The wandering Pashtuns

A massive evacuation was carried out for two weeks, when the government headed by President Ashraf Ghani collapsed

Shahid Javed Burki September 13, 2021
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank


To move from place to place is an attribute of the Pashtun culture that was celebrated in ‘Kabuliwala’ — a poem by Rabindranath Tagore. It was recognised as one of those that won the Bengali poet a Nobel Prize for Literature, a rarity for a South Asian writer. It tells the story of a fruit seller named Rehmat who leaves Kabul, his hometown, and goes to Calcutta every year to sell his produce. While in Bengal he comes across a young Bengali girl named Mini who he begins to treat as his adopted daughter since she reminds him of the one he has left behind in Kabul.

Rehmat has a side business. He collects the loans given by his fellow Pashtuns. He lands in jail for his practices. Several years later, he is pardoned and when out of jail he goes looking for Mini. When he is able to locate her, she doesn’t remember him and recognise him. Rehmat is heartbroken. The theme of ‘Kabuliwala’ focuses on some of the practices that produced the Pashtun wanderlust. Selling fruit and giving loans took Pashtuns all over British India, in particular to the areas that were to become part of Pakistan. Demographers estimated the world’s Pashtun at 60-70 million of which the vast majority now live in Pakistan. Of Afghanistan’s current population of 38 million, the Pashtun account for less than a majority — 15 million — or 39 per cent of the total. For the last half century, the Pashtun’s have once again travelled long distances. They have gone to the Middle East, building housing and infrastructure.

Another big wave of Pashtun migration was produced by the invasion of their country by the Soviet Union. Some 4 to 5 million refugees were initially housed in the camps built with the help of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the UNHCR, which also helped in managing what were expected to be temporary shelters. It didn’t work out that away. Hundreds of thousands slipped out of the camps and took up residence in Pakistan’s large cities. Karachi which already had a large Pashtun colony in Sohrab Goth, on the periphery of Pakistan’s largest city, attracted thousands of newcomers. By all accounts, Karachi is now the world’s largest Pashtun city, having overtaken Kabul and Peshawar.

The United States, with its 20-year-long involvement in Afghanistan and the fact that tens of thousands of Afghans worked in various capacities with the Americans, is expecting a large number of people to move into the country. A massive evacuation was carried out for two weeks between August 15, when the government headed by President Ashraf Ghani collapsed, and July 30, when the last US military transporter left the country. Close to a hundred thousand Afghan citizens were pulled out, tens of thousands who would like to leave didn’t have the means to get out. Individual Afghans living abroad are making efforts to get their relatives out. Mark Landler of The New York Times in a dispatch for his newspaper told the story of how Summia Tora, the first-ever Rhodes Scholar for Afghanistan, was able to get her father and uncle out of Afghanistan. “She was able to use her connections at Oxford University and with a foundation funded by Eric Schmidt, the billionaire former chief executive of Google, to get her father and uncle seats on a non-American military flight that left Kabul, on August 24.”

Taking people out is one side of the problem, settling them down is another. But the response in the United States, particularly in the cities such as Arizona state’s city of Phoenix, has been heartening. This is especially the case after former President Donald Trump had made no secret of his opposition to immigration into the country of people of colour especially those belonging to the Islamic faith. According to one account, throughout the United States, Americans across the political spectrum are stepping forward to welcome Afghans who aided the US war effort in one of the largest mass mobilisations since the end of the Vietnam War.

Even though a good part of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border has been fenced, fences are easy to breach and that has begun to happen. At this point, it is hard to say how the fresh Taliban arrival would affect Pakistan’s politics and economy. According to one newspaper report, in a park in Karachi, Maulana Fazlur Rahman — who launched a campaign some months ago to oust the government headed by Prime Minister Imran Khan — cited the Taliban victory across the border as one successful revolution for bringing about political change in Pakistan. According to Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Pakistani Institute for Peace Studies in Islamabad, “with the Taliban taking over, anti-Pakistan terrorist groups will be emboldened, but it doesn’t end there. There could be an emergence of new narratives in the country, which will transform ongoing debates about state and society and the role that religion plays.” Shortly after Khan’s election in 2018, an ultra-religious group called Tehreek-i-Labaik (TLP) fought the police and rocked Pakistan’s cities after a Christian woman was acquitted in a blasphemy case. Protesters again rioted over French President Emmanuel Macron eulogising a French teacher who was beheaded by a radical Islamicist. In April, Imran Khan banned the TLP and its leader, sparking yet another wave of unrest.

Now that the Taliban have taken control of Kabul, they may not be able to establish a strong presence in the country’s capital unless they are prepared to work with those groups in the country who believe differently. One of these issues is the role of women in society. The quick and unexpected moves in Afghanistan on August 15, 2021 created serious concerns about the future of women in the country. On that day, as the Taliban advanced towards Kabul, President Ashraf Ghani fled from the country, leaving in a helicopter and eventually landing in the UAE. He was accompanied by a number of close associates. The president and his colleagues were seeing what was coming: they saw the Taliban once again taking control of the government as they had done in 1996. Ghani’s departure led to the dissolution of the country’s armed forces which the United States had built up by spending billions of dollars on bringing in new recruits and training and equipping them. On the day Ghani flew out, the Taliban entered the Presidential Palace, and its leaders addressed a press conference.

They promised to govern the country differently than they had in the five-year period when they were last in charge. Then among the many changes they had made was the treatment of women. They imposed on the country what they considered were Islamic ways. Women were not to be educated in anything but the Quran and Sunnah. They could not go outside their houses without being accompanied by male relatives. They could work outside their homes and had to cover their bodies from head to toe. These policies drew a lot of attention outside the country but foreigners — even the more liberal Afghans — felt they were helpless. Would Afghanistan return to that period? Only time will tell.


Published in The Express Tribune, September 13th, 2021.

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