Opinion: The Pakistan Taliban are not nationalists
Share this on

Opinion: The Pakistan Taliban are not nationalists

There is a conventional wisdom out there – parroted often by the likes of Imran Khan – that the Taliban and their local affiliates act the way they do because they are solely and exclusively motivated by the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan, as well as Pakistan’s alliance with the U.S.

By this logic, the Taliban are a nationalist force, standing up for their nation, which is alternatively considered the Pashtun nation or the Afghan state, depending on one’s own beliefs and opinions on the boundaries of their political identity.

With that as background, here’s an excerpt from a piece by Ijaz Khan in the Friday Times:

Nationalist movements promote and protect national language, culture and identity through political expression. They aim to control their affairs without outside interference. They are about managing their economic resources by themselves. They may want autonomy within a multinational state in order to structure it to protect their identity, or in certain cases for an independent state of their own.

Taliban meet none of these criteria in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and therefore cannot be considered a Pashtun nationalist movement. They take ideological and political inspiration from Arabs and other non-Pashtuns. They have consciously, as a matter of policy, targeted different cultural traits of Pashtuns, like tribal councils and folk music; they are not concerned about the language and promote mostly Arabic and/or interestingly, Urdu; Economic resources or their control is not their concern; neither is any political or administrative manifestation of Pashtun identity their goal.

They have killed a large number of traditional Pashtun elders in FATA and banned the Jirga as means of dispute settlement in areas under their influence. They have been eliminating the Pashtun way of life.

Isn’t it instructive that scholars who actually know the area, such as Ijaz Khan (University of Peshawar) or the oft-cited Farhat Taj, completely and unequivocally reject the Imran Khan thesis? This idea that the Taliban are somehow representative of the Pashtun nation, and are fighting and dying for them, is just silly.

Within the study of civil war in political science, non-state movements are generally divided between ethnically focused and ideologically focused. Obviously this is often a too-rigid categorization, but it’s useful because the two types of mobilizations often have different goals.

Those movements that are ethnically motivated are generally what we call nationalist movements. These tend to be focused heavily on a particular piece of territory, since group identity and territory have a very strong relationship. So if all xs are concentrated in region X, then it’s unlikely that the xs will launch a movement, violent or otherwise, in regions other than X. This is because (a) they don’t care about regions other than X; in fact, their mobilizations are often motivated by demanding increasing separation from X and non-X areas, and (b) there’s not enough xs in the non-X region for them to congeal in a movement worth worrying about. Examples include the Tamils in northern Sri Lanka or the Bengalis in former East Pakistan.

Those that are ideologically motivated tend to be focused on control of the state or political unit at large. They are not interested in controlling a sliver of territory, they are interested in re-orienting the state. The important thing to note is that granting a piece of territory to the agents of the movement is unlikely to satisfy them, since their movement is not based on the control of territory in the first place. Examples include the Communist Party of China or the various right-wing militias operating in Latin America during the Cold War.

This distinction matters because it gets at the heart of the debate on the war in Pakistan and whether it is worth fighting. If you believe that the Taliban and their local affiliates are nationalists, then it makes sense to give them control of various districts or maybe even a whole province, in the hope that that’s what they want, and will therefore cause them to stop mounting violent challenges to the state.

If you believe that the Taliban and their local affiliates are ideologues, then it doesn’t make sense to give them control of various districts because they will only use that control to consolidate their material capabilities to launch yet further assaults on the state and its citizens.

I wish we lived in a world where the Taliban were indeed nationalists because it would mean that there is fairly self-evident solution to the violence. Unfortunately we do not and there is not. Imran Khan, however, continues to believe that they are and that there is. Reasonable people can disagree on the extent to which force should be used, what type of force (air power vs shock troops vs full-blown incisions) is to be used, how negotiations should be constructed, which actors should be invited to the negotiations, and so on. But no reasonable person can believe that the “war can be ended in 90 days” or that the Taliban are likely to go quietly into the sunset if you hand over a bunch of territory to them.

Topics covered: