Fear The Pushtun Bogeyman

Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Engaging the Muslim World. He has a regular column at Salon.com. and writes the Informed Comment blog.

He has now written what I think is the first piece that connects modern day American imperialist paranoia in Afghanistan to 19th century British imperialist paranoia in Afghanistan. In a piece called Armageddon On Top Of The World: Not! he reminds us that:

What most observers don’t realize is that the doomsday rhetoric about this region at the top of the world is hardly new. It’s at least 100 years old. During their campaigns in the northwest in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, British officers, journalists and editorialists sounded much like American strategists, analysts, and pundits of the present moment. They construed the Pashtun tribesmen who inhabited Waziristan as the new Normans, a dire menace to London that threatened to overturn the British Empire.

He goes on to remind us that:

In fact, few intelligence predictions could have less chance of coming true. In the 2008 parliamentary election, the Pakistani public voted in centrist parties, some of them secular, virtually ignoring the Muslim fundamentalist parties. Today in Pakistan, there are about 24 million Pashtuns, a linguistic ethnic group that speaks Pashto. Another 13 million live across the British-drawn “Durand Line,” the border — mostly unacknowledged by Pashtuns — between Pakistan and southern Afghanistan. Most Taliban derive from this group, but the vast majority of Pashtuns are not Taliban and do not much care for the Muslim radicals.

Lets repeat that statement once again: Most Pushtuns are not ‘Taliban’ nor ‘Islamic Radicals’. That there are fringe lunatics with guns and an over bloated rhetoric of Armageddon that is given undue and unjustified attention by scabrous and weak minded journalists and photographers is a crucial issue we prefer not to discuss.

It would be the equivalent of an Al Jazeera reporter insisting on covering the USA only from the eyes and from the hot-air rhetoric of militia groups in Montana and Nebraska, or the lunatic-fringe christian evangelical congregations in Florida!

The fact remains that bandying about the bogeyman makes for easy journalism, easy photography and easy sales. Fear sells. We know this well. The unfortunately an entire people, the Pushtuns, have been demonized, humiliated, murdered, displaced and criminalized.


Mir Abbas Khan returns to his home destroyed by Pakistani Army bulldozers and helicopter gunfire. Near Kalooshah, South Waziristan

In 2004 I was in Waziristan, and spent a month there with the tribes that were being lassoed into Pakistan’s desperate attempts to appease the American war-gods. The story eventually appeared in print in Mother Jones magazine. Titled Frontier Justice its most prescient part was the conclusion that writer Malcolm Garcia wrote – based on an interview I had done inside Waziristan:

Consider … Mir Abbas Khan, in the photo on the opposite page. Look at his eyes, his ruined home, and back to his eyes—full of fear and hurt, but mostly rage.

Indeed, consider Mir Abbas Khan’s face and his eyes….and his rage. An innocent Waziri, Ahmedzai tribesman whose entire life was torn to shreds because he happened to be in the path of American and Pakistan military power games. This is in 2004 and Malcom and I argued back then – an argument that got me in trouble with Homeland Security the one time they picked me up at Miami Airport for a 3 hour intense questioning, that it is inhuman, immoral, illegal and a clear violation of their human rights and rights to justice to kill them with impunity and from thousands of feet in the air.

The Pushtuns are not ‘a tribe’, or ‘a mass’, they are individuals and these individuals, their lives, their families are what we are crushing and killing in the blood-laden fields of South Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan. We have made animals out of them, reducing them to mere objects that we kills, see in the distance and attempt to blow away. Our embedded photographers continue this trend, showing the Pushtuns as alien to us, distant from our humanity, their passions, emotions, sufferings, and humiliations unknown and unfelt by us.

“Asim”, his eyes looked at me pleading, ‘”is it not possible for you to imagine that we too can act only because we are human?”, I was with Waziri madrassa students in Peshawar in 2008, as they were trying to explain to me how life for them and their families had become a living hell since 2003 as the Afghan conflict began to spill over.”Sometimes we too, knowing that it is against our laws, our beliefs and our Koran, act because we are just human beings!”. His face tightened as if about to implode “I want to kill because I may have seen my brothers body parts torn all over a room – I want to kill not because I am a fanatic, but becuase I am a brother” He looked at ‘Is that no possible for us?” I had no answer for him. We sat there in the silence, a dark madrassa dorm room, about 20 other students sitting around me, and just thought about what we had just heard.

We are precipitating a genocidal campaign against an entire people because we can’t be bothered to see them as human beings.

This war, which perhaps we once tolerated and remained quiet about, has lost its mooring, and we have lost our moral compass.  It, like Iraq, is a dishonorable war, that is being fought dishonorably and will bring nothing but dishonor to those who plan it and fight it.

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