Print This Post
10 January 2023, Gateway House

Tangled history: the Pashtun

Tilak Devasher's book The Pashtuns: A Contested History delves into the Pashtun tribe, highlighting its geopolitical significance and far-reaching consequences in the South Asian region. Reviewer Tim Willasey-Wilsey says the book brilliantly explains how the Pashtuns were strong-armed into joining Pakistan and why the prospect of Pashtun unity poses a threat to security in Pakistan and the entire region.

Visiting Professor, Department of War Studies, King's College, London

post image

Tilak Devasher has found a gaping hole in the market and produced the first book on the Pashtuns to bear serious comparison to James Spain’s two brilliant treatises of the 1960s and Sir Olaf Caroe’s iconic, but perhaps overrated, ‘The Pathans’ (as the tribe was known in colonial times) written in 1958.

Given the importance of the Pashtuns in global politics since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the NATO intervention following the 9/11 attacks it is surprising  that nothing of real quality has focussed on the tribe which dominates Afghan politics and which plays such a key role in Pakistan’s calculations about its own stability and territorial integrity. The peerless Ahmed Rashid has, of course, written about the Taliban and the risks of Pakistan’s ‘descent into chaos’ but not specifically about the Pashtuns.

There are moments of real brilliance in Devasher’s work. The first is his chapter (10) on how the British had to coerce the Pashtuns in the north-west of British India to join Pakistan. The Pashtun leader Abdul Ghaffar Khan, known as the ‘Frontier Gandhi’, based in Peshawar, had campaigned for Indian independence for years and had no wish to join Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s Pakistan project. Once the British turned their minds to the implementation of Partition they recognised the need to strong-arm the Pashtuns into joining Pakistan. The alternative was unthinkable, another province of India separated from the rest by a West Pakistan that would have comprised just the Punjab and Sindh (because Balochistan would probably have followed Khan’s lead). So the British held and narrowly won a referendum which Khan boycotted; a classic piece of colonial realpolitik.

A second gripping excerpt is Devasher’s discussion of the Durand Line, another example of apparent colonial ingenuity which has had far-reaching consequences. The British had long debated where to defend British India: along the line of the Indus River, or further forward inside Afghanistan. The Durand Line was a compromise and the creation of ‘Tribal Areas’, governed by the unique Frontier Crime Regulations (which allowed for collective punishment) enabled the British to avoid day-to-day administration of a frontier region which was always fractious (p.84). The solution was only partly successful and British troops were frequently involved in Counter Insurgency operations from the 1890s right up until 1947. Furthermore, the Afghans never agreed to the Durand Line being the international border. Indeed the new Taliban government of Afghanistan has recently restated this rejection and has destroyed some of the barbed wire fencing erected by the Pakistan army.

And here lies the Pashtun conundrum. There are 15 million Pashtuns in Afghanistan where they are the biggest and dominant ethnicity and yet there are 31 million in Pakistan where they are an important minority, dominant in the north-west and with substantial presence in both Balochistan and Pakistan’s major port city of Karachi (p.xix). If the two groups were ever to combine and create Pashtunistan the result would be cataclysmic for Pakistan’s chances of survival and for the security of Central Asia and the entire Subcontinent. At times Devasher seems to flirt with the idea (p.368) but he also provides ample reasons why it should never happen.

The central problem appears to be the Pashtun mindset. There was always a spirit of individualism and a code of honour which required any slight to be met with violence. This was somewhat mitigated by a code of behaviour known as Pashtunwali (p.26). However this has been much eroded by 40 years of almost continuous warfare. The influence of the old tribal maliks (tribal elders) has been replaced by religious ideologues. The brutalisation of war (for which the Russians and the West must bear some responsibility) has been augmented by religious radicalisation (much of which can be laid at the door of Saudi Arabia). None of this suggests that unity will come easily. Furthermore there is also a major fissure between the two major groups in the tribe; the Durranis and the Ghilzias and numerous internecine disputes between sub-groups, most famously between the Mehsuds and Waziris.

Devasher expertly explains why Pakistan fears the moderate Pashtuns more than the Islamist elements. The latter, such as the Pakistan Taliban (TTP) certainly pose a terrorist threat inside Pakistan from their new safe-base in Afghanistan but they can be attacked using Counter Terrorist methods including armed drones. Moreover the TTP will never win support among the wider populace. In fact in recent months the people of the Swat Valley have firmly indicated their opposition to the TTP. In the past Pakistan used to worry about the Awami National Party (ANP) led by Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s offspring and would suspect covert links with India. Nowadays that concern has moved to the moderate Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) and its charismatic leader Manzoor Pashteen for fear that its peaceful approach could stimulate a wider Pashtun political consciousness (p.282).

The author tends to overstate Punjabi dominance of Pakistan. The Pashtuns have always played a significant role in the country and have provided several leaders including President Ayub Khan and Prime Minister Imran Khan. Pashtuns have also been the second most represented ethnicity in the army. So there is a danger in exaggerating Pashtun alienation from Islamabad. There is also a tendency to focus on the tribal and militant elements rather than the assimilated Pashtuns who operate at every level in Pakistani society in the commercial and social sectors as well as government and army.

This is a well-written book with a logical structure and full of illuminating insights. It is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the continuing tensions in Afghanistan and how they affect Pakistan’s vital national interests.

Tim Willasey-Wilsey is Visiting Professor of War Studies at King’s College, London, a Senior Associate Fellow at RUSI in London and an expert at Cipher brief in Washington DC. He is a former senior British diplomat who served in Pakistan.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here

For permission to republish, please contact  

©Copyright 2023 Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. All rights reserved. Any unauthorised copying or reproduction is strictly prohibited. 

TAGGED UNDER: , , , , , , , ,