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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Pashtuns (Pushtuns) in Pakistan

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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. However, various Pashtun-based militias – most notably in recent years, the Taliban – have engaged in large-scale violent rebellion in recent years. Furthermore, conflict in Afghanistan continues to destabilize the border regions where Pashtuns are concentrated. 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.

Pashtun parties did join with other parties -- nationalist, secular and Islamic -- in demanding a return to democratic rule after the 1999 Musharraf coup. While a newly elected government is now in power, it has proven weak in the face of multiple internal challenges and has not demonstrated control over the security forces. If the Zardari coalition government – which includes the secular, Pashtun Awami party – is able to fulfill pledges of increased self-government and economic development for ethnic regions, Pashtun incentives for rebellion and protest will lessen. However, to be successful, such initiatives will have to be accompanied by improvements in physical security in Pashtun regions and de-legitimization of the Taliban and other militant organizations.


Analytic Summary

Pashtuns in Pakistan are concentrated in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), 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). However intracommunal conflict, between pro- and anti-Taliban forces and between Shi'a and Sunni Pashtuns, has occurred in recent years (INTRACON04-06 = 1). 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 (POLDIS06 = 0). Most Pashtun, who speak Pashto, are Sunni Muslim (LANG = 2; BELIEF = 0; RACE = 0). 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. Previously, Pashtun-dominated areas were poor and underdeveloped due to economic neglect, although the government sporadically attempted to implement remedial policies. However, with the emergence of a strong, Pakistani-based Taliban, economic policies have been implemented against Pashtun-dominated areas in the name of "counter-terrorism" that significantly hamper the economic prospects of all residents, regardless of support for the Taliban. These include, most prominently, economic blockades imposed against NWFP and FATA (ECDIS06 = 4).

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 supersede 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 was fairly low (INTERCON01-03 = 0). No incidents have been reported in recent years of violence between Pashtuns and other ethnic groups in Pakistan. However, Pashtun tribal militias have attacked foreign militants (primarily Central Asians) affiliated with the Taliban or al Qaeda in recent years.

Pashtuns have engaged in high levels of violence against the state in recent years, primarily by the Taliban but also by other tribal militias (REB04-06 = 5). There have also been consistent protests (PROT04 = 3; PROT06 = 3). Pashtuns have also faced high levels of government repression, against both the civilian population and political actors (REPGENCIV04-06 = 5; REPNVIOL04-06 = 3; REPVIOL04-06 = 5).



Amnesty International. 9/29/2006. "Pakistan: Human rights ignored in the 'war on terror.'", accessed 10/16/2007.

International Crisis Group. 12/11/06. “Pakistan’s Tribal Areas: Appeasing the Militants”., accessed 11/10/2007.

Lexis-Nexis. Various news reports. 1999-2006.

Library of Congress. 1997. "Library of Congress Country Studies: Afghanistan.", accessed 10/16/2007.

South Asia Terrorism Portal. 11/17/07. "Waziristan Timeline.", accessed 11/25/2007.

U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Pakistan. 1999-2006.


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Information current as of December 31, 2006