America's mounting concern is evident. Last week President Bush made an unscheduled visit to Afghanistan before reaching India and Pakistan. Asked about his call for getting Osama "dead or alive", Bush said: "It's not a matter of if they're captured and brought to justice; it's when they're brought to justice."
Brave words. But what is the reality?
Last week Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency told US Congress that the insurgency in Afghanistan was posing a greater threat to the Kabul government "than at any point since late 2001." Meanwhile the U.S. Institute of Peace claimed that in 2005 Afghanistan was more dangerous for American troops per capita than Iraq. The casualty rate during 2005 was 1.6 per 1,000 soldiers in Afghanistan compared to 0.9 per 1,000 in Iraq. In 2005 there were more than 20 suicide attacks inside Afghanistan. There are roughly 20,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan compared to about 140,000 in Iraq. But despite heavy American troop deployment in Afghanistan and Pakistani deployment across the border Al Qaeda and Taliban elude capture. Why?
The complicity of Pakistan pursuing its flawed policy of seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan by encouraging Taliban as a counterweight to the Kabul government is one reason. But it is not the only reason. Indeed, it is doubtful if even sincere efforts by Pakistan to counter Al Qaeda and Taliban would succeed.
An understanding of the Pushtun people, their region, and their history would explain why.
The Pushtuns have a tribal history that precedes Islam. They are the sons of Israel. They were known as the Beni Israel. The Amishav Organization in Israel is the institute that investigates the Diaspora. Its research has confirmed that Pushtuns are ethnic Jews. They reside mostly in eastern and southern Afghanistan, up to the Hindu Kush mountain range in the north. Jalalabad and Kandhar are their most heavily populated regions. The Taliban with their Wahabi tradition are far removed from the Pushtun ethos. The Pushtuns are traditional money-lenders which is anathema to Islam. The true Pushtun hero was Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan who fought alongside Mahatma Gandhi. The Pushtun was best portrayed in Tagore's classic, Kabuliwala. Yet, aided by Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda the Taliban subverted and dominated Afghanistan.
This happened because of the troubled Pushtun history during the past century. In the nineteenth century the Pushtuns were victims of the Great Game played by Imperialist Britain and Tsarist Russia. In the twentieth century they became victims of the Cold War between superpowers USA and USSR. Today they suffer from the New World Order as USA battles Islamist jihadis in the war on terror. The genuine problems of the Pushtuns are forgotten by all except themselves.
On November 12, 1893 the Afghanistan ruler Abdur Rahman Shah signed an agreement with Sir Mortimer Durand who represented the British government. By the agreement the Durand Line was drawn to demarcate the boundaries between Afghanistan and British India. The treaty was to stay in force for a hundred years. It lapsed in 1993.
The Durand Line, arbitrarily drawn by an imperialist power, cut through the heart of Pushtun territory. Pushtun tribes inhabit eastern and southern Afghanistan as well as the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), now part of Pakistan. The bulk of Pushtuns are in the NWFP tribal belt along the Durand Line. This belt is technically part of Pakistan. But for more than a hundred years no government ' British, Pakistani or Afghan ' ever had its writ run in this area. The fierce and proud Pushtuns ruled themselves. They kept at bay all outsiders from their rugged mountainous homeland.
This is the area which offered sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Bitter against Pakistan, feeling betrayed by America after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Pushtuns supported their enemy's enemy. That is how Al Qaeda and Taliban control over the Pushtuns got consolidated. The Al Qaeda-Taliban relationship was cemented by the marriage between Osama bin Laden and the daughter of Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
However, to conclude that Pushtuns are committed to Al Qaeda would be a mistake. Pushtun pride was never understood by America. It might be recalled that one month after 9/11, on October 14, 2001, when America sought Osama bin Laden's surrender, the Afghan Deputy Prime Minister Haji Abdul Kabir offered to negotiate his transfer to a neutral third country if the United States stopped bombing Afghanistan. President Bush rejected the offer. He insisted that Osama bin Laden be surrendered to the US. This has been recorded by the US State Department Historian in charge of the Bureau of Public Affairs. The Washington Post of October 29, 2001 pointed out that the US failed to appreciate the Taliban need for aabroh, the Pashtu word for face-saving. US officials remained insensitive to the Taliban's embarrassment over having to turn over a fellow Muslim to an "infidel" Western power.
How might that US error be undone? By recalling the Durand Line Treaty of 1893. According to political analysts, notably Afrasiab Khattak, former Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the tribal belt areas north of the Khyber up to Chitral were never demarcated. This disputed area was to be returned to Afghanistan after a hundred years when the Durand Line Treaty lapsed. This arrangement was similar to the one made between Britain and China which led to the transfer of Hong Kong to China after a hundred years. That is why Kabul refused to renew the Durand Line Treaty after it expired. Pakistani efforts to get Taliban leaders to sign a renewal contract of the Treaty were repeatedly frustrated. Kabul never gave up its claim over portions of NWFP in Pakistan. Supporting the Pushtuns of NWFP former Afghanistan president Daoud Khan backed the greater Pushtunistan movement.
The cause of Pushtunistan was articulated most forcefully by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan after Congress leaders of India betrayed him during the Partition. Spurned by Nehru and his colleagues, unwilling to merge with theocratic Pakistan, Ghaffar Khan fought for Pushtun independence. He reflected the most powerful Pushtun sentiment.
Thanks to Osama bin Laden and the war against terrorism, history has moved full circle. Only by justly addressing the Pushtun problem will the Al Qaeda threat be removed. The battle has to be fought for the Pushtuns' minds. To win that battle the provisions of the lapsed Durand Line Treaty should be followed in letter and spirit. As in the case of Hong Kong in China, the tribal belt areas of Pakistan's NWFP should become a self-ruling province of Afghanistan. As in China, Afghanistan too could become one nation with two systems. Pushtunistan could have soft borders with Pakistan and with the rest of Afghanistan. If this were done Pakistan's need for strategic depth in Afghanistan would vanish.
One craves the reader's indulgence for a recurring quote from one's own book written decades ago: 'A war between Afghanistan and Pakistan, even civil within Pakistan, were it to come, would inevitably spill over and involve India. In that unfortunate event, the painful process of war will confront the leaders of South Asia with the same challenge that they stubbornly refuse to face during peace: how to restructure the subcontinent and undo the legacy of a most unnatural Partition.'
Pushtunistan would not only liberate the Pushtuns. It could liberate South Asia. It could help recreate ancient Hindustan in the garb of a modern South Asian Union.