Pashtunistan: A nation across Afghanistan and Pakistan may not be too far off

After the fall of Kunduz, the Afghan Taliban appears destined to once again rule the Pashtun homelands in Afghanistan. But will it stop just there?

The fall of the Afghan city of Kunduz, astride the road from Kabul to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, signals a major milestone in the resurgence of the Pakistan-backed Afghan Taliban. It raises several questions about the future of the country and the region, but perhaps the most valid one is this: what will happen in Afghanistan after the Americans lose interest and cut off their engagement with the country?

The Russians officially withdrew from Afghanistan when they signed a peace accord in Geneva on April 14, 1988, with the Afghan government, Pakistan and the United States. Till the final collapse of the USSR in December 1991, the Russians continued to pour in money and material amounting to almost $300 million a month. With these resources, President Mohammad Najibullah’s government kept fighting, beating back onslaughts on Jalalabad, Herat and Kandahar. After Mikhail Gorbachev resigned on Christmas Day in 1991, Russian funding of Najibullah ceased almost immediately. On April 15, 1992, he was stopped at Kabul airport as he tried to flee the country.

The point is that as long money kept flowing in – and $300 million a month is an amazing burn rate even by today’s standards – Najibullah was able to retain control over the government in Kabul. Once the money dried up, the hold was lost.

How long will current President Ashraf Ghani keep going after the US withdraws its residual presence in the country really depends on how long the purse strings remain open? There are some things even America cannot afford these days. Besides, the Americans shift priorities with great alacrity. In the mid-1960s, Vietnam seemed to most Americans to be of vital national interest. A decade later, few thought it had been one. One can be fairly sure that in time Afghanistan too will recede into the farthest corner of the United States’ collective memory. There will be other battles and each generation will be suitably blooded in one.

As things stand, the Afghan Taliban effectively controls large swathes of territory in the traditional Pashtun homelands west of the Durand Line, the 2,250-kilometre border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. As far as one can see now, it seems inevitable that the Taliban will once again rule the Pashtun territories of Afghanistan with its capital in Kabul. But after that?

Caught between two empires

History, however much we may try to deny or distort it, has a way of repeating itself. One lesson from recent history is the assertion of nationality as a unifying theme. Religion, history shows, is not enough of a glue to hold diverse nations together. Pakistan should know. Religion did not prevent it from splitting once before. Communism, that great dogma of the modern era, too could not hold countries together. The USSR and Yugoslavia do not exist anymore. What does hold countries together are shared aspirations, a common perception of history, and the liberal freedoms of a modern democracy.

Shared histories, combined with current dynamics, may revive an old demand in the region: for the Pashtun nation.

In 1886, Russia occupied the Panjdeh Oasis near Herat. It was the time of The Great Game, the strategic conflict between the British and Russian empires for supremacy in Central Asia. Britain immediately warned Russia that any further advance towards Herat would be considered as inimical to British Indian interests. As a consequence of the May 1879 Treaty of Gandamak after the Second Afghan War, Britain had taken control of Afghanistan’s foreign affairs. This treaty also gave Britain control over traditional Pashtun territory west of the Indus, including Peshawar and the Khyber Pass.

After the Panjdeh incident, a joint Anglo-Russian boundary commission, without any Afghan participation, fixed the Afghan border with Turkestan, which was the whole of Russian Central Asia, now Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Thus, as a result of the rivalry between Britain and Russia, a new country, the Afghanistan we know today, was created to serve as the buffer between empires.

In 1893, Sir Mortimer Durand, a British diplomat, began work on delineating Afghanistan’s eastern border with India. In 1901, the British created the North-West Frontier Province, now Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, de-linking Pathan lands from Afghanistan and Punjab. They further divided NWFP into the settled districts, which were directly administered by the British, and five autonomous Tribal Agency areas, which were ruled by local chieftains but with British agents keeping an eye on them (like in the Indian princely states).

From the very beginning, the Durand Line was not an international border but a line of control. The Simon Commission Report of 1930 stated quite explicitly: “British India stopped at the boundary of the administered area.”

Despite this candid assertion, the British handed over the five autonomous Tribal Agencies in 1947 to Pakistan after sponsoring an acquiescing tribal loya jirga (grand assembly). The Afghan government immediately objected to this, saying that the five Tribal Agencies belonged to the same category as the 562 Indian princely states which were each given three options: join India, join Pakistan or remain independent. Pakistan continued the tradition of allowing the Tribal Agencies to administer themselves and did not send any administrators or police or military into the area. That is, until it dispatched its military, in conjunction with American forces, in pursuit of Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists.

The Pashtunistan issue

Centralised rule over the peoples in this area, first established by Ahmad Shah Abdali or Durrani, devolved upon Amir Abdur Rahman (1880-1901) when it was created as a buffer state between the Russian and British empires. Abdur Rahman was Bismarckian in his methods and used the most ruthless methods to forge a new nation. Over his 20-year rule of almost continuous warfare, he managed to create an Afghan nation, albeit somewhat truncated, bound by one law and one rule. Helping him govern was an annual subsidy of Rs 1.2 million from the British, which was raised to Rs 1.8 million in 1893.

In May 1919, Abdur Rahman’s grandson, Amanullah, began what the Afghans called their “War of Independence”, now generally referred to as the Third Anglo-Afghan War. Afghan forces crossed the Durand Line into the NWFP, and tribesmen on both sides of the Durand Line rallied to the Afghan cause. But the Afghans ran into a new weapon – fighter aircraft. Planes dropped bombs on Kabul and Jalalabad and soon the Afghan appetite for war was somewhat squelched. The Treaty of Rawalpindi that followed gave the Afghans control over their foreign affairs but the NWFP and the Tribal Agencies remained in British India.

In the civil war that resulted from Amanullah’s attempt to hurriedly modernise Afghanistan, the British supported Gen. Nadir Khan who quickly seized Kabul and proclaimed himself the ruler in 1929. Nadir Khan did not live long, though. He was assassinated in 1933 by a former student of the Amania School, which was the hotbed of the nationalist movement in Afghanistan. The main objective of this movement was the recovery of the territory across the Durand Line. Zahir Shah took over next and ruled till 1973, when his cousin and brother-in-law, the former Prime Minister Sardar Daoud Khan, ousted him.

Daoud Khan was a nationalist as committed to the recovery of lost territory as he was to modernising Afghanistan. His arrival coincided with the advent of John Foster Dulles, who was no less committed to the single-minded pursuit of the “containment” of the Soviet Union, as Daoud was to the Pashtunistan issue.

In 1954, Pakistan joined the SEATO and CENTO (Baghdad Pact) military alliances, more to gain military and political support against India than out of any commitment to US policy of containment. Daoud too had sought military and economic assistance from the United States. But with Pakistan as its chosen ally, the US turned its back on Afghanistan. Daoud then turned to Russia for assistance.

The Cold War in this part of the world became a confrontation for the recovery of lost Afghan territories as a result of unequal treaties imposed by Britain. In September 1960 the irritations manifested into a crisis when Afghanistan and Pakistan went to war, and a year later the Afghan government snapped diplomatic ties with Pakistan and closed the border with it.

A divided people

The disastrous economic effects of the closed border cost Daoud his job in 1963. It was 10 years before Daoud came to power again by deposing Zahir Shah. Once again Daoud revived the Pashtunistan issue. The 1971 break-up of Pakistan created stirrings for separation in Baluchistan as well and a training camp for Baluchi fighters was set up in Kandahar. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto retaliated with bomb blasts in Kabul and Jalalabad. But Daoud fell out with Russia’s Leonid Brezhnev in 1977 and the Communists toppled him the following year.

In 1979 the new Afghan government formally repudiated the Durand Line. But the Cold War lines were already drawn, and modern history’s longest period of continuous war ensued. For 35 years since Afghanistan has been beset by a cruel and callous war, the like of which the modern age has not seen. Afghans are now seeking to determine their own future. But the Pashtuns still remain a divided people by an arbitrary Line of Control scratched across the heart of their nation.

It is now only a question of time before the demand for the reunification of all their people becomes a rallying call for the Pashtun nation. Even the internal dynamics within Afghanistan now demand it. There is much unfinished business here.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”


“Like what?”


A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”




“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:


This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.