[R-G] Pakistan is in danger of falling apart
mstainsby at tao.ca
Tue Oct 30 23:54:15 MST 2001
Pakistan is in danger of falling apart
Regional separatism and support for Islamist groups are growing
Tuesday October 23, 2001
A couple of years ago, on a visit to the North West Frontier, I
called in on Khan Abdul Wali Khan. The Khan had once been one of the
Pathan's great leaders; but he was now a frail old man. We sat in his
summer house in the middle of his irrigated garden. The Khan poured
jasmine tea and asked me about my impressions of the area. I told him
what I had just seen at the nearby Darra arms bazaar: hundreds of men
busy manufacturing home-made assault rifles and anti-aircraft cannon.
"Yes," said the Khan. "There are now more than one million
Kalashnikovs in this province alone. It has got completely out of
control." He shook his head sadly. "I feel," he said, "as if I'm
living on an ammunition dump."
I thought of the Khan this week as anti-American protests spread
across Pakistan. Although there has been unrest in Karachi and a bomb
in Rawalpindi, it is among the Pathans that the rioting has been most
serious: a cinema, the UN compound and a bazaar burned down by
Pathans in Quetta, and four more shot dead in a village nearby;
significantly, the local Baluchis have played virtually no part in
the riots. Worse still on the frontier, where the Pathans are from
the same tribes as their cousins in the Taliban, Peshawar has
disappeared into a miasma of tear gas and police shooting, with at
least half a dozen dead.
Machismo is to the North West Frontier what religion is to the
Vatican. Bandoliers hang over the men's shoulders; grenades are
nonchalantly tucked into their pockets. I once walked into a Khyber
tea house to find a group of Pathan mojahedin huddled in a corner
dismantling a live landmine with a broken screw driver. None of the
other tea drinkers blinked.
The Pathans have never been completely conquered, at least not since
the time of Alexander the Great. They have seen off centuries of
invaders, and they retain the mixture of self-confidence,
independence and suspicion that this has produced. Beyond the
checkpoints on the edge of Peshawar, tribal law - based on the tribal
council and the blood feud - rules unchallenged. The dominant Afridi
tribe controls the Afghan heroin trade and kidnapping and murder are
virtually cottage industries.
It takes very little for latent discontent of the Pathans with the
Pakistani government to erupt, but this latest wave of riots is on a
different scale to anything since partition, raising the perennial
question as to the future of Pakistan - can the centre hold?
If many in Pakistan now question the long-term viability of the
state, it is certain that none would be so ready to separate
themselves from it as the Pathans. Throughout the 1940s, Wali Khan's
father, known as Padshah Khan, passionately opposed the creation of
Pakistan, leading the Pathans to side with Gandhi's Congress against
Jinnah's Muslim League. During this period the Pathans believed that
they would gain their own state, allied to India, just as East
Pakistan - modern Bangladesh - was originally separated by thousands
of miles from its western wing.
In the bloodshed of partition, this Pakhtun state never happened, but
the dashed hopes left the Pathans estranged from the idea of
Pakistan. Padshah Khan spent the 1960s and 1970s struggling in vain
for a union with the equally disgruntled Pathans in Afghanistan to
form a new state - Pakhtunistan, straddling the Durand Line (the
hated frontier drawn up by the British in 1893 which broke the tribes
in two). But the Pakhtun nationalist spirit survived his death in
1988, and has mutated into a very different Islamist form under a
variety of Taliban-like groups such as the Jamiat Ulema i-Islam
(JUI). If, as seems quite possible, Afghanistan breaks up in the
aftermath of the American assault, with the Tajik Northern Alliance
controlling the north, and a Pathan post-Taliban successor state
taking the south, then demands for the creation of Pakhtunistan can
only gain momentum.
Regional separatism is only one of the problems now faced by
Pakistan. President Musharraf's decision to support the American
assault on the Taliban, against the wishes of more than 80% of his
population, has greatly strengthened Islamist groups, bringing them
support from swathes of the population not normally part of their
Serious civilian casualties in Afghanistan or heavy-handed action by
the Pakistani security forces would further radicalise the
population. Last week Musharraf sacked two leading pro-Taliban
generals and placed three pro-Taliban religious leaders (including
the spiritual leader of the JUI) under house arrest; but after a
decade of Talibanisation, Pakistan has never been closer to an
Islamic revolution, or at least an Islamist coup. Such a coup would
put nuclear weapons into Islamist hands: Bin Laden's wildest dream.
These strains and tensions within Pakistan can only increase in the
months ahead. It is likely to be a bumpy ride.
· William Dalrymple is the author of The Age of Kali: Indian Travels
and Encounters (HarperCollins)
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