x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Rambo III explains why Pashtuns feel neglected and victimised

Every day on television what we are shown is a school-burning, women-suppressing, narcotic-profiteering lunatic.

ISLAMABAD // For the umpteenth time, I was watching Rambo III (the one based in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan), courtesy of the local cable operator's penchant for "full action" movies. I was thinking how to explain the sense of victimisation prevalent among Pakistan's embattled Pashtun (or Pukhtoon as they are known in Pakistan).

Anyone who has ever climbed into a taxi in Abu Dhabi would know them and, no doubt, has become accustomed to their often gruff, sometimes aggressive, manner. It is the kind of behaviour that earns them few friends, nurtures a negative stereotype of Khan Sahib that is as old as written history, and makes them the target of many ethnic jokes. The difference is that the Pashtun are not laughing. Why?

Because, as it dawned over my fourth sip of chai, Rambo's destination was the Panjsher Valley, not Kandahar or Helmand; his mujahideen mates all spoke Dari, not Pashto; and their thoughtful and distinctly Omar Sharif-like commander was named Masood, not Khan. Put simply, the good guy was not a Pashtun (even though they constitute 60 per cent of the Afghan population), and never has been. The first time I saw Rambo III was in 1986 at a cinema on Ealing Broadway, a popular nightspot in west London. Scenes of a village being wiped out by a helicopter gunship moved the largely South Asian audience; it later burst out laughing when Rambo cauterised a bullet wound using gunpowder from a bullet.

Substitute pretty much any of Pakistan's tribal areas for the Panjsher Valley, Pakistani Pashtuns for the Afghan villagers in the movie, both the Taliban and Pakistan's armed forces for the Soviets, and an average Mr Khan for Rambo. That is why the Pashtun are not laughing. Every day on television, what we are shown - courtesy of the Pashtuns' collective failure to hire an image perception and management consultant - is a school-burning, women-suppressing, narcotic-profiteering lunatic, armed to the teeth and hell bent on overthrowing the free world.

Perhaps the 2.4 million Khans and Khanums forced to flee fighting in Swat, as well as the untold hundreds of thousand of others from previous military operations since September 11, deserve a second evaluation. How about: isolated, impoverished tribesman ignored by the rest of the world until he became useful - first as a pawn in the Cold War, then as a pinball in the civil war that followed Soviet occupation, particularly after it became apparent that a small-timer called Mohammad Omar could "fix things" so that Central Asian oil and gas could flow; and finally as a scapegoat when the Taliban got too big for its boots.

I really appreciated the recent magnanimity of Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, in accepting historical blame for Pakistan's descent into chaos. She should know: it was during Bill Clinton's first term that Warren Christopher, his secretary of state, backed the Taliban, through the Pakistani military, with material and other support. Things went so well that initial agreements for the so-called TAP (Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan) pipeline were signed with the US oil firm Unocal, represented at the time by Hamid Karzai, now the Afghan president.

Things only changed in Mr Clinton's second term, with Madeleine Albright engineering a policy U-turn in Afghanistan, but not for the Pashtun. I have heard a hundred accounts from the Pashtuns of Pakistan's tribal areas since then, all telling of the kind of duplicity that this year has manifested itself as a threat to the country's existence. For no particular reason, I will quote Nasrullah Khan Afridi, a high school graduate from Dara Adamkhel village in Khyber agency, known otherwise as one of the world's biggest illegal gun factories. Over a recent game of snooker in Karachi (on a tournament-size table, no less), where he now works as a chauffeur, he turned deadly serious as he described how a mortar shell fired from a nearby army post hit a relative's home.

His disturbing tale of "collateral damage" matches many among the hundred accounts I have stored in notebooks in my bottom drawer. Like many, many others, it concludes that the army fired the shell on the villagers as punishment for not resisting the Taliban in the neighbouring hills. And like many others, he is confused to the point of fury by the freedom of movement allowed by the same troops to another group of armed Taliban - sometimes with helicopter cover - when the village tribesman could not carry their customary Kalashnikovs for fear of being targeted as a militant.

But is Nasrullah turning into a Taliban? No, thankfully. "I don't understand the thinking behind this hypocrisy and killing of our people, but if that's what it takes to keep the Americans out of Pakistan, it's a sacrifice we Pashtun are prepared to make," he said, making him my candidate for Pashtun poster boy of the year. "Blue in the centre pocket," he added, proving that anybody good with a gun is good with a cue.