Religious Extremism and Militancy in the Pashtun Areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan

Portrait/Personality - 2nd
Religious Extremism and Militancy in the Pashtun Areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan - Robert Kemp


The rise of radical Islam along both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border has its roots in three major factors. The first is the disintegration of Afghan social structures at both the state and tribal levels, beginning in 1979 with revolts against the communist government and the subsequent Soviet invasion. The second is the increased sway of political Islam, due mostly to outside influences, including Salafist thought from the Middle East, and the more local Deobandi philosophy. The third is the radicalization of the Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group along the border. This paper will examine how these three converging factors have created the current instability on both sides of the border, and where it might lead.

Nature of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Border Areas

The Afghanistan-Pakistan border area would still be familiar to Kipling and his contemporaries, with its armed tribes, rugged hills and mountains, charismatic leaders, smuggling, weak central government control, and warfare. Much of the population is rural, subsisting on irrigated crops and livestock, while the towns support small shopkeepers. Overall, poverty is endemic, and even the most well-off towns are far from wealthy. Today, both sides of the border suffer from an active insurgency and significant influence from more radical strains of Islam. The attacks of September 2001 forced events in the area, particularly the heavy engagement of NATO and the U.S. along the border, but many of today’s headlines from Afghanistan have deep roots in the history and culture of the area.

State and Social Disintegration

Viewed during the years following the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban, Afghanistan had suffered a tremendous amount of physical damage, inflicted by twenty-five years of war on an already minimal infrastructure. Much of Kabul was wrecked, highway bridges on the major routes out of town were destroyed, public services were minimal to non-existent, and the population was generally exhausted. This was the result of five periods of warfare with almost no intervening periods of peace. The first was the Soviet invasion, when uprisings against the government, notably in Herat Province in western Afghanistan and in Konar Province in the east, were followed by the deployment of the Soviet 40th Army in December 1979. This war lasted ten years, reaching its height in 1985, when the Soviets made a final major push to win the war—while also devastating the countryside in a counterinsurgency strategy based on forced depopulation.[1] The results of this strategy can be seen to this day, not only in the Afghan refugees still living in Pakistan and Iran, but in destroyed irrigation systems, numerous minefields, and ruined villages.

The second period of warfare pitted the Communist regime of President Najibullah against the mujahedeen groups formed to fight the Soviets, ending in 1992 with the collapse of this regime. Following this was what many Afghans remember as a period worse than the Soviet war: the fighting between the various mujahedeen factions. This civil war resulted in the destruction of much of Kabul, particularly West Kabul, areas of which remain in ruins. Partly in reaction to the resulting anarchy, a fourth period of fighting ensued, with the Pakistani-backed Taliban beginning operations in Kandahar Province in November 1994, advancing from there to capture Herat and eventually Kabul. Finally, the fifth, mercifully quick, period of war began with the U.S.-sponsored defeat of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in late 2001.

Although the physical damage resulting from these wars was what immediately struck any outsider, conversations between the author and Afghans from various social classes during the 2003-2008 period made it clear that the damage to society was more extensive. First was the sheer number of people killed, with more than one million Afghan civilians losing their lives in the war against the Soviets[2] out of an estimated population of sixteen million in 1979.[3] Equally striking were the masses of refugees, with more than five million displaced,[4] mostly to Iran and Pakistan, but also to Europe, North America, and Australia.

More subtle damages are the cleavages within society, primarily along ethnic lines between Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and Kuchis (Pashtun nomads). These ethnic divisions are evident today in central provinces, such as Ghazni, Kabul, Baghlan, and Oruzgan, which have populations from various ethnic groups. In other areas, such as Khost province in the east, deep divisions exist between those who sided with the Communist regime and those who fought with the mujahedeen. The Taliban years have also left social scars between those who fought with the Taliban and those (particularly in Tajik and Hazara areas) who opposed them. Adding to this is the fundamental disturbance of the tribal system, particularly in the Pashtun areas where it had acted both as a local government and a source of stability. On a larger scale, twenty-five years of Pakistani involvement in Afghan affairs had caused considerable resentment and suspicion on the part of Afghans, which persists to this day.

The Increasing Influence of Radical Islam in Afghanistan

Islam influences almost all facets of Afghan life and is a basic foundation of society. Even the smallest towns have mosques, and farmers in their fields stop for prayer wherever they may be standing. Historically, Islam has helped unify Afghanistan and the Afghans. Roughly 85 percent of the country is Sunni; the remainder is Shiite.[5] Tolerance between the two groups and other religions, including Hindus and Jews, was the pre-1979 norm. While heavily influenced by Islam, the State remained separate from religion.

The initial step towards more radical forms of Islam began in the 1970s, when Afghan students returning from Egypt formed an Afghan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. A much greater influence, however, was the growth of radical mujahedeen groups based in Pakistan during the war against the Soviets.[6] Of the seven major mujahedeen groups, the government of Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq favored those with more radical leanings, particularly the Hizb-i-Islami of Hekmatyar, the Jamaat-e-Islami under Rabbani, and the faction under Abdul Rasul Sayyaf (who was also backed by Saudi Arabia). More moderate elements received less money and arms or were forced to merge with the better-supported groups.

Following an Afghan wartime tradition, mullahs stepped forward to become military commanders during the war against the Soviets. Almost certainly, the length and intensity of the war, coupled with the destruction of the Afghan state, increased the role of mullahs in society. At the same time, as the war against the Soviets dragged on, the Afghan education system largely ceased to exist; as a result, madrassas in Pakistan began to provide religion-based education to refugees.

This combination of factors – the Pakistani support for mujahedeen factions, the displacement of large numbers of refugees who were then educated in madrassas (and also lost ties with their tribes and communities), and the concept of “jihad” against an atheistic superpower – was a step towards radical Islam gaining influence in Afghanistan. The next major impetus was the rise of the Taliban.

The theology and the philosophy of the Taliban reflects that of the Deobandis, a sect founded in India in 1867. The Deobandis promoted a conservative interpretation of the Koran, rejecting innovations to Sharia law in response to modern factors. They also opposed any hierarchy within the community, excluded Shiites, and restricted the role of women in society. As the Taliban took Kandahar in late 1994 and Kabul in September 1996, they imposed this strict interpretation of Islam on Afghan society, particularly regarding the role of women. These social policies shocked many Afghans who, while being deeply religious, at the same time did not adhere to the Taliban’s extreme views and social mores.

With the return of Osama bin-Laden from Sudan in mid-1996, the conservative Islam of al-Qaeda was added to that of the Taliban. Perhaps more important was the financial and military support provided by al-Qaeda to the Taliban, overlaid with bin-Laden’s call for defense of Muslims worldwide and for jihad against the Western world.

Political Islam in Western Pakistan

Because Pakistan was founded as a Muslim state, the impact of Islam on every facet of society should come as no surprise. However, the last thirty years have seen an increase in the influence of radical Islamist movements in Pakistani society, particularly in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) bordering Afghanistan. The NWFP also contains much of Pakistan’s Pashtun population.

The increasing influence of radical Islamism in the NWFP in part parallels the events occurring in Afghanistan—the Soviet invasion, followed by the influx of millions of Afghan refugees into camps, and the Pakistani Government’s support of the jihad and mujahedeen groups. Since the 1950s, the border areas had seen a large increase in the number of madrassas, many reportedly funded by Saudi Arabia. Lacking alternatives, many refugee children, as well as poor Pakistanis, attended these madrassas.

Added to this was the rule of General Zia ul-Haq from 1977 to 1988. The general, a devout Muslim, supported the jihad in Afghanistan while encouraging the Islamization of the economic and legal system in Pakistan, including policies that increased Sunni-Shiite tensions. He also encouraged the growth of the madrassa system. This period also saw a rise in the influence of mullahs and Islamic scholars in society and the increased power of political parties, such as the Jamaat-e-Islami (Islamic Party).

Many analysts believe that following the Taliban’s fall in 2001, many of the regime’s members and supporters fled across the border into Pakistan, particularly into the ethnically Pashtun areas around Peshawar and in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Press reports have also alleged that known Taliban figures took refuge in Quetta, the largest city in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. The Taliban, along with other radical Islamist groups including al-Qaeda, Hesb-i-Islami Gulbuddin and the Haqqani network, have attempted to establish themselves and their extremist beliefs in the NWFP.

The Radicalization of the Pashtuns

The Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, with an estimated population of seven million in 1979, reaching from Nuristan in the north to Baluchistan in the south.[7]Although mixed with Tajiks, Peshaei, Baluchs, and Nuristanis, the Pashtuns are by far the predominant ethnic group in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region. Most Pashtuns share a common language (Pashto) and strict codes of social conduct, based on honor, revenge, hospitality, and the provision of asylum. In physical appearance they vary greatly, from those with pale skin and fair hair to others with black hair and darker features.

For reasons similar to those that have changed other parts of Afghan society, Pashtun society has undergone considerable transformations over the last thirty years, and the degree of radicalization perhaps exceeds that of any other Afghan ethnic group. This may reflect in part their heavy involvement, on both sides of the border, in the war against the Soviets. The Taliban, besides being an organization with very conservative religious beliefs, may also be viewed as a Pashtun organization; this connection may have increased the radicalization of society.

The violent reaction underway along the border, to the point of being a Pashtun-based insurgency, may also be tied to the rapid imposition of modernity on what is essentially a rural, traditional, clan-based society. Some Pashtuns may see insurgency as a way to fend off the inroads of foreign movies, liberal thought, drugs, and the relaxation of social restraints on women.

The Advent of Suicide Bombings in Afghanistan

Recently, the border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan have seen a new and disturbing phenomenon: the suicide bomber. As a recent United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) paper notes, “Before the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud on September 9, 2001, the notion that suicide might be used to kill others was considered alien.”[8]Although suicide bombing may have been adapted from tactics used in the war in Iraq, it is worth examining the causes of this phenomenon and its place in society.

In the spring of 2005, a young Afghan lined up to enter the health clinic at the American-led Provincial Reconstruction Team in Khost province, along the border with Pakistan. Later dubbed “Lucky,” he lacked one arm, and an empty eye socket was badly infected. Guards, noticing his nervous behavior, approached him. The bomber attempted to detonate the bomb and the grenades strapped to his body, failing in both. Detained, he told soldiers his family would be paid thousands of dollars after his mission was complete, and that he felt, given his poor health, he had little to lose.

Later that year, in neighboring Gardez, Paktia province, security guards allowed a young Afghan to approach Provincial Governor Taniwal’s vehicle. When Taniwal opened the car door to speak to the man, the Afghan detonated the bomb on his body, killing the governor. Taniwal, a professional associate of this author and a gentle, professorial man, had returned from exile in Australia to a dangerous and difficult job, in part out of patriotism.

In conversations with the author, Afghans of various social classes said that suicide bombing does not have cultural roots in Afghanistan and that suicide is forbidden under Islam (while often blaming foreigners, particularly Pakistanis, for the attacks). The UNAMA report notes: “The Afghan mujahedeen commanders did not use suicide attacks against the Russians, nor did the Taliban and the Northern Alliance use it against each other.”[9] The year 2007 saw more than 140 suicide attacks, with the majority aimed at Afghan and international security forces, along with government officials, although a large number of innocent civilians have also been victims.

As noted in the Khost example, some of these bombers are motivated by financial considerations. Others act out of religious convictions, acquired in the madrassas that teach not only a strict interpretation of the Koran, but also the necessity of holy war against foreigners and Afghans allied with them, combined with the concept of self-sacrifice (shahadah). Taught at a young age, this combination can drive young men to view suicide bombing as a noble act of piety. The current state of Pashtun society may contribute to the phenomenon due to the large numbers of refugees disconnected from their social, tribal, and cultural roots (as well as the Pashtun emulation of the mujahedeen who fought against the Soviets). Conversations in 2007-2008 with U.S. and ISAF military officers suggest a third group of suicide bombers are those who are mentally disturbed or mentally deficient and are manipulated or deceived into carrying out bombings, while a fourth group are those who are unwitting—for example, a taxi driver who has explosives hidden in his car, which are then detonated by remote control.

Suicide Bombing in Pakistan

While the period of 2004-2005 was characterized by insurgent groups partially based in Pakistan attacking into Afghanistan, by the end of 2007, the insurgents were increasingly aiming at the Pakistani state and security apparatus. One of their tactics was the suicide bombing, as rare in Pakistan as it had been in Afghanistan until the twenty-first century. The most high-profile attacks were against former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in Karachi and Rawalpindi and two separate attacks against then-Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao in April and December 2007. There was also a shift in mid2006 when, after an airstrike against a madrassa in the Bajaur Agency of the FATA, militants began targeting Pakistani security forces in various parts of Pakistan, including a bloody attack on a Special Forces base in September 2007. Following the July 2007 storming of the Red Mosque in Islamabad, held by a group of Islamist militants, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was targeted by militants. In September and again in November 2007, suicide bombers targeted buses carrying ISI personnel. The targeting of Pakistani security organizations represented a shift in the strategy of the militants, who since the war against the Soviets had largely coexisted with them. Militant Sunni groups, including the Taliban, also targeted Shiites in the FATA, particularly in the Kurram Agency. Fighting that began in December 2007 resulted in a considerable influx of Shiites into Khost and Paktia provinces in Afghanistan.

Concerns over Madrassas and the Education System

The years of war caused considerable damage to Afghanistan’s education system, particularly in the rural areas. The Taliban regime made the situation worse through a combination of inept administration, a focus on religious education to the exclusion of secular subjects, and the policy of denying education to girls. By the time of the overthrow of the Taliban, primary education had nearly ceased to exist in some areas. Some Pashtun areas, such as Paktika province, had almost no functioning schools. The first development priorities for many people in the province were not roads, power, or health clinics, but schools. Coalition forces made a concerted effort to refurbish existing school houses and construct new schools, but reviving the system will take years due to lack of trained teachers, administrators, and money to pay them. As a result, many parents send their children to madrassas, including those across the border in Pakistan, so that they would receive at least some education.

While the Afghan government and the international community are making real progress in rebuilding the state educational system, there are also efforts underway to build a more moderate system of madrassa education. In a January 12, 2008 interview with the BBC, Education Minister Dr. Hanif Atmar said, “We are critical of policies in the past. Actually it was a result of those policies to exclude these madrassas, keep them on the margin of the society, and then entirely hand them over to the fundamentalists.” He added, “In Pakistan across the border with Afghanistan there are around 15,000 madrassas, and around 1.5 million students are enrolled there. If we invest adequately, and according to the policy of the government of Afghanistan, in our madrassa system, to a large extent those Afghans who are now being taught in madrassas across the border will come back to their own country.” In the same interview, the Speaker of the Upper House of the Afghan parliament, Sibghatullah Mujadidi, said, “In Pakistan some of our students are studying religious subjects and they have been also trained for terrorism. If we have enough madrassas in Afghanistan, there will be no need for students to go to Pakistan. They will study here and real moderate Islam will be taught to them.”[10]

The Future of Religious Extremism in the Border Areas

The struggle for the Pashtun areas lying along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan will be an important factor for the future of both countries and will have implications for the entire region. Afghanistan has been a geopolitical chessboard, dating back to rivalries between the British and Russian empires and continuing through the wars of the twentieth century. The Afghan wars of the early twenty-first century still have elements of grand strategy, with nations jockeying for influence and security in Afghanistan. Added to this struggle is a modern dimension, with international extremists seeing the border areas as a theater for a proxy war against the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the Karzai government, Shiite minorities, and increasingly against the Pakistani government. The Pashtuns, progressively radicalized as a result of the confluence of social dislocation, war, outside extremist influences, and a radicalized religious educational system, have been caught in trends beyond their control. At the same time, they were willing participants in a religious and patriotic war against the Soviets, and many joined the Taliban in its campaigns against secular influences and the other ethnic groups of Afghanistan in the1990s. The Pashtuns are increasingly aligned against the Pakistani state, as shown by the attacks on the ISI and the Pakistani military in 2007.

The destruction wrought by the Soviets, culminating in the brutal campaigns of 1985, and the civil wars of the early 1990s exhausted the Afghan population, which seemed by 2003 to be suffering something like collective post-traumatic shock. Conversations with Afghans in 2007-2008 often showed a general rejection of both continued war and religious extremism. While Afghanistan is a nation with a remarkable, deeply ingrained religion, the strictures of the Taliban were out of step with much of Afghan society, particularly those of the Ministry of Enforcement of Virtue and Suppression of Vice. In the Pashtun areas, the existing code of “pakhtunwali” based on honor, revenge, and hospitality, makes it difficult for Sharia law to gain a firm foothold. After being subjected to wide swings of political systems – royalist, communist, anarchy, theocracy, and now a veneer of democracy (underlain by a strong grassroots democracy, demonstrated by the “shura” system of community consultations, as well as the elections in 2004 and 2005)—many people seem to desire normalcy, with economic, political, and social stability and progress.

The struggle for the borderlands will continue for years and will be bloody and disruptive for both Afghanistan and Pakistan. On the Afghan side, victory (defined as a stable Afghan state, able to protect its borders and provide basic government, security, and services to its citizens) will require many more years of ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) involvement on the security front, long-term development assistance from the international community, a solid commitment from the Afghans to provide representative and fair government, and the reduction of the narcotics trade. Pakistan has been caught off guard by the blowback from their support for the Taliban and the more radical mujahedeen groups during the 1980s, with resulting instability in the Pashtun areas of the NWFP. Faced with this threat, the Pakistani military has begun, with U.S. aid, to adopt a counterinsurgency strategy similar to that underway in Afghanistan, based on enhancing the capability of local security forces, improving economic opportunities, and improving governance in the Tribal Areas.

In 2006 the Pakistani government conducted a systematic review of its policies in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and concluded that, like insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, theirs could not be solved by military means alone. In close consultation with tribal elders from all seven agencies of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the Pakistani government developed a nine-year, $2 billion Sustainable Development Plan designed to extend its writ over un-governed spaces within its sovereign borders. The U.S. has pledged to support this development plan with $750 million over the next five years. The U.S. is also training, equipping, and expanding the ethnically Pashtun Frontier Corps–the only viable local security force that can defend local towns against militant and extremist infiltration.

In the short-term, Western national security interests will require that these long-term plans and programs are complemented with short-term operations to disrupt radical terrorist groups. Policymakers and analysts alike should pay close attention in the coming years to the balance between the imperatives of counter-terrorism and the wisdom of strategic patience in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region.

The current insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan has complex local roots beyond the ideological and geopolitical factors outlined in this paper, which include more mundane issues such as poverty, unemployment, poor education, and ethnic differences. At the same time, the deep cultural traditions of the border areas (particularly the role of women in society) are colliding daily with the modern world. Radio, television, the internet, cell phones, DVDs, new roads, and returned refugees are bringing new ideas and new customs to what had been a very conservative, traditional, somewhat homogenous culture. This may reflect the struggle ongoing within the larger world of Islam, as values and beliefs clash with increasingly global culture and morality. The people of the border areas will eventually decide for themselves how to proceed, in spite of outside influences pushing more radical forms of Islam. This will be a long process, taking decades, and one the Western world has only a limited ability to alter.

Notes & References

  1. Barnett Rubin, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System, Second Edition, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), p. 143.
  2. Martin Ewans, Afghanistan: A Short History of its People and Politics (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), p. 235.
  3. United States Government, “Afghanistan: A Country Study,” (Washington, DC: Library of Congress), p. 343.
  4. Ralph Magnus and Eden Naby, Afghanistan: Mullah, Marx and Mujahid, (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004), p. 147.
  5. Rubin, 2002, p. 38.
  6. Neamatollah Nojumi, The Rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), p. 129.
  7. Rubin, 2002, p. 26.
  8. United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan, “Suicide Attacks in Afghanistan,” (Kabul, Afghanistan, 2007), p. 3.
  9. Ibid., p. 38.
  10. David Loyn, BBC Newsnight, January 12, 2008.
ROBERT KEMP is a State Department Foreign Service Officer who previously served at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in the spring of 2003 and was assigned to the Regional Command – East headquarters in Khost, Afghanistan from 2004 to 2005. He is currently the political advisor to Task Force Bayonet, based in eastern Afghanistan. Mr. Kemp is a 1999 graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. The views represented in this paper are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. State Department or the U.S. Government.