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Assessment for Pashtuns (Pushtuns) in Pakistan

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Pashtuns (Pushtuns) in Pakistan, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 27 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Pakistan Facts
Area:    803,943 sq. km.
Capital:    Islamabad
Total Population:    159,196,336,000 (source: CIA World Factbook, 2004, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The Pashtun exhibit several of the risk factors for rebellion. They are territorially concentrated, and Pakistan's government has been unstable, as particularly demonstrated by the 1999 Musharraf coup. While the Pashtun have a strong identity, they are also highly factionalized, making concerted political action difficult. The Pashtun do not experience the degree of government repression that some other groups experience. Again, this is probably due to their overrepresentation in the military. However, several Paktoon khwa Milli Awami activists were killed in shoot-outs with the police in 1999 and 2000. Should the Pakistani central administration make concentrated efforts to bring the North West Frontier Territory or the Federally Administered Tribal Areas under tighter central control, Pashtuns can be expected to resist, violently if necessary, to maintain their traditional autonomy. Furthermore, continuing conflict in Afghanistan threatens to spill over the border. The decades-long Pakistani involvement in the Afghan conflict has led to a culture of drugs and violence. With a new configuration in Afghanistan and Central Asia, and with newly developed road and rail links in the region, the possibility of a revival of the Greater Pakhtoonistan separatist movement cannot be ruled out. At present, however, Afghani Pashtuns are more likely to see their opportunity in Pakistan, than vice versa, although as the new U.S. backed government in Afghanistan settles in this might dissipate given the less extreme political climate as result of the Taliban being disbanded. Pashtun parties have joined with other parties—nationalist, secular and Islamic—in demanding a return to democratic rule since the 1999 Musharraf coup. While provincial and national elections have taken place since 2001, they were viewed as deeply flawed by most ethnic groups in Pakistan, as well as by the international community. Most political parties think the transition from military to democratic rule is taking too long. Like other parties, they have also called for increased provincial autonomy, more control over natural resources, and increased economic opportunities.

Analytic Summary

Pashtuns in Pakistan are concentrated in the North West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, both located in the extreme northwest of Pakistan and on the border with Afghanistan (GROUPCON = 3). A significant number of Pashtuns are also in Baluchistan, where they dominate the urban merchant class, and in Punjab. Pashtuns also live in the urban centers of Sindh, Karachi and Hyderabad, where in the 1980s and early 1990s they were part of ethnic clashes.

Pashtun society is organized along tribal, clan and sub-clan loyalties. Intra-communal conflict has arisen frequently from these tribal divisions throughout the Pashtuns' history, although between 2001 and 2003 there were no reports of intra-group violence (INTRACON01-03=0). Resistant to centralization in their own society, Pashtun have overcome internal division to fiercely resist attempts by the Pakistani central administration to place them under more direct governmental control. However, in part because of their internal fragmentation, Pashtuns have also not become significant political actors at the center, although they are over-represented in the military and security apparatus (POLDIS01-03 = 1). Most Pashtun, who speak Pashto, are Sunni Muslim (LANG, BELIEF, and RACE = 1). While religious life is intertwined in many Pashtuns' lives, daily behavior is also impacted significantly by Paktoonkhwali, the tribal code of honor. Literacy rates remain low, particularly among Pashtun women. Traditionally a pastoral people, most Pashtun are herders and farmers. In Baluchistan, they dominate the urban merchant class. In the modern era, poppy cultivation has become a significant source of income for some Pashtuns. Still, Pashtuns face economic neglect; there have been some weak attempts on the part of the government to address economic challenges faced by inhabitants of the North West Frontier Province, where a significant proportion of Pashtun population lives (ECDIS02-03 = 1).

The civil war in Afghanistan and U.S. led war against the Taliban have significantly impacted Pakistani Pashtuns, who have hosted Afghan Pashtun refugees and taken part in the actual fighting. The traditional Pashtun homeland, Paktoonistan, was divided between Afghanistan and Pakistan by the British colonial administration. However, social, political and economic ties between Pashtuns largely supercede the political border imposed on them. The Pashtun, with their many internal divisions, are represented by multiple political organizations. The Awami National Party is perhaps the most dominant political force among Pashtuns. However, they are also represented by the nationalist Pahktoon khwa Milli Awami Party, the National Awami Party Pakistan and various Islamic parties. In 2002, the various Pashtun nationalist and Islamic parties were discussing a possible alliance, which could lead to increased political power should they be successful in forming a united platform and organizational structure. Pashtun grievances, like most other ethno-linguistic groups in Pakistan, center on perceived Punjabi dominance. Various Pashtun parties lobby for increased autonomy in the provinces, increased economic opportunities and development, equal distribution of government resources, and effective representation at the center.

In 1998, the Pakhtoon khwa Milli Awami Party allied with Baluch and Mohajir nationalist parties to form the Pakistan Oppressed Nations Movement, which lobbies for provincial autonomy and control of resources. Intercommunal cooperation has continued to grow, with fragile coalitions being maintained between Pashtuns and Sindhis, Mohajirs, and Baluchis. With these ethnic groups banding together in protest against Musharraf's military-dominated Punjab government, the risk for intercommunal violence is fairly low (INTERCON01-03 = 0), though it cannot be ruled out. With regard to government repression, a few Pashtuns were arrested in 2001 (REP0101 = 1). Pashtuns' most significant source of demographic stress has been the influx of their Afghan kindred. Additionally, like most groups in Pakistan, they have been adversely affected by the drought in the region since 1997. While they are over-represented in the Pakistani military, they are underrepresented in elected offices and the bureaucracy. They are not restricted significantly in cultural or religious senses, although some feel that Urdu challenges Pashtun linguistic identity and demand that Pashtu become an official language that is taught in primary schools in Pukhtoonkhwa, as well as in the language department at Punjab University Lahore.

The Pashtun resist challenges to their autonomy mostly through nonviolent protest (PROT01-03 = 3). However, in comparison with other groups such as the Sindhis, the Pashtun have not suffered as many attacks on local autonomy. This is perhaps due to their overrepresentation in the military and to the relative remoteness of Pashtun-dominated territories. Pashtuns' main source of external support has been their kindred across the Afghan border.


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