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Pashtun 'ethnic profiling' in Pakistan

March 20, 2017

Pakistani officials have begun a "racial profiling" of the Pashtun people in the wake of a surge in terror attacks. In a DW interview, activist and researcher Saba Gul Khattak says the move is counterproductive.

Pakistan Massenflucht aus Nord-Waziristan vor Offensive gegen Islamisten
Image: Reuters

Rights organizations in Pakistan have expressed concern over an "apparent racial profiling" and "stereotyping" of Pashtuns and Afghans as authorities step up their crackdown against Islamist militancy after a recent surge in terror attacks across the country.

The non-governmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan recently condemned the harassment of Pashtuns by security officials.

Ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan have been tense as Islamabad claims that Afghan militants are perpetrating attacks inside the country. Many Pakistanis associate the militancy in their nation with the Pashtu-speaking people who live on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border.

In an interview with DW, Saba Gul Khattak, a renowned Pakistani researcher and activist, explains why the "ethnic profiling" of Pashtuns is a very dangerous trend for the country.

DW: Is the Pashtun "racial profiling" being carried out on a large scale in Pakistan, or are we witnessing some isolated incidents?

Saba Gul Khattak: The profiling is being carried out mainly in Punjab province - and to some extent in the capital Islamabad. This time round, it was spurred by the last month's suicide attacks in Lahore and Sehwan. However, similar trends have persisted for a while; the police in Punjab and Islamabad began ethnic profiling of Pashtuns in low-income areas prior to these attacks, and there were reports that the authorities blocked the national identity cards of Pashtuns settled in Punjab.

The profiling is restricted to a particular class - laborers/daily wage workers, hawkers, small shopkeepers and others who live in low-income communities. It is being carried out systematically as Punjab's government instructed police teams to identify a Pashtun at the community level to assist with identification processes.

Pakistan Saba Gul Khattak Politikwissenschaftlerin
Saba Gul Khattak: 'The madrassas (Islamic seminaries) reinforced the association of terrorism with Pashtuns'Image: privat

According to "The Friday Times" newspaper, "Some district police officials distributed pamphlets requesting the general population to report any suspicious person or activity. The terrorists were specified as 'Pashtuns and Afghans.' Similarly, traders' organizations in Punjab have been asked to register Pashtuns working in their markets and submit lists to the nearby police stations to help the government curb terrorism."

In short, this is not the first time systematic surveys targeting Pashtuns have been conducted. In tandem with profiling is the decision of the Punjab government (and often the central government as well) not to allow internally displaced Pashtuns to enter the province.

Many people in Pakistan associate terrorism with the Pashtu-speaking Pakistanis and Afghans. What are the reasons behind this stereotyping?

This comes from the stereotype of a "gun-toting Pashtun" waging almost four decades of Afghan jihad (with the Mujahideen morphing into the Taliban). There is also the added dimension of the Pashtuns' religious conservatism on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border.

Furthermore, there is a historical context to the distrust of the Pashtuns due to the popularity of the "Khudai Khidmatgar" movement (affiliated with the Indian National Congress in opposition to the Muslim League - the party that demanded creation of Pakistan.) Soon after Pakistan's independence from British rule in 1947, the Khudai Khidmatgar workers and leaders were accused of being "traitors," their government was dismissed and their party offices and records were destroyed.

Afghanistan was also the last country to recognize Pakistan as a state because of the dubious legal status of the Durand Line that separates the two countries, and Kabul funded the Pashtunistan movement supporters. The Cold War further fuelled the Pashtunistan movement as Russia and Afghanistan were backing the nationalists in Pakistan's northwestern areas, creating deep-seated suspicion within the Pakistani establishment.

The post 9/11 war on terror introduced suicide bombings. The madrassas (Islamic seminaries) established across Pakistan, especially in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), came in handy. These madrassas further reinforced the association of terrorism with Pashtuns. The media carefully omitted mention of the Punjabi Taliban (present in Afghanistan and FATA since the late 1990s). Their presence was acknowledged by the government only around 2010 and 2011 when police stations in Punjab were being targeted and the provincial government needed Islamabad to allocate more funds for guarding police facilities.

Afghanistan - Taliban
The Afghan jihad stereotype of a 'gun-toting Pashtun' has existed in Pakistan for decadesImage: picture alliance / Ton Koene

Keeping in mind that the Pashtun-majority areas of the country have a long history of anti-Islamabad sentiment, as well as a "Pashtunistan" movement involving Afghanistan, how dangerous could this profiling be for the stability of the country?

The ethnic profiling will probably not bring the Pashtunistan movement back (Afghanistan's economy and political situation is far worse than Pakistan's hence there is little incentive to go for a greater Pashtunistan). However, alienating an entire ethnic group, questioning and blocking their citizenship due to some vague fears of terrorism, is counterproductive. It will deepen the resentment that has existed for some time. It strengthens the belief that only Pashtun blood is being shed on both sides of the border.

How is the repatriation of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers being viewed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa? Is it also being looked at by some as the "victimization" of Pashtuns by Islamabad?

There are no simple answers to this question. Depending on the political party position, some Pakistani Pashtuns are in favor of Afghan refugees while others blame them for everything that is wrong in the province, especially the security situation. The poor Pashtuns in Pakistan have long resented the Afghan refugees with whom they have had to share their sparse resources and a deteriorating environment. The Afghans have resented being in Pakistan as they have had to work for lower wages whereas the Pakistani laborer has resented the Afghan labor as he felt robbed of his due share by Afghans who are willing to work for less money.

Politically speaking, there has been muted condemnation of forced ouster of refugees though Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced in the UN General Assembly in September 2016 that Pakistan would allow refugees to stay. However, harassment of refugees has continued as they are blamed for the deteriorating security situation.

Pakistan verstärkte Sicherheitsmaßnahmen nach dem Anschlag in Sehwan
Pakistani authorities have ramped up security in the wake of a number of terror attacks in the country in recent monthsImage: Getty Images/AFP/SS Mirza

How do you look at the current ties between Islamabad and Kabul? Are they likely to improve any time soon?

The ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan have deteriorated significantly since Afghan President Ashraf Ghani initially extended the hand of friendship to Islamabad. President Ghani's statements in the presence of Indian PM Narendra Modi about oppression in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan provinces and his refusal to accept Pakistan's aid offer of $500 million (465 million euros) indicate that relations are extremely tense. In Afghanistan, popular opinion holds the Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence security agency responsible for bomb attacks while in Pakistan, Afghan refugees are the convenient scapegoats.

Dr. Saba Gul Khattak is the Country Representative for Open Society Foundations in Pakistan and has previously worked in senior positions for the World Bank, the Planning Commission of Pakistan, and as Executive Director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), Islamabad. The views expressed in the interview are personal.

The interview was conducted by Shamil Shams.