving end of both the terrorist onslaught and the military operations launched in their area, particularly in Fata.

TNS: We have heard the Pashtuns residing in the cities of Punjab are finding it difficult to get their identity cards renewed, etc. Are you aware of any more procedural difficulties they are facing?

AK: Yes, the problem of identity cards is an old one. When I was working in the Human Rights Committee of the Senate, we raised this issue with the interior ministry and Nadra but the bureaucracy does not listen to Parliamentarians. Without identity card one can’t get registered as a voter. Then there are restrictions on renting or buying properties. These days even the daily wage labourers are being harassed and persecuted. They are being told to leave. There is a lot of anger and frustration in the Pashtun IDPs.

Pakistan is supposed to be a federation and the Constitution guarantees right to free movement inside it but it is denied in Punjab.

TNS: How has the war against terrorism, including the military operations within the country affected the Pashtuns?

AK: Pashtuns have been at the receiving end of both the terrorist onslaught and the military operations launched in their area, particularly in Fata. The latter has been used mostly as a strategic space for fighting great games and no one has thought about the human beings living there. They are the main victim of terrorism.

Foreign terrorists who were brought to fight in Afghanistan were imposed on Fata Pashtuns. After September 11, the tribal area was by and large controlled by terrorists for more than a decade but the state didn’t come to their rescue. Terrorists killed thousands of tribal elders but no one was bothered. Fata was hit by the largest number of drone attacks.

Unlike military operation in Swat in 2009, where military worked closely with the political government, there was no political oversight during the military operations in Fata. Consequently, the civilian population of the area caught in the crossfire between the army and terrorists had to bear immense sufferings.

There were collateral damages not registered. Big markets in Miran Shah and Mir Ali were flattened. Majority of the population in the Tochi Valley in North Waziristan lost all movable and immovable property. IDPs have faced grave problems during displacement and in the process of rehabilitation. They are made to sign a "social contract" drafted by the civil and military authorities other than the Constitution of Pakistan. They have to use "watan card" that is like an entry visa into their own areas.

The delay in Fata reforms and prolongation of the colonial system along with brutalities of war have created a deep sense of alienation in young people. The volcano of unrest is building and it can burst if remedial measures are not taken soon.

TNS: It is said that the Pashtuns in Karachi are at this point in time safer than Punjab because of their relatively large numbers. What is your view?

AK: In Karachi Pashtun IDPs did face problems and have difficulties even now but being part of a big community has helped them. Karachi is the real cosmopolitan city and, despite ethnic polarisations diversity is by and large accepted. Historically, Pashtun immigration to the south and east has been taking place over so many centuries and there are old Pashtun settlements in upper Punjab which are fully integrated in local communities.

Punjab has attracted settlers and the common Punjabi has been quite hospitable to new comers.

Even now, complaints originate from government policy rather than the common people. Parliament and media in Pakistan need to hold a dispassionate debate on internal displacement and internal immigration, instead of getting bogged down in ethnic polarisation. A country that is already suffering from sectarian divisions cannot afford to develop ethnic faultlines.

TNS: How do you look at the state’s response to the Afghan refugees? Don’t you think there should have been some naturalisation plan in place for them just as we demand for our own citizens in other countries?

AK: I have worked in the human rights movement and have seen the problem firsthand. Pakistan has hosted a huge refugee population for quite a long time. The people of Pakistan have been very generous towards refugees. The biggest problem has been the legal vacuum and whimsical government policies.

The solution of every big refugee problem has three components. First is repatriation, which has to be voluntary, dignified and sustainable. Second is the policy of relocation for part of the refugee population, which can neither go back to the country of its origin nor stay back in the host country. So, such refugees are relocated to a third country. Third is absorption of refugees in the host country.

Generally, this right is given to the refugee children born in the host country. In the case of Afghan refugees, the first two components are being implemented but the third one is not even discussed. Pakistan’s Citizenship Act has a provision for giving citizenship to children born in Pakistan. There are only two exceptions to this general rule. First, children whose parents are serving diplomats aren’t included in this category. Second, children whose parents have been declared as enemies of Pakistan won’t enjoy this right. Pakistan, Afghanistan, and UNHCR need to discuss and include all the three components with mutual agreement as other countries are doing.

TNS: How should the state of Pakistan address the terrorism problem in the country, especially with reference to relations with India and Afghanistan?

AK: The state of Pakistan needs to have a clean break with the policy of making distinction between good and bad terrorists. There is need for implementation of the policy of zero tolerance towards extremism and terrorism and not just making pious noises in this regard. Good Taliban is elephant in the room and in its presence Pakistan cannot gain credibility as a country fighting against terrorism.

Afghanistan shouldn’t be bracketed with India by Pakistani policy makers. It has been Pakistan’s misguided Afghan policy of Talibanisation which has pushed Afghanistan towards India. Interestingly, Pakistani leaders have been lecturing and pontificating to the world during the last four decades that Afghans would never accept foreign hegemony but forget their own advice when it comes to their Afghan policy.

President Ashraf Ghani’s offer for close friendship with Pakistan was the best deal that Pakistan could get in the last seventy years. Both countries need to defuse tension, go for some confidence building measures (CBMs) and pick up the thread from where it was left in 2014. Security circles in Pakistan, mentoring Taliban need to realise that Talibanisation cannot co-exist with CPEC, TAPI and CASA.

Pakistan needs to focus on human development and economic advancement. With India the situation is more complicated but Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been very focused on normalising relations with the big neighbour in the east. One hopes India will also reciprocate. Unlike the past, anti-Indian populism has no takers among the people of Pakistan during elections. One hopes Pakistan bashing wouldn’t remain a popular election slogan in Indian politics as bilateral relationship is a two-way traffic. Pakistan and India need to learn from the experience of France and Germany.

The interview was conducted via email

"Pashtuns are the real victims of terrorism"