Afghanistan: Why all Pashtuns in northwest Pakistan are not pro-Taliban

Published : August 11, 2021 13:31 IST

Pakistani authorities accuse liberal Pashtun groups of destabilizing the country at Afghanistan's behest. Photo: S. Ejaz

Progressive Pashtuns in Pakistan's northwestern areas are wary of the Taliban's potential return to power in Kabul.

It is generally believed that most people in Pakistan's northwestern areas support the Taliban because of their own inclination toward Islamism, but the reality is somewhat different. It is true that the Islamist group is liked by many in the region, but the number of people who oppose the Taliban and the Pakistani state's alleged support to the outfit has also increased manifold in the past two decades.

Most of these ethnic Pashtuns are wary of a never-ending war in their region and blame both the Taliban and Islamabad for the devastation in their areas. As the Taliban are gaining strength in Afghanistan, liberal Pashtuns fear it is just a matter of time before Islamists make a comeback in Pakistan's northwestern areas, too.

There are already reports of Pakistani citizens holding Taliban flags and chanting Islamist slogans at rallies in areas close to the Afghan border. Islamic clerics in various parts of the country are also soliciting support for the Afghan Taliban and calling for donations. This comes amid rapid Taliban advances in Afghanistan ahead of the complete withdrawal of NATO troops by September.

Opposition to the Taliban

Progressive Pashtuns recently held a convention in Charsadda, a town in Pakistan's northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, to discuss the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. They denounced the Taliban's assaults on Afghan forces. They also condemned the United States' Doha deal with the Taliban , saying it practically legitimized the militant group.

The convention, which was composed of leading Pashtun nationalist parties, intellectuals, academics and left-leaning political workers, called for an immediate cease-fire across Afghanistan to pave the way for peace talks.

The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), an anti-war group, has also held massive rallies in several parts of the province in the past few weeks. The PTM has condemned the Taliban and expressed its support for the Afghan government.

Support for Ashraf Ghani

Said Alam Mehsud, a PTM leader, believes that the Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan would suffer immensely if the Taliban managed to take over Kabul. "We support President Ashraf Ghani's government because it is legitimate. The Taliban are Pakistani mercenaries who want to topple an internationally recognized government," he told DW.

"The Taliban destroy schools, stop women from working, hand down inhuman punishments and kill innocent civilians. How can we support them?" he said.

On the contrary, Ghani's government, according to Mehsud, carried out several development projects in Afghanistan. The human rights situation has also improved under his administration, he added.

Bushra Gohar, a Pashtun politician and former lawmaker, agrees with Mehsud. "The PTM and other Pashtun groups are supporting Ghani because our people don't want to see the return of the Taliban's barbaric rule," she told DW. She said that, despite Taliban advances, Afghans are revolting against Islamists. "We see an uprising against the Taliban in Afghanistan. People are taking to the streets to show support to their government and the security forces."

Samina Afridi, a Peshawar-based political analyst, says Pashtuns on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border want education, human rights and democracy, but the Taliban are against that.

The 'Taliban project'

Pakistani authorities have long accused liberal Pashtun groups, including the PTM, of destabilizing the country at Afghanistan's behest. The PTM has gained considerable strength in the past four years, drawing tens of thousands of people to its protest rallies. Its supporters are critical of the war on terror, which they say has ravaged Pashtun areas in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Sarfraz Khan, the former head of the Area Study Center at the University of Peshawar, believes that if Ghani's government is toppled in Afghanistan, the PTM leadership in Pakistan will be targeted by both Islamists and Pakistani authorities. Experts say the consequences of targeting progressive Pashtuns could be catastrophic for the northwestern region. Khan says these groups, which have so far been nonviolent, could take up arms.

Former lawmaker and activist Gohar says Islamabad needs to change its policy toward the Afghan conflict by ending its "proxy war" and the "Taliban project."

"The U.N. must make sure that the Taliban's Doha office and their sanctuaries in Pakistan and elsewhere be immediately closed and that it imposes sanctions on the Taliban leaders. They should also be tried for war crimes. Sanctions should also be imposed on countries that are aiding and abetting the Taliban," she said, adding that the "Afghan genocide" must stop now.