ISLAMABAD AND PESHAWAR // Pashtuns in Pakistan’s north-west are as angry as they are relieved that the government has finally declared a war-to-the-end against the Taliban after its massacre of 132 schoolchildren.
The nationwide shock at the December 16 school attack in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, was a reminder to Pashtuns that the vast majority of Pakistanis living in the mostly peaceful east have been oblivious to the conflict that has engulfed their region since 2007, when the militants declared war against the government.
The conflict had earlier simmered in the north-west tribal areas, bordering eastern Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda militants fled after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
The Pashtun are Pakistan’s third largest ethnic group, numbering around 30 million of the country’s 200 million population. In the western provinces of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, the group makes up the majority.
They are also the group which has suffered the most from the Pakistani Taliban’s seven-year onslaught against government forces and civilians which has killed more than 50,000.
“It’s incredibly sad it’s taken this — an attack on an army-run school — for Pakistan to wake up,” said Falaknaz Asfandyar, the widow of a Pashtun politician killed by a Taliban bomb in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s Swat valley district in 2007.
“Had a smaller attack taken place earlier in Punjab [province], the reaction would have been far quicker and more extensive,” she said. “We [Pakistanis] have become so immune to the conflict. I just hope they won’t forget this ... that we won’t need an even bigger tragedy.”
War without end
Strong ties with the Pashtun community in neighbouring Afghan provinces have frequently drawn them into the conflicts there, particularly as the backbone of mujaheddin fighters that resisted occupying Soviet forces in the 1980s with the backing of Pakistan and the US.
Some mujaheddin groups later morphed into the Taliban, which controlled most of Afghanistan by 1997, with Pakistan’s support.
The insurgency began in Pakistan in 2002, when security forces entered the tribal areas in pursuit of Al Qaeda figures who had taken refuge there with Pakistani Pashtun allies of the Afghan Taliban who were toppled by the US following the September 11 attacks.
There were further bouts of fighting in 2004 and 2006, in which the militants repulsed attempted military advances. The conflict spread further in Pakistan after special forces troops killed some 300 armed militants at a central Islamabad mosque in July 2007, sparking an fight waged mostly by Pashtun militants from the tribal areas and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, who were supported by the foreign Al Qaeda operatives they had given sanctuary to. They were joined by large numbers of sympathisers from the rest of Pakistan, many of whom had previously fought alongside the Afghan Taliban.
“The September 2001 attacks changed everything,” said Mian Itikhar Hussain, who served as the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa information minister from 2008 to 2013. “The influenza of Afghanistan dripped on Pakistan, turning it into a global epicentre of terrorism, but the government’s policy of the Afghan Taliban and anti-India militant groups based in eastern Punjab provincewas not changed.”
Mr Hussain’s 27-year-old son Rashid was gunned down by militants in July 2010, in retaliation for his father’s outspoken criticism of the Pakistani Taliban.
Pashtun are well represented across Pakistan’s political structure, including the powerful military, and in the past years its fighters were split between supporting government forces and supporting the Taliban militants, with civilians caught in the middle.
Those civilians are dependent on the army to combat the militants living around them, but have found themselves subjected to chaotic mass evacuations and harsh treatment when tens of thousands of troops move in to retake territory.
Disillusioned, a handful of Pashtun have taken matters into their own hands, not only by refusing to be intimidated by the Taliban, but by invoking the right to wage vendetta — one of three pillars of Pashtun culture.
The other two pillars involve extending hospitality and sanctuary to any who seek it — both of which were exploited, with devastating consequence for the hosts, by key Al Qaeda operatives who fled into Pakistan’s Pashtun belt in 2002 to evade capture by US invasion forces in Afghanistan.
Dr Said Alam Mahsud, a Peshawar-based paediatrician has pursued the path of vengeance since March 2010, when he came under threat for founding a Pashtun nationalist “peace movement” against the Taliban.
Dr Mahsud’s tribal homeland of South Waziristan — located in Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal region, bordering Afghanistan — was then the Pakistani Taliban’s headquarters, and the scene of brutal fighting between militants of the Mahsud tribe and advancing army units. Meanwhile, in neighbouring Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, Peshawar was being hit by Taliban revenge attacks.
“In those days, it was very difficult to talk against the Taliban in Peshawar, but we would stage public protests and chant slogans against them, visit injured victims and condole the bereaved, and urge people displaced by the fighting to address the real issue,” he said.
The Taliban told Dr Mahsud he was on their hit list, forcing him to sell his clinic and move his family — he did not say where to, for security reasons. In response, and helped by relatives and friends, Dr Mahsud went underground to wage a covert war against his persecutors, constantly changing his location and appearance.
Like Mrs Asfandyar, the widow, Dr Mahsud is bitter about the military’s failure to prevent the rise of the Taliban. Unlike Mrs Asfandyar, however, he sees it as evidence of collusion rather than indecision.
In just one example, Dr Mahsud pointed to the freedom enjoyed by Hakimullah Mahsud — the Taliban chief from 2009 until he was killed in a drone strike in 2013 — in the build-up to failed peace talks.
“He was driving a Hummer in Khyber tribal area. How, then, did he and...get back to South Waziristan? By driving along the national motorway,” Dr Mahsud said.
There is no direct road link between any of the tribal areas — they are all connected via Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. To get from Khyber to South Waziristan, Hakimullah would have had to drive his Hummer into Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and travel southward for several hours along the national motorway, to reach South Waziristan. The route is crowded with dozens of security checkpoints.
An end to war
Speaking from her Islamabad home, Mrs Asfandyar claimed the remote-controlled bomb that killed her 42-year-old husband, Miangul Asfandyar Amir Zeb, had been detonated by Mullah Fazlullah, the current Pakistan Taliban chief then in charge of the Swat Taliban, to demonstrate his power over the region’s political elite.
But she also lays blame on “the half-hearted military operation” against the Pakistan Taliban that was under way at the time of his assassination — army and Taliban check-posts were separated by just a few hundred metres, and guards on either side often coordinated to avoid unintentional fatalities.
Now, Mrs Asfandyar wants to see sweeping action against militants in the aftermath of the Peshawar school massacre.
“However ugly it sounds, I say: this is the time to carpet bomb the terrorists wherever they are — and if innocents die, too, that’s the price we just have to pay,” she said. “There should be public hangings of the terrorists that are caught. We must be very aggressive.”