November 9, 2009: Mr. Mohammad Ayaz and Mr. Shuja Nawaz

(Click to Enlarge) From left to right: Mr. Shuja Nawaz and Mr. Mohammad Ayaz discuss Pakistan's NWFP.

Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province and Ethno-Religious Activism

(Washington D.C.) November 9–The insurgency in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province is not a new phenomenon but the most recent in a long history of resistance movements among the Pashtun people. In an East-West Center in Washington Asia Pacific Security Seminar, Mr. Mohammad Ayaz, visiting fellow at the East-West Center in Washington, and discussant Mr. Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at The Atlantic Council, detailed the history of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), discussing the evolution of resistance movements and fundamentalist activity in the region.

The NWFP is a mountainous area of Pakistan adjacent to China, Kashmir, India, Iran, and Afghanistan. The people of this region are members of the Pashtun culture, ethnically distinct from the majority of the population in Pakistan, but sharing an identity with the people living just across the border in Afghanistan. As a result of the geographic proximity and cultural affinity, the politics of the NWFP are greatly influenced by events occurring in Afghanistan and in recent years Pakistan has experienced an insurgency in this region, fueled partially by the continuing conflict in Afghanistan.

Mr. Ayaz explained that the roots of this conflict can be traced back to events that occurred during the British occupation of India. He noted that prior to British control, the Pashtun people lived in collective communities where all people shared equally in debts and gains, and where religion was kept strictly separate from governance. The British, however, confiscated all the land and begin awarding ownership to pro-British people, creating a new upper class and a growing division between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’

Dissatisfaction with the new order resulted in the creation of civil disobedience movements among the ‘have-nots,’ many of them located in the NWFP. Mr. Ayaz explained that these movements tended to be Marxist or socialist in nature, a result of the traditional collectivity of the Pashtun culture and in response to what was seen as rampant commercialism on the part of the British. These civil disobedience movements were dealt with brutally by the colonial leaders, leading to the massacre of many protesters and innocent bystanders.

The creation of Pakistan did not greatly improve the situation of the people of the NWFP. The new leaders of the country were people who had supported the British during their rule, and they continued to be unsympathetic to the plight of the poor and the supporters of socialist movements. Mr. Ayaz noted that this was particularly true during the Cold War, when leaders of the military and government were pro-capitalist. During this time, socialist parties were banned and elections were not held for many years. The people felt that they had no power to effect change in their country.

In this vacuum, religion began to have increasing power in the NWFP and in Pakistan. Mr. Ayaz explained that the number of religious schools increased enormously, and the culture of religious militarism began to take off, popularized in education, media, and popular culture. Religious fighters were recruited from the NWFP to fight against the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and when the Russians finally left the country, a large, well-armed force of religious fighters returned to their homes in the NWFP. By the 1990s, the Taliban, made up of primarily ethnic Pashtuns, gained dominance in Afghanistan and, through long-standing ties with NWFP religious fighters, became influential in Pakistan as well. The Pashtuns of Pakistan, who had felt victimized by the British, their own government, and, most recently, American intrusion into their country, began to turn to the Taliban and other religious militants to support them against their oppressors, creating the insurgency that troubles Pakistan today.

Mr. Nawaz pointed out that the dominance of religious extremism in this region is supported by the poverty and low rates of education that the Pashtun people suffer. This situation, he noted, creates a large number of unemployed youth with no opportunity for improvement who become eager recruits to militant groups. Mr. Nawaz argued that the situation in the region cannot be cured by force alone because this only addresses the symptoms of the problem, not the cause. The people of the region need the opportunity to control their own destinies by gaining a voice in the governance of their region and through increased education and job opportunities.

Mohammad Ayaz is senior lecturer in Pakistan Studies at Kohat University of Science and Technology, Pakistan and a visiting fellow at the East West Center in Washington DC. He has also worked as a news editor and as deputy editor at Daily Jiddat , an Urdu language newspaper. In this capacity, he interviewed many religious and nationalist political leaders. Mr. Ayaz wrote his masters thesis on the alliance of religious parties, the MMA, which ruled the NWFP for five years.

Shuja Nawaz is director of the South Asia Center at The Atlantic Council. A native of Pakistan, Mr. Nawaz is a political and strategic analyst and writes for leading newspapers and The Huffington Post, and speaks on current topics before civic groups, at think tanks, and on radio and television. He has worked with RAND, the United States Institute of Peace, The Center for Strategic and International Studies, The Atlantic Council, and other leading think tanks on projects dealing with Pakistan and the Middle East. Mr. Nawaz was a newscaster and producer for Pakistan Television and covered the 1971 war with India on the Western Front. He has worked for the World Health Organization and has headed three separate divisions at the International Monetary Fund. He was also a director at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. Mr. Nawaz was the managing editor and then editor of Finance & Development , the multilingual quarterly of the IMF and the World Bank and on the Editorial Advisory Board of the World Bank Research Observer. His latest book is Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within (Oxford University Press 2008). He is also the author of FATA: A Most Dangerous Place (CSIS, Washington, D.C., January 2009).