While surfing through my news feed a few days ago, I came across an interesting debate about Afghanistan on a Facebook group that welcomes people from across the globe to discuss global politics. The heated debate was between an Afghan and a Pakistani.
It became intense and quite surprising as several others of the same nationalities joined the discussion. The Afghans were very stressful about their identity as Afghanis and not as Pashtoons; this fact brings us to our very topic. These days, all over the social media or the Afghani websites, you would see the same sentiment of Afghanis.
There were days when Afghans and Pathans were considered the same, and they liked to be recognized as the same until a few years ago.
The educated youth of Afghanistan is deviating from the long-standing cordial relationship with Pakistan and Pashtuns. It would be more accurate to say that the educated young Pashtoons are not stepping in the footsteps of their elders when it comes to the relationship they have with the country that is home to some of them and their ethnic brothers.
There are several young Afghan Pashtoons who would show their resentment even for Bacha Khan, a Pakistani leader, who was remembered with respect in Afghanistan too, and who supported the cause of ‘Greater Pashtoonistan’. This behavior observed among the educated young masses of Afghanistan is signaling a transition the war-torn country is undergoing despite the turmoil. But, has anyone guessed it yet? If so, it failed to attract the attention of world media. Before moving further to how and why this transition is taking place and why it is going unnoticed, it would be better to know why it is a big deal.
Afghan notion of ‘Greater Pashtoonistan’, Ethnonationalism, and Post 2014 Elections Scenario
Pashtoons constitute the majority in Afghanistan, and this demography has been evolving from the 19th century. The fact was established after the census carried out by the British Raj. The regions were segregated by the Raj for administrative purposes. This segregation was not well-received by the Pashtoons at that time. However, the Kings accepted the demarcation put forward by the British Empire. As a result of the British withdrawal from its colonies, several nation states evolved, including Pakistan, which comprised the Pashtoon majority areas that once made the part of Afghanistan, and an irredentist issue turned up in the relationship of two countries. The issue was not confined to just the governments, but the masses (a major portion) shared the same sentiment.
There are some famous verses from a Pasto poem:
“Pull out your sword and slay any one,
That says Pashtun and Afghan are not one.
Arabs know this and so do Romans,
Afghans are Pashtuns, Pashtuns are Afghans.”
Some leaders in Pakistan vocally supported the ‘Greater Afghanistan’, an Afghanistan which included the North-West Frontiers and Balochistan province of Pakistan. Bacha Khan is the name worth mentioning here while talking about the cause mentioned above. The Pashtoons of Afghanistan, constituting the majority, 65% of the total population, were no different as they revered Bacha Khan and heartily called their ‘brothers’ to join them.
This perennial trait, ethnonationalism, started complicating things for both states. For Afghanistan, it fueled the friction among the different ethnic groups being the denizens of the country. Pashtoons and Tajiks were the main conflicting parties. However, other minorities preferred to join hands with Tajiks. The tussle between the ethnic groups started and gave way to communism to enter into the country. Long story short, the sentiments and the struggle prevailed throughout the entire time and escalated after the Soviet withdrawal from the country. It continued to be existent during the war on terror and also peeked out when rehabilitation was carried out.
However, with the formulation of a US-brokered coalition government, the first democratic government to exist in the country, some change was to come. With two arch rivals having different ideologies and ethnicities joining hands to take the helm of affairs, a strong message was emanated; it was time to forget the differences and look forward. This was the commencement of the transitional phase, the dawn of a new Afghanistan.
Is the Transition Actually Happening?
As mentioned earlier, the development can be seen at the mass level. The youth is more interested in reaching out to those who have been sharing the space with them all along, rather than those who live across the border and cannot do much to address their woes. The young activists of Afghanistan call for a ‘consolidated national identity’. Amid this rhetoric, the slogan of ‘Greater Afghanistan’ has taken a back seat and can be taken out to be used as an instrument in the foreign policy maneuvers. The call for consolidated national identity is the call for a nation-state in its true spirit, for on this edifice a state’s security and peace, within and without, stands.
Nationalism and Nation-State
The entire idea of nationalism stands on a principle that a nation and the polity must be congruent. Whereas, a nation is the group of people that is cohesive and coherent and share the same culture and history. Homogeneity lies at the core of a nation-state. However, in practice, there are no states which contain only a single homogenous group of people. The concept of nationalism in a nation-state is inculcated through state engineering. Moreover, with the evolution of polity, people tend to focus more on ‘nation’ and ignore the ‘ethno’ aspect, with further passage of time, a country is described by the boundary of its polity. Afghanistan has entered this stage, though a little late.
Nevertheless, no matter how much a state evolves and develops, the ‘ethno’ aspect of a nation remains a threat to the cohesion of a country, just as seen in the secession of Dhaka in Pakistan and the Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka.
Why is the Change Occurring?
The presumable reasons for this change are manifold. These are:
Infiltration of Outsiders
Since its very inception, Afghanistan has remained a monolithic society. No alien system could be installed in the country. But with infiltration of American forces, a new system has made way to the country. The country has seen its first democratic government owing to this infiltration. With democracy, other likewise values have made their way to the masses.
Change in Demographics
During the Soviet and, later on, US invasion, there was a mammoth of Pashtoons who sought refuge in Pakistan. During this process, the minorities had the chance to build their own rhetoric. Also, when the refugees who had moved to Pakistan realized that they were no longer welcome in Pakistan, which had hosted them for four decades, they became resentful towards their long time host. In the times, when they had to look out for their survival, the feelings for Pashtoons ebbed away, and they learned a bitter lesson that only home could be their home. Therefore, the change in demographics in both cases pulled the currents away from ethnonationalism.
Relations with India
The friendly ties with India, its aid and support made the Afghan youth realize that there was another friend who has been with them all through this time (though the support was instrumental). In fact, India remained the talk of the town during the 2014 elections in Afghanistan. Also, there are hundreds of students who go to India on scholarships and are educated there. They would be less likely to turn to Pakistan, even to reach out to their ethnic kin groups.
The fact that this new development remains unnoticed by the general public is because of little to no coverage. Owing to its status as a conflict zone, Afghanistan’s masses have not been given enough coverage at the international level as more pressing, and breaking news about war are a priority. Another reason for this may be that the change has been identified at the bottom and there are chances that it may remain confined to a slack of the total mass. As mentioned earlier, the ethnic aspect of a state is always a threat to its unity and cohesion. The question remains for Afghanistan, whether it would jump on to the next phase from this transition or bounce back to its long term ethnic aspirations. This new phase can be expected to bring peace to Afghanistan, as a united nation lies at the core of a peaceful state.