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Pakhtoonwa or Pandora’s Box?

Updated: April 24, 2010 10:35 am

Finally NWFP province has got a name. The constitutional reform package presented by Pakistan’s parliamentary committee named the Pashtun province as Khyber-Pakhtoonwa. Immediately, as if on cue, there was a bomb blast in NWFP killing 25 and injuring over 100. NWFP’s name selection involved serious and prolonged debate. Why? In India new names like Chennai, Mumbai and others could be introduced with little fuss. But renaming NWFP could have far-reaching implications. History and ground realities dictate that.

            Historically Pakistan continues to be haunted by the spectre of Pashtun separatism. During Partition the towering Pashtun leader Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan wanted a united India. The Congress accepted Partition. The British asked NWFP to choose between India and Pakistan. Denied a united India Gaffar Khan sought independent Pashtunistan. That was ruled out. He boycotted the plebiscite. He accused Congress leaders of throwing him “to the wolves”. His betrayal by Congress disgraced Gandhi, Nehru and Patel. In 1965 during the Indo-Pak war, Ghaffar Khan restated his demand for Pashtun self determination, but also said that he did not wish to embarrass Pakistan when it was at war with India. This was interpreted to mean that he was reconciled to an autonomous Pashtunistan. The Awami National Party (ANP) led by his grandson, Afsandyar Wali Khan, seems to be following this line. Clearly, the bomb blast indicates that the Taliban may not accept autonomy. So, would most Pashtuns prefer ANP’s soft line or the Taliban’s hard line?

            Pakistan’s paranoid fear of Indian influence in Kabul and its quest for strategic depth in Afghanistan stem from insecurity traced to history. The insecurity was heightened on February 26, 1976 when ZA Bhutto conferred with Henry Kissinger. Kissinger told Bhutto that Indira Gandhi said to him: “The Northwest Frontier

Province belongs to India and the only way to get there is through the Punjab.” This was Kissinger’s version of Indira Gandhi’s views. It can be taken with a bucket of salt. Kissinger was capable of misleading Nixon and manipulating Indira Gandhi. He followed his exclusive agenda as the representative of big corporate interests. Even last month, despite a stomach ailment, he was in China to smoothen Sino-American differences over the value of the Chinese Yuan. After Indira Gandhi’s abject sellout in the Simla Agreement Bhutto would surely have known that she was but a front. Somebody else called the shots. After Bangladesh was liberated MPs clapped in the Indian Parliament. But MPs stood on tables and cheered themselves hoarse in the Israeli Knesset! Kissinger’s warning attributed to Indira Gandhi must have chilled Bhutto.

            This paranoid fear of Indian designs on NWFP is reinforced by ground realities for Pakistan’s present rulers. Pashtun tribes cut across the Durand Line separating Pakistan and Afghanistan. They mingle freely. According to the Durand Line Treaty NWFP should have been ceded to Afghanistan in 1993. That was not done. Repeated efforts by Pakistani governments to extend the Treaty have been rejected by Afghan governments, including the Taliban. Unable to create barriers between the Pakistani and Afghan Pashtuns Islamabad aspires for strategic depth which would allow it to dominate Afghanistan and retain NWFP. That is why NWFP’s new name is significant. Gaffar Khan’s grandson has been the moving spirit behind the renaming of NWFP. The name Khyber-Pakhtoonwa suggests the continuing link between the Pashtuns of Pakistan and Afghanistan. For Islamabad this name keeps doors open for future strategic depth. The Pashtuns might think it keeps doors open for future Pashtun cross-border unification. These differing aims highlight the potential conflict of interest between Pakistan and Pashtuns. To keep Taliban happy Islamabad may opt for fundamentalism. But for how long will civil societies in Punjab and Sind tolerate that? And if Taliban fundamentalists seek permanent ties with Pakistan would they accept anything except fundamentalist Islam throughout Pakistan? Alternatively, would they accept anything less than NWFP as part of Afghanistan? The recent bomb blast does not indicate that.

            Within Afghanistan while the Pashtuns dominate there are other ethnic and linguistic groups that will not sacrifice identity or self-rule. In that sense President Hamid Karzai’s defeated opponent Abdullah Abdullah had the right idea. He wanted a federal Afghanistan. Karzai instead is bringing various tribal warlords on board through power sharing. The two approaches are in fact complementary. The two leaders should cooperate in efforts to create a national consensus regime in Afghanistan that absorbs the Taliban. With patience this seems achievable. Even if this is achieved it will not end the potential of Pashtun discord with Islamabad triggered by cross border ties. And the name, Khyber-Pakhtoonwa, seeks to cement those ties.

            For stable regional peace there is only one solution that suggests itself. This scribe has been hammering away at it. To address cross border identity issues effectively without altering international boundaries or diluting national sovereignties the establishment of a South Asian Union modeled on EU is the only answer. Eventually India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan must agree to this arrangement. Self-rule and power sharing could conceivably bring the Taliban on board. Mullah Omar’s statements offer that hope. Progress towards achieving it may be gradual. But commitment to the goal must be immediate in order to create a proper roadmap.

            India can renew Musharraf’s proposal for soft borders and joint management of Kashmir with the caveat that it must be accompanied by joint defence and a common market. This template for Kashmir could be replicated by Pakistan and Afghanistan for NWFP. Immediate commitment to this goal would facilitate its eventual realization within a decade. Only after terrorism is totally eradicated might visas be removed. India will lose nothing by taking the initiative on Kashmir. It is Islamabad that must change its present mindset and decide where its future lies. If Islamabad fails to alter priorities and persists with its present attitude it could be making a fatal miscalculation. For Pakistan it may be South Asian Union or bust.

By Rajinder Puri

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