The Pashtuns (Pathans) are an ethnic group that live in western and southern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan and whose homeland is in the valleys of Hindu Kush. In Pakistan, they have a reputation for being fierce tribesmen, largely thumbing their noses at authorities and following their own customs and codes of honor. Pashtuns consider themselves the true Afghans and the true rulers of Afghanistan. They have dominated Afghanistan for the past 200 years, ruling the government and various kingdoms there. [Source: Akbar S. Ahmed with Paul Titus “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1996]

Pashtuns are also known as Pathans, Afghans, Pushtuns, Pakhtoons, Pukhtun, Pakhtu, Rohilla and Pashtoon. They are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and by some accounts the largest tribal society in the world. There are about 60-70 million of them with around 43 million in Pakistan, 15.5 million in Afghanistan and a million or so more scattered in a dozen or so countries, including India, the U.S., Finland and Germany. Pashtun have contribute to social and cultural life of places in India such as Rampur (Rohilla) and cities like Mumbai (Bombay). [Source: Wikipedia]

Pashtuns are generally light-skinned and have sharp featured that are considered non-Indian. They are usually called the Pashtuns un Afghanistan and the Pashtuns in Pakistan They have traditionally been a seminomadic people. There are more than 60 Pashtun tribes. Pashtuns are Muslims and speak Pashto (or Pushtu). Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province) of Pakistan is closely identified with Pashtuns. The Pashtuns predominate in Balochistan and are also the major group in southern Afghanistan. The West has long been fascinated with the Pashtuns, one of the few peoples able to defeat the advances of British imperialism. Authors as diverse as Rudyard Kipling and contemporary Pakistani anthropologist Akbar S. Ahmed wrote about them. More is written about Pashtun norms, values, and social organization than any other ethnic group in Pakistan. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994; Columbia Encyclopedia]

Their clashes with the British in the 19th century earned the Pashtun a reputation as formidable warriors. Their way of life was disrupted during the Soviet occupation (1979–89), the wars in Afghanistan and the influence of terrorist groups such as Al-Qaida. Outsiders have traditionally referred to the Pashtun as Pathan or Afghan. For a long time Afghans and Pashtuns were one in the same. Now the term Afghan refers to the citizens of Afghanistan, regardless of ethnic group.

Authority:Charles Lindholm, a professor of anthropology at Boston University, and his wife Cherry Lindholm. Cherry Lindholm wrote a book called “Frontier Perspectives”.

Pashtun Population

There are about 60-70 million Pashtun with around 43 million in Pakistan, 15.5 million in Afghanistan and a million or so more scattered in a dozen or so countries, including India, the U.S., Finland and Germany. Pashtuns make up 50 percent of the population in Afghanistan. They are believed to have made up a larger percentage at one time but lost many members in the war against the Soviets. They make up about a quarter of the population of Pakistan, mostly in the North-West Frontier province near the Afghanistan border.

In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, many Pashtun have moved to the cities in serach of work. Their exact numbers are not known because no accurate censuses have been taken in the areas where they live. There are also some Pashtuns in area of India such as Rampur (Rohilla) and Mumbai (Bombay).

Akbar S. Ahmed wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The 1984 population of Pashto speakers was approximately 20 million. This includes 11 million native to Pakistan and 9 million originating in Afghanistan. Because of the civil war that has persisted in Afghanistan since 1979, roughly 2 million Pashtuns have left for Pakistan as refugees. The Pashtun constituted from 50 to 60 percent of the population of prewar Afghanistan. As the largest and most influential ethnic group, the Pashtun have dominated the society and politics of that country for the past 200 years. Other Important ethnic minorities in Afghanistan include the Hazaras, Tajiks, and Uzbeks. Since the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan, the Pashtun constitute Pakistan's second-largest ethnic group. According to Pakistan's 1981 census 13 percent of the nation's households are Pashto-speaking. Punjabis make up the majority of Pakistan's population; other important linguistic groups are Sindhis, Baloch, and Urdu speakers. [Source: Akbar S. Ahmed with Paul Titus “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1996 |~|]

Homeland and Territory of the Pashtuns

The area occupied by the Pashtuns, sometimes called Pashtunland, stretches roughly from Kabul in the west to Herat in the north in Afghanistan and to the Indus River in the east and Quetta in the south in Pakistan. This area is mostly mountainous and is known for its hot summers, cold winters and lack of rain. The eastern Pashtun areas are affected by the humidity and rain of the Indian monsoons. [Source: Akbar S. Ahmed with Paul Titus “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1996]

The southern border of the Pashtun area extends can be drawn from Sibi in Balochistan in Pakistan through Quetta to Qandahar in Afghanistan. Pashtun tribes like the Mohmand, Wazirs, Sulemankhel, and Achakzais occupy the international border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The mountainous area the Pashtun live in incorporates part of the Alpine-Himalayan mountain range in central Afghanistan and the Sulaiman range in Pakistan. To the south it reaches onto the Iranian Plateau.

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”:“Pashtun have lived for centuries in the corridors between Khurasan and the Indian subcontinent, at the crossroads of several historically great civilizations. Their mountain homes have been overcome by conquering armies repeatedly, and have been subjected to the rule of great empires including the empire of Alexander the Great and the Persian Empire. However, the Pashtun's story has never been put in perspective. There is no true written history of the Pashtun in their own land. Pashtun traditions assert that they are descended from Afghana, grandson of King Saul of Israel, although most scholars believe it more likely that they arose from an intermingling of ancient Aryans from the north or west with subsequent invaders.” [Source: revised by M. Kerr, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

North-West Frontier Province

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province) is closely identified with Pashtuns. It is a swath of land that runs along the northern border with Afghanistan extending from the Indus River to the Hindu Kush. About the size of Virginia, it has been a corridor through which the great conquering civilizations of the world have traveled for 35 centuries. The armies of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and the Taj-Mahal building Moguls have all marched through and each were harassed by the Pathans, a fierce, often war-like tribal people that the British called the "best guerilla fighters in Asia.”

The Northwest Frontier Province was created in 1901. It is the home of the relatively peaceful Chitral and Swat valley but it mainly known for a 32- to 130-kilometer (20- to 80-mile) -wide slice of land that stretches for 580 kilometers (350 miles) along the Afghanistan border — the Pathan homeland. Several million Pathans live here as well as an untold number of Afghan refugees. In the "settled" regions there are about nine million people which include Pathans and members of other ethnic groups.

The Northwest Frontier Province is comprised mostly of barren or semi-barren brown mountains and jagged escapements and badland canyons. The local name of the color of the landscape gave us the English word Khaki. British soldiers who wore green uniforms were easy for tribal snipers to pick off; they switched to khaki uniforms so they blended in better. The high elevations often receive quite a lot of snow. They valleys nourished by snowmelt from these mountains can be quite green and picturesque, The climate is harsh: characterized by bitterly cold winters and hot, dry summers.

In the past some travel was possible in Dera Ismail Khan, Kohat, Bannu, Peshawar, Hazara, Dir, Swat and Chitral while Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber (not including the Khyber pass), Orakzai, Kurram, North Waziristan and South Waziristan were considered off limits.

Tribal Areas of Pakistan

Tribal Areas covers a 560-x-40 kilometer (350-x-25 mile) area of rugged mountain territory along the border of Afghanistan. Sometimes it is considered part of the North-West Frontier Province. Other times it is regarded as a separate area. It occupies a quarter of the North West Frontier Province and is controlled by 24 Pashtun tribes and their sub clans in seven Pathan “agencies” that were created in the British era. It also sometimes includes parts of Balochistan and the Northern territories. It is the part of Pakistan where Al-Qaida is believed to be hiding out and Osama bin Laden spent some time.

The Pashtun areas are called the “ilaq ghiar” (“land beyond Pakistanis laws”). The area is run by a tribal council lead by its leaders and is almost completely beyond the jurisdiction of Pakistani law. The Pakistani constitution does not apply here. Justice is defined by strict tribal customs and conservative interpretations of Islamic law. The freedoms given the tribal areas dates back to British times. The British colonial rulers had little success in their efforts to control the region and gave the tribes autonomy in return for peace.

Critics say the tribal regions are nothing but a haven for outlaws, smugglers and bandits. Defenders claim the inhabitants are tribal people who follow their own laws and make a living the best way they can. The porous border has traditionally been at the center of major smuggling operations and organizations that move drugs and weapon, Most of the profits end up in the hands of tribal leaders and corrupt leaders. Little of it trickles down to the millions of inhabitants, many of whom are poor and illiterate.

Most men have beards and wear turbans or some other kind of headgear. The few women that are outside are cloaked in burqas. The buildings are made of mud brick. The towns smell of dunf , grilled meat, diesel fuel and hashish. The air is often polluted with sticky, black haze from burnt tires used to fire brick kilns.

Pathan Agencies in Tribal Areas of Pakistan

The seven Pathan “agencies” are (from north to south) Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Orakzai, Kurram, North Waziristan and South Waziristan. They are part of the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA). Other Pathan groups such as the Malakand live within the Provincially Administered Tribal Area (PATA) of the North-West Frontier Province.

Each agency is supposed to be administered by an agent appointed by the Pakistani government. In reality, each agent acts as an intermediary between the tribes and the provincial governor and its main duty is to make sure that blood feuds do not spill into territory controlled by the government. North and South Waziristan have been characterized as an Al-Qaida refuge.

Foreigners are not allowed to enter the Tribal Areas for safety reasons. Those who enter need permission from the local governor or tribal leaders and have to be accompanied by a dozen or so gunmen from local militias. Even with an armed escort visitors have been kidnaped for ransom or accused of being spies. No traveling is done after dark. Permits to enter the North-West Frontier Province are given Peshawar and usually denied to those who seek them. If you try to enter the region without a permit the police may arrest you.

The agencies are separate from Pakistan proper by what look like customs post with armed guards and chains across the roads. The region is monitored by the legendary Frontier Corps. Their job is to quell feuding but are unable to take action unless crimes are committed on a major roadway. The rest of the agencies are a sort of no man’s land.

Pashtun Legends and the Lost Tribes of Israel

The origin of the Pashtuns has been tied to the ancient Greeks, Aryans, Persians, Arabs and Jews. According to one Pashtun legend they are descendants of a hundred Chinese women — said to be the most beautiful women in the land — impregnated by a giant. The women met the giant while on their way to Persia to be part of an emperor’s harem. By the time the women reached the harem they were no longer suitable and the emperor kicked them out of his kingdom into Afghanistan where the first Pashtuns were born.

Other Pashtuns believe they descended from a common ancestor named Qais who met the prophet Mohammed in Medina. The Prophet gave Qais the name “P’thin” (Arabic for keel of a ship). Upon returning to the Hindu Kush area he gave birth to many children. One son was named Afghana. He went to Afghanistan to seek his fortune. Afghana had four sons. When they grew up they too left to seek their fortune: the first went to Dir, Swat and Hazara; the second went to Lahore and India; the third headed to Multa; and the fourth went to Quetta.

Others claim the Pashtuns descended Aryans or Jews. According to one legend they descended from Jews belonging to the Lost Tribes of Israel, who disappeared from Babylon captivity in the 6th century B.C. Some Pashtun legends trace the origin of the Pashtun people back to Afghana, a supposed grandson of Israel’s King Saul and a commander of King Solomon’s army not mentioned in Jewish scriptures or the Bible. Under Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century B.C. some of the banished Israeli tribes headed east, settling near Esfahan in Iran, in a city called Yahudia, and later moved to the Afghan region of Hazarajat.

Links with Afghans and the Lost Tribes of Israel first appeared in 1612 in a book in Delhi written by enemies of the Afghans. Historians have said the legend is “great fun” but has no merit or basis in history and is full of inconsistencies. The linguistic evidence of Pashtun origins points to Indo-European ancestry, perhaps Aryans. The Pashtun are likely a heterogenous group with contributions of invaders who have passed through their territory: Persians, Greeks, Hindus, Turks, Mongols, Uzbeks, Sikhs, British and Russians.

Pashtun Tribes

Pashtuns are divided into a number of tribes whose names are almost as famous as the Pashtuns themselves: Wazirs, Mahsud, Khattak, Bangash, Afridi, Mohmand, Sulemankel, Achakzais Yusufzai, Safis, and Shinwaris. Each tribe gets its name from a common ancestor and they in turn claim a link to one the four sons of Afghana.

The Pashtun tribes can be quite different from one another. The Yusufzai from Swat, for example, wear their hair very short, while the Bangash men wear their hair in a shoulder-length bob and bangs. Mahsud men don waist-length “ringlets.”

Immortalized in a Rudyard Kipling poem called "Arithmetic on the Frontier," the Afridis reportedly were such excellent marksmen they were able to shoot down British biplanes with rifles. There is a legend about one Afridi leader whose heart was taken to the British museum in a silk casket. The heart it was said weighed ten pounds. Some say the Afridi descended from soldiers of Alexander the Great’s army.

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: “The Pashtun are divided into about 60 tribes of varying size and importance, each of which occupies a particular territory. In Afghanistan, where Pashtun are the predominant ethnic group, the main tribes are the Durrani or Abdali south of Kabul and the Ghilzay east of Kabul.” [Source: revised by M. Kerr, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

In the hill areas of Pakistan, “the main tribes are, from south to north: the Kakar, Sherani, and Ustarana south of the Gumal River; the Mahsud, Darwsh Khel, Waziri, and Batani, between the Gomal River and Thal; the Turi, Bangash, Orakzay, Afridi, and Shinwari from Thal to the Khyber Pass; and the Mahmand, Uthman Khel, Tarklani, and Yousufzay north and northeast of the Khyber. The settled areas include lowland tribes subject to direct administration by the provincial government. The main tribes there are, from south to north: the Banuchi and Khattak from the Kurram River to Nowshera; and the Khalil and Mandan in the vale of Peshawar. *\

“It is perhaps the power and leadership of individuals that divides the Pashtun not only into tribes but also into numerous sub-tribes, each isolated within its own boundaries. Interference in each other's affairs has caused conflicts among the different sub-tribes throughout history. Yet any external interference — Russian, British, American, etc. — has resulted in immediate unity of Pashtun tribes.” *\

Pashtun History

The Pashtuns have resisted attempts by the Mughals, Afghans, Sikhs, and British to pacify them. The Russians were defeated by the Pashtuns in the Afghanistan war. Almost everyone who came in contact with them, beginning with Alexander the Great, has commented on how fierce they were and what good fighters they were. In the fifth century B.C. Herodotus called them "the most warlike of all." Alexander fought four battles against them in the Swat Valley and suffered high casualty rates. The army of the Mughal Emperor Akbar was decimated at Karakar Pass. [Source: Akbar S. Ahmed with Paul Titus “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1996]

The Pashtuns (Afghans) have periodically expanded out of their traditional homelands and have advanced as far as Delhi. The first historical reference to the Pashtuns (A.D. 982) referred to Afghans living on the Sulaiman Mountains. The Ghazanis, a group of Afghans and Turks, invaded and occupied much of northern India around the year 1000. In the 14th century Afghan kings took control of Delhi. Pashtun Khaljis and later Lodhis ruled there until they were displaced by the Mughals, another group with links to Afghanistan.

Ironically the Pashtuns were able to control India before they controlled their own homeland. That feat was not achieved until 1747 when Ahmed Shah Abdali emerged from Kandahar and patched together an empire that embraced parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Iran. Members of his tribe ruled Afghanistan until 1973.

Anglo-Afghan Wars

Afghanistan served as a buffer zone between British interests in South Asia and Soviet interests in Central Asia. Both the Russians and British also worried about the affect of the unruly tribesmen in Afghanistan on their respective empires. In the end, Afghanistan was allowed to become independent largely because it didn’t seem like it was worth the trouble of conquering.

Dost Mohammad ruled Afghanistan at the beginning of the Great Game period in the 19th century, when Britain and Russia maneuvered against each to gain control of Central Asia. During this period, Afghan rulers were able to maintain virtual independence, although some compromises were necessary. In 1838 , the British defeated the Sikhs and took the Punjab Valley and Peshawar Valley in what is now Pakistan. From there they began making moves into the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs in part to subvert Russian influence in the area. The British wanted to make Afghanistan a buffer state to protect British India from Russian expansion. Afghan wars of 1839-1842, 1878-1880 and 1919 were fomented by British fears of Russian expansion.

The British were convinced the Emir Dost Mohammed Khan of Afghanistan was conspiring with Imperial Russia and launched the war First Anglo-Afghan War to replace him with the compliant Shuja Shah Durrani. This move had Sikh support, in return for the formal cession of Peshawar to the Sikhs by Shuja Shah. Initially successful, the British invasion took a disastrous turn with the Massacre of Elphinstone's Army, which lowered the prestige of the British, and the Bengal Army of the British East India Company in particular. The British finally withdrew from Afghanistan, and from Peshawar which they held as an advance base, in 1842.

In the First Anglo-Afghan War the British deposed Dost Mohammad, but they abandoned their Afghan garrisons. In the following decades, Russian forces approached the northern border of Afghanistan. In 1878 the British invaded and held most of Afghanistan in the Second Anglo-Afghan War. In 1880 Abdur Rahman, a Durrani, began a 21-year reign that saw the balancing of British and Russian interests, the consolidation of the Afghan tribes, and the reorganization of civil administration into what is considered the modern Afghan state. During this period, the British secured the Durand Line (1893), dividing Afghanistan from British colonial territory to the southeast and sowing the seeds of future tensions over the division of the Pashtun tribes. Abdur Rahman’s son Habibullah (ruled 1901–19) continued his father’s administrative reforms and maintained Afghanistan’s neutrality in World War I. [Source: Library of Congress, August 2008]

Pashtuns and the British

The British and Pashtuns fought bitterly in the North-West Frontier. In the late 19th century British carved off the North-West Frontier Province from the Punjab and left it ungoverned, This condition was adopted when Pakistan was created and remains true today.

The first British contact with the Frontier region of the Pashtuns was in 1809. Following the Sikh wars in 1849, the frontier lands came under British control and the British began taking a serious interest in the area during the Great Game era, when Russia began expanding in Central Asia. But it was a difficult place. The historian Robert Wirsing wrote: “Widespread lawlessness and defiance of British authority was the constant complaint of British officialdom at virtually all times.”

Immortalized in a Rudyard Kipling poem called "Arithmetic on the Frontier," the Afridis Pashtuns reportedly were such excellent marksmen they were able to shoot down British biplanes with rifles. There is a legend about one Afridi leader whose heart was taken to the British museum in a silk casket. The heart they say weighed ten pounds. Describing a Pashtun tribe that controlled the Khyber Pass, the British explorer Charles Masson wrote in 1827, "The Kibaris, like other rude Afghan tribes, have their maliks, or chiefs, but the authority of these is very limited, and every individual has a voice in public affairs, it is impossible to describe the confusion that exists among them."

Badsha Khan was a Pashtun leader who promoted Pashtun nationalism. He was an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi and used nonviolent tactics to combat colonial rule. He founded a political movement, known as the Red Shirts. He won a lot of supporters but when the British decided to leave India-Pakistan, a homeland for the Pashtuns was not offered. In a referendum on the choice between a united India or a divided Pakistan and India, only seventy percent of Pashtuns voted. In 1947 the Pashtun voted to join Pakistan but were angry about the border with Afghanistan.

Pashtun fighters fought on the British side in World War I and World War II at places like Gallipoli and Monte Cassino. Pashtuns also formed the majority of fighters who fought against the Soviets in the 1980s and the British in the 19th century. Most Taliban have been Pashtuns.

Pashtuns, the Division Afghanistan and Pakistan and Tribal Areas

The Pashtun homeland is divided into Pakistan and Afghanistan by an artificial boundary drawn by the British in 1893. The border divides Pashtun territory and was is called the Durand line after the British envoy, Sir Mortimer Durand, who drew it. The Pashtuns have never accepted this border. In 1897 they revolted. and 35,000 British troops had to be called into put down the revolt. Over the years the Pashtuns have raised the issue of creating their own state by merging their territories in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The have demanded a plebiscite be called to settle the "Pashtunistan" issue. This issue was raised in Afghanistan in the 1960s.

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”:“After the creation of Pakistan in 1947, the new nation annexed the Pashtun border regions, and a Pashtun independence movement, called the Redshirts, was born. In the early 1950s, Afghanistan supported Pashtun ambitions for the creation of an independent Pushtunistan (also called Pakhtunistan or Pakhtoonistan) in the border areas of West Pakistan. Several border clashes and ruptures of diplomatic relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan ensued. In the early 1970s thousands of armed Pashtuns pressed for increased autonomy within Pakistan, even demanding independence after the secession of Bangladesh (East Pakistan). The Taliban of Afghanistan, and more recently, the so-called Pakistani Taliban are mainly Pashtun-based movements. Many Pakistani Pashtuns no longer live in the regions bordering Afghanistan; there are sizable Pashtun populations in Pakistan's major cities, especially in Karachi. [Source: Akbar S. Ahmed with Paul Titus “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1996]

To facilitate relations with Pashtuns, the British appointed maliks, or minor chiefs. Agreements in which Pashtuns have acceded to an external authority — whether the British or the Pakistani government — have been tenuous. The British resorted to a "divide and conquer" policy of playing various feuding factions against one another. British hegemony was frequently precarious: in 1937 Pashtuns wiped out an entire British brigade. Throughout the 1930s, there were more troops stationed in Waziristan (homeland of the Wazirs, among the most independent of Pashtun tribes) in the southern part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province) than in the rest of the subcontinent. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994]

In tribal areas, where the level of wealth is generally limited, perennial feuding acts as a leveler. The killing, pillaging, and destruction keep any one lineage from amassing too much more than any other. In settled areas, the intensity of feuds has declined, although everyone continues to be loyal to the ideals. Government control only erratically contains violence — depending on whether a given government official has any relationship to the disputants. The proliferation of guns — including clones of Uzis, and Kalashnikovs — has exacerbated much of the violence.

Violence in the Pashtun Areas of Pakistan Since 1996

Raza Wazir wrote in New York Times: “Our troubles began after the Taliban, led by Mullah Muhammad Omar, took over Kabul in 1996. Waziristan became the gateway for thousands of madrasa students who traveled to Afghanistan to join the Taliban. Many young men from madrasas in our area signed up. When they returned home, they set out to replicate the oppressive, puritanical ways of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. In the summer of 2001, my father returned home from Dubai after seven years. He set up a shop in the Mir Ali bazaar, buying and selling automobile tires. He spoke wistfully of the doctors and engineers he had met in Dubai. He hoped I would study to be a doctor. [Source: Raza Wazir, New York Times, March 9, 2018]

“A few months later, the September 11 attacks and the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan changed everything. Arab and Central Asian militants on the run from Afghanistan sought refuge in Waziristan. In the summer of 2002, the Pakistani military started operations against the militants. Anger over these operations radicalized young men in the area, who flocked to join militant groups. A decade of pitiless violence followed. The militants attacked military posts and passing convoys, and planted bombs on roads. The military retaliated with aerial bombings and artillery fire. New cemeteries were opened across the region. Coffin stores did brisk business. Civilians were disappeared and killed by both the militants and the military.

“President Barack Obama increased the number of American troops in Afghanistan in December 2009, and intensified the drone strikes on Qaeda and Taliban fighters in South and North Waziristan. Researchers at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London estimated that American drone strikes in Pakistan from 2009 to 2015 killed 256 to 633 civilians and 1,822 to 2,761 militants.

“I witnessed my first drone strike when I was home for summer holidays in 2009. One night I was sleeping on a cot under the starlit sky, when a fierce explosion woke me up. I tried to collect myself. My uncle shouted: “Drone! A drone attack!” Two more explosions followed. My uncle led me to the village square where people had gathered. Villagers had seen a ball of light and fire rise from the house hit by the missile fired from the drone. Normally, we would rush there to help. Yet fear of another drone strike kept us from making the short journey, from picking up the remains of the dead and transporting the injured to a hospital. I saw the corpses of three militants in the morning when the funeral was held. The missile had shredded their bodies. I couldn’t sleep for days.

“My father continued running his shop in Mir Ali. He had switched from selling tires to being an ironsmith. One night in December 2013 I was watching the television news at my university and saw a report about Pakistani planes bombing the market in Mir Ali. Fortunately, my father was not at the store at the time of the airstrikes. The next morning, my family packed up and joined a caravan of people seeking safety in Dera Ismail Khan, a city about 180 miles south of Peshawar. Six months later, in June 2014, came the military operations against the militants in the tribal areas that resulted in the displacement of more than a million men, women and children. People fled their homes with only what they could carry in their hands. Most of them found refuge in the neighboring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.”

Impact of the Violence in the Pashtun Areas

After the 2014 offensive, Raza Wazir wrote in New York Times: “I visited Bannu, the town closest to the tribal areas. Families displaced from villages in Waziristan filled the road leading into town. Carcasses of cows, goats and sheep, which had died of thirst in the punishing heat, were rotting by the highway. Malaria and other diseases spread in the camps for the displaced outside the town because of open sewers and mosquitoes. Most of the displaced lived in those difficult conditions for two to three years. [Source: Raza Wazir, New York Times, March 9, 2018]

“Three years passed before I could return home. Last March, at a refugee camp in Bannu, I was able to get my Watan Card, which allowed me to travel to Waziristan. While waiting for my card to be issued to me at a military checkpoint, I met an old man from my area. “Waziristan is like a garden hit by a hailstorm,” he said. “Everything valuable had been destroyed.” We boarded a military pickup truck going to Mir Ali. Along the way were the remains of the years of fighting: burned-out mud huts, houses disfigured by bullets and artillery fire.

“About half an hour later, we entered a vast flattened area strewn with debris. It was the town of Mir Ali. The grocery stores, vegetable and tea stalls and bookshops I had grown up with were dust. I spotted the plot where my father’s shop once stood. Workers were carrying away the rubble. Bricks, iron rods, broken furniture and my memories were being carried off in a truck, to be resold in a nearby town. Every signpost of my personal geography had been destroyed.

“It was already dusk when I reached my home in Khushaly, about five miles from the town. A family whose house had been destroyed in aerial bombing was camping out there. After his shop was destroyed, my father had decided not to return. I stayed with relatives and heard tales of horror and suffering. The absence of hope marked our conversations.

Killing of Young Pashtun Sets Off Anti-Government Protests

Raza Wazir wrote in New York Times: On January 13, the police in Karachi, Pakistan, claimed to have killed four militants suspected of having links to the Islamic State. Rao Anwar, the officer leading the operation, said that the men had opened fire on the police and were killed in the gunfight. Pictures of the dead circulated on social media and were broadcast on Pakistani television networks. Family members watching television news recognized one of the dead: Naqeebullah Mehsud, 27, from Waziristan, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the border with Afghanistan. He had been arrested by the police 10 days earlier. [Source: Raza Wazir, New York Times, March 9, 2018]

“Mr. Mehsud, who is survived by his wife, a son and two daughters, had worked various jobs in the city and recently decided to set up a clothing store with help from his brother. He was also an aspiring fashion model, posing rakishly in bright clothes and sporting a manicured beard in photographs on his Facebook page. He wasn’t very different from me: a young Pashtun man who had escaped the pitiless war consuming our home in Waziristan, a poor, isolated place that became an epicenter of the so-called war on terrorism and would be referred to as “the most dangerous place in the world.” Mr. Mehsud, like me, was trying to build a life in a Pakistani city far from home. Doing that requires acts of will and hope despite an awareness of a history of neglect, prejudice and violence that the people of the tribal areas share with Pakistan.

“The murder of Mr. Mehsud became the tipping point that compelled young Pashtuns to gather in Islamabad by the tens of thousands to raise our long-suppressed voices, to express the accumulation of pain and frustration over the past 16 years of war.... I set out from Lahore in a bus to join them. On the ride, I thought of the personal and political history that had shaped our lives, brought us to the moment when thousands of Pashtuns were gathering in an unprecedented protest to say treat us with dignity and as equal citizens.

“The protesters chanted the refrain of a song about our status as unequal citizens in the independent Islamic Republic of Pakistan: “What sort of independence is this? What sort of independence is this?” I saw a sea of students, lawyers, professors and doctors. Young and old, men and women. We shared stories of oppression, abuse and injustice. All of us had lost a friend or a relative in the unending war. Arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas, multiple displacements, the loss of homes and livelihoods, the maiming and killing of children by the land mines planted during the military operations had all fueled despair and anger.

“A woman from Swat district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa spoke about how her two sons had vanished in Karachi after being arrested by policemen led by Rao Anwar — the officer involved in the death of Mr. Mehsud. She had lost her eyesight since then but continued looking for them, beseeching the Pakistani authorities for help. “I won’t be able to see them now,” she said. “But I would recognize the smell of my sons.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (, Official Gateway to the Government of Pakistan (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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