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Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Taliban, from Freedom Fighters to Fissures: Imran Khan’s Pashtun Power Play.

Pakistan’s political landscape is a complicated mixture of both power and identity.

Imran Khan’s approach particularly in his characterisation of the Afghan Taliban as “freedom fighters” and his calls for dialogue with extremist elements often courted controversy.  However, it is discernible that he transcended this contentious terrain to embody a persona emblematic of the delicate balance between soft Islamism and strategic pragmatism.

Khan leveraged his Pashtun heritage and deftly tapped into the simmering undercurrents of Pashtun discontent with Punjabi dominance in both the military and bureaucracy.

His rhetoric, often characterised by conciliatory overtures towards the TTP, demonstrated his profound grasp of the complex interplay between ideological imperatives and regional dynamics. He walked a fine line between appeasing the Taliban and maintaining strategic alliances within the military.

Khan’s Pashtun heritage played both a boon and a burden in his navigation of Pakistan’s turbulent political waters. By tapping into the long-standing grievances of Pashtun marginalisation under Punjabi dominance,  Khan positioned himself as a champion of a diverse Pakistani identity transcending provincial boundaries.

It’s also this very embrace of identity politics that cast a shadow of suspicion upon him in the hallowed halls of the Punjabi-dominated military establishment, once his allies.

As Khan’s advocacy for a greater Pashtun role in preserving Pakistan’s unity gained momentum, so too did the scrutiny and skepticism from within the corridors of power.

He often invoked the arm and militant strength of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) as a testament to his power and political prowess, while alluding to the secession of East Pakistan in 1971 as a cautionary tale. Within these narratives lay a veiled warning: any disregard for his mandate might embolden Pashtuns to assert their rights more forcefully, thereby risking Pakistan’s sovereignty and inviting external interference. These nuanced insinuations, aimed at keeping the military establishment in check, exacerbated tensions and  sparked further concerns about the repercussions of Khan’s political manoeuvres and his eventual removal from office.

His purported victimisation by the military has now and understandably caused a significant shift in both rhetoric and action in the Pashtun heartland.

The TTP’s more pronounced emphasis on Pashtun identity, rather than solely Islamic ideology, reflects a strategic recalibration aimed at capitalising on Khan-fanned regional sentiments of marginalisation.

Khan’s victimisation by the Punjabi-dominated army has galvanised resentment within the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province, while Faiz Hameed’s transition from a mediator to an instigator hints at deeper fractures within the Pakistan Army, Pakistan’s worst nightmare.

As tensions simmer and fissures widen, attacks on regular army units will continue to increase, while KPK police, now seen as collaborators subservient to a perceived anti-army regime, will face reduced threats.

Against this backdrop of ethnic fault lines, power struggles, and regional dynamics, Pakistan’s internal stability hangs precariously in the balance and paints a very volatile picture for Pakistan’s security apparatus.

As they say in Pakistan, “Ab Allah Hi Haafiz Hai.”


Sonam Mahajan
Strategic thinker and Geopolitical Analyst

X (Previously Twitter) Handle: @AsYouNotWish

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