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The Geo Interview with Mr. Tilak Devasher

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

In today's episode of Geointerview hosted in collaboration with the Indian National Students Association UK, we have the privilege of having with us, Mr.Tilak Devasher. Mr. Devasher is a member of the National Security Advisory Board and an acclaimed author of a wide range of books focusing on the Pakistan and Afghanistan region.


Mr. Devasher,  member of National Security Advisory Board and an acclaimed author of a wide range of books focusing on the Pakistan and Afghanistan region.

Image Graphics by Team Geostrata


Nikhitha: Welcome viewers. In today's episode of Geointerview hosted in collaboration with the Indian National Students Association UK, we have the privilege of having with us, Mr. Tilak Devasher. Mr. Devasher is a member of the National Security Advisory Board and an acclaimed author of a wide range of books focusing on the Pakistan and Afghanistan region. His recent book, The Pashtuns; A Contested History is a meticulous account of the Pashtun community. On behalf of the Geotrata. I welcome you, sir. It is indeed an honour and privilege to have you here with us.


Mr. Tilak Devasher: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. A pleasure to be here.


Nikhitha: Sir, your book is a comprehensive take on the Pashtun community, whom you have rightly pointed out as the ‘world’s largest ethnic group without a country of their own”. There is a critical lack of academic scholarship about the Pashtun community which your book has attempted to bridge at a time when people mistake Pashtuns for Afghan Muslims, without realising that the origin of the Pashtuns is even older than the advent of Islam itself.


Sir, could you enlighten our audience about the origin of Pashtuns and how various political events have shaped Pashtun culture? Additionally, could you tell us about what was your motivation and objective behind writing a book on the Pashtun community?


Mr. Tilak Devasher: Okay, so you've asked several questions. I will try and answer them one by one. So first, let me tell you a little bit about my book. You know, The Pashtuns- A Contested History is my fourth book, in which I talk about the Pashtun ethnic identity that straddles Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The book is not about Afghanistan or Pakistan, but it is about the Pashtuns; it is their story.

Now in the book, I seek answers to questions like- who are the Pashtuns, where did they come from, what are their religious, cultural and social beliefs, what is Pashtunwali(the way of the Pashtun), what is the relationship between Pashtunwali and Islam? It then goes on to talk about the contact with the British and with the Pashtuns, The Durand Line, and the politics of partition and it talks about the post-partition Pashtun politics in Pakistan.


And in Afghanistan, it talks about events like the Saur Revolution, the Soviet intervention, the Mujahideen, the Civil War, the rise to power of the Taliban in the 1990s, and then it talks about the US intervention in 2001, the Taliban resurgence etc. It talks about the rise of Al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State, and the dubious role that Pakistan has played in all these events.


Now, coming to why did I write the book; the simple fact is that the Pashtuns matter, and they matter vitally; understanding the key trends among the Pashtuns, their history, and especially of Pashtun forces- Pashtun nationalism and Pashtun extremism, and a potential combination is very important to understand the peace and stability in this area. You know, the lack of understanding of these issues of these forces has had devastating consequences in the region. Because if there is violence and instability and insecurity in this region, it will radiate outward and will lead to a further resurgence of refugees, drugs, and terrorism. So this is a crucial area.


I thought this is a problem, that I must study this area and understand for myself, and also project to people what exactly this area is about. And this is also the reason why I've written about the people rather than the countries. This is the land of the Pashtuns or the Pashtunistan spreads about 100,000 square miles from the Indus right up to the Hindukush.


These areas had a common government from 1747 to 1837, with the Sikh empire under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, capturing an area from the Indus to the Khyber; this was inherited by the British, and they passed it on to Pakistan. As a result,

the Pashtuns today are divided as a result of the Durand Line between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and as you mentioned, despite being the largest Muslim tribal population in the world, without a country of their own.

Despite this division, there are a lot of commonalities among the Pashtuns on both sides. There is a common religion and common belief of dissent about how to keep their Pashtunwali, common ethnic, linguistic, cultural and familial bonds. So all this makes it easy to see them as one group, one continuity, inhabiting a single piece of real estate distinct from their neighbours.


Moreover, the present division of the Pashtuns is only a, you know, one division in the long history of the

Pashtuns and the fact that the Pashtuns are one nation is best expressed by the Pashto phrase ‘Lar O Bar, Yaw Afghan’ that means as low as the lowlands of Pakistan and as high as the highlands of Afghanistan, are one nation.

Therefore, I decided to study the people, rather than the countries themselves, going beyond the traditional IR practices.


Now coming to the issue of origins, there is no unanimity amongst scholars, on who the Pashtuns are or where they came from. Theories vary from the Semitic origins of the Pashtuns, the lost tribes of Israel to an Indo-Aryan background. While these stories will continue to debate this, attempts have been made to codify Pashtun genealogies.


And the most famous of these goes by the name Makhzan-i-Afghani, written by Ni'mat Allah al-Harawin in India; he was commissioned by Jahangir in 1630. As for these genealogies, Pashtuns claim descent from a common ancestor Qais Abdur Rashid, who in 622 went to Medina and met the Prophet and was converted to Islam.


And when he came back, he spread the faith; this is an article of conviction amongst the Pashtuns, who trace the beginning of the lineage from the conversion to Islam, forgetting all the history before that, therefore, there is no mention of the Hindu Shahi Kingdom of Kabul or the Buddhist kingdoms of Bamiyan.


So that's where the origins come. Now, he's had four sons, three biological and one adopted. And the Pashtun tribes trace their lineage to these four things. So that's about the book, why I wrote it, about the origins.


Nikhitha: Absolutely, sir, I believe your book has done complete justice to the task of providing a comprehensive account of the Pashtuns. So adding on to that you mentioned the Durand Line and the controversy surrounding it. So the Durand Line Agreement of 1893 has not been recognised by successive governments in Afghanistan, including the present Taliban regime.


So the legitimacy of the Durand Line as the de facto border between Pakistan and Afghanistan remains a major bone of contention. So as this is a topic you have discussed in length in your book, could you share your insights on the Durand Line conundrum and how the controversy played a role in shaping and solidifying unified Pashtun identity?


Mr. Tilak Devasher: The 1893 Durand Line Agreement was signed by Amir Abdur Rahman and Mortimer Durand, the foreign secretary of British India at that time. It demarcated the spheres of influence, something which was there during the colonial time. It was not a transfer of sovereignty from Amir Abdur Rahman to the British. Now all communications and letters and statements, during the British time right up to 1947 accepted the fact this was a sphere of influence.


After the creation of Pakistan, the British felt for their own strategic interests that Pakistan needs to be strengthened because they wanted to use Pakistan against the Soviet Union. So the British by a swipe of the hand, suddenly changed spheres of influence into the international border. But no Afghan government has accepted this. Neither did the Musahiban dynasty.


Neither did the communists, nor did the Mujahideen, nor did Karzai or Ghani, nor the Taliban in the 1990s, and even the Taliban today do not accept this. And the reason for this is that in 1949, there was a loya jirga that Afghanistan had held, and they rescinded all treaties with Pakistan and British India.


Therefore for them, there is no border. Interestingly, the last treaty that was signed between Afghanistan and British India was the 1921 Indo-Afghan border and as per that, the treaty was valid for three years and one year after that, any of the two sides would break the treaty, no questions asked. So in effect, in 1949, the Afghanistan side rescinded all treaties with Pakistan. Therefore for them, there is no border as such.


The other controversial aspect of the Durand Line is that the Amir signed the English version of the treaty and he didn't know a word of English. The second issue was whether the treaty was signed in perpetuity. If it was signed in perpetuity, then it should have been mentioned in the treaty that this is signed in perpetuity. In any case, the 1921 treaty that I talked about, was a limited treaty for just three years.


So how could a treaty which is in existence for three years be used to justify a treaty in perpetuity? So I think there's a lot to be said on the Afghan side. But at the same time, while

the Durand Line did divide the Pashtuns on both sides of the border, the fact remains that Pashtun nationalism in Afghanistan and Pashtun nationalism in Pakistan arise out of a single Pashtun tribalism. That tribalism continues.

So there's a lot of commonality between the Pashtuns on both sides, which the Durand Line trying to divide the Pashtuns has not succeeded.


Nikhitha: Thank you, Sir. It was intriguing to know about the complex history behind the Durand Line. Now from there moving on to Pakistan, the security situation in Pakistan is facing serious threats from the TTP as you can see and as can be seen from the fact that there have over been 100 attacks that have taken place in recent times. So Sir, how can we interpret this in the broader geopolitical context of the Pakistan-Afghanistan region?


Mr. Tilak Devasher: You see when the Taliban took over Kabul in August 2021, there was a lot of jubilation and euphoria in Pakistan. They felt that they had achieved their strategic objective. Because for the last 20 years, conventional wisdom in Pakistan was that the Taliban in Kabul would secure a lot of the security interests of Pakistan.


The three main ones were the Taliban could push out India from Afghanistan, second, they would recognize the Durand line, and third, a Taliban takeover would reduce the activities of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. Now one and a half years later, the euphoria and the jubilation have vanished. The mood is very grim and Pakistan's security has actually been compromised because none of the objectives was met. First of all, India is back in Kabul at the invitation of the Taliban who want us to continue with the infrastructure projects that we were building.


The Taliban have refused to recognize the Durand Line because they say it is an unresolved issue. They even broke the fence in several parts and they're not going to recognize the Durand Line. And third, they refused to act against the TTP. At best, they have said they will facilitate negotiations between Pakistan and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan.


And the reason is that the links between the Taliban and the TTP are very strong and very deep. You see, what people don't realize is that when the Taliban were pushed out of Afghanistan in 2001, they took shelter and sanctuary in the tribal areas and the tribesmen who gave them shelter and sanctuary and fought with them against the US, are today grouped under the TTP.


So today, when the TTP requires shelter and sanctuary in Afghanistan, the Taliban are bound to give it to them under the norms of the Pashtunwali, for they will never act against them. But they facilitated peace talks. The peace talks, as you know, have broken down. The ceasefire has broken down and because the TTP has been strengthened due to the sanctuaries they have in Afghanistan, they have launched a series of very severe attacks. An example is the one in Peshawar in the mosque where over 100 policemen died. They have attacked Punjab.


They've attacked Islamabad, They've attacked Baluchistan. So this is a major problem. This is the euphoria that Pakistan felt has been totally demolished. And for Pakistan is a very serious problem. In fact, the problem that Pakistan faces is for both. On the one hand, the Taliban have refused to recognize the Durand Line, which means that they are challenging the territorial integrity of Pakistan.


On the other hand, the TTP wants the demerger of the former federally administered tribal areas with and they want to have their own system of administration in that area. So they are challenging Pakistan also territorially. So Pakistan is faced with this Pashtun pincer from Afghanistan and from Pakistan. And if they don't handle it imaginative, you know this could lead to a potentially wider and larger Pashtun territorial movement, which will be really problematic for Pakistan.


So I think that the Borderlands, the western Borderlands of Pakistan, are now really so disturbed that it will be very difficult for Pakistan to get control over them. See the options that Pakistan has. One is to launch attacks inside Afghanistan, at the camps of the TTP. If they do that, then the Taliban will enter into the picture and it lead to a surge of terrorism in Pakistan.


The second option is to talk to the TTP. The talks have failed and the TTP has used the talks to consolidate themselves. And the third option is to attack the TTP inside Pakistan. But if they do that, as the TTP continues to have bases in Afghanistan, the operations will not be successful. So Pakistan is really floundering on how to best deal with this TTP.


Nikhitha: Yes, Sir, absolutely. It remains to be seen how Pakistan will deal with the question of the Taliban and TTP. So adding on to that, since you have worked extensively on the topic of Pakistan. Sir, in your book titled ‘Pakistan: Courting the Abyss’, you had rather presciently remarked about the pernicious challenges that are afflicting Pakistan. For example, the looming water crisis, the perilous state of education and the economic meltdown which has come into a reality today.


If we look at Pakistan coupled with political instability, so can you say that the quest for national security and a preoccupation with India by Pakistan's highest circles has eroded human security in the country? And, Sir, do you believe that Pakistan's current predicament will compel it to kind of reorient its foreign policy?


Tilak Devasher: I'm not sure about that. But let me just mention, since you mentioned my first book, I had posed a very fundamental question in that book. I had asked, is Pakistan ungovernable or have its leaders failed to govern Pakistan? I mentioned there the jury is still out. I had posed this question in 2016.


Today, in 2023, it is a far more critical question to answer; Is Pakistan ungovernable or the leadership has failed?

I think the fact, as you asked in your question, because Pakistan has been obsessed with India, has been obsessed with military security, has been obsessed with trying to get military parity with India, that it has forgotten the real sinews of power which are its people, which is education, which is health, which is population, the demographic profile, which is water.


They have neglected these to such an extent that, for example, 50% of the school-going children do not attend primary schools and those that do have a massive dropouts rate of about 50 to 60%. So how many fewer kids go to secondary schools and even fewer go higher. And very few actually go to universities.


So in today's globalised and technological world, how can Pakistan even compete? You know, at best they can do low-level jobs when the economy's also not growing. I had at that time said that if the economy grows at about, 5% or so, it can provide jobs to about 800,000 to a billion people. Today, it's 3 million people entering the labour force every year.; year after year for the next 40 years. How is Pakistan going to provide jobs for them?


They can't because the economy is not growing and they're not, technologically educated enough to take on high-end jobs. There is a huge water crisis and it is predicted that by the next three years, by 2025, Pakistan will be a water-scarce country, which means that the annual per capita availability of water would decline to 500 cubic metres. Now, there is drought-like conditions in parts of the country.


No attention has been paid to this. Likewise, the demographic profile, Pakistan has an extremely young population, but the so-called demographic dividend, they cannot reap because the ecology is not doing it because people are not technologically educated.

So these problems, the military leadership and the civil leadership has ignored in their futile quest for competing with India, for getting parity with India.

Had they reoriented their foreign policy, had established trade relations or better relations with India, they would've had surplus money to invest in these issues today, which they don't have.


So today you'll find the economy is in the doldrums. They're depending on foreign bailouts. And even if they get these foreign bailouts, they will last for four to six months. In four to six months they'll be back with the IMF, they'll be back to Saudi Arabia, China, the UAE, and begging for more funds. So they have really, you know the leadership has failed Pakistan, very, very badly failed the people of Pakistan.


So, yes, I hope even now better sense will prevail though I'm very sceptical that it'll, you know, the politicians who are so busy fighting with each other. And something that I had not anticipated at that time is a serious judicial crisis. The judges of the Supreme Court of Pakistan are now fighting with each other.


They can't come together. You know, the 15, 16 of them can't come together. How do you expect politicians and others to come together? So there's massive polarisation and people are not willing to sit in the same room and talk about the serious issues that Pakistan is facing.


Nikhitha Nelson: Yes, sir. It is often the case that a preoccupation with national security and militarism often translates into less attention paid to, like human security indicators.

Yeah. So moving on from there, Indo-Pak relations in recent times have been characterised by minimal ties, which is rather dominant in terms of bilateral and diplomatic relations. Sir, do you think this minimal state of affairs between India and Pakistan is in the interest of both nations and where do you see this relationship headed towards?


Mr. Tilak Devasher: See,

the fact of the matter is that today the Shehbaz Sharif government is surrounded by so many problems that they are not going to invest any political capital in Indo-Pak relations. Because if they do, they will lay themselves open to charge by Imran Khan of having a sellout in Kashmir, that's number one.

Number two, Imran Khan when he was Prime Minister, shut the doors for any kind of dialogue with India after the fifth of August 2019, he laid on Pakistan's policy that there will be no dialogue, there'll be no trade with India until India reverses those changes. So that's not gonna happen. Those changes are not gonna be reversed.


So Shehbaz Sharif has got no room to open a dialogue with India. Now, from the Indian side, it makes no difference to us. You know, trade and economic, relations with Pakistan make no difference to us because our exports are booming without the trade With Pakistan, it is Pakistan that needs economic, relationship and trade with India because you compare the price of commodities in Pakistan, you, commodities in India, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, wheat, everything is less than 50% or even more, in India.


So it doesn't make a difference to India and unless Pakistan walks back on the policy laid down by Imran Khan, there is no way India is going to, you know, unilaterally engage in a dialogue or anything like that. So as far as we are concerned, you know, we have moved on; for us, Pakistan is almost like in the rearview mirror.


It's up to Pakistan to sort of walk the talk and walk and you know, try and make it. And then, the other thing was the way Imran Khan bad-mouthed our prime minister, the kind of horrendous language that he used again, made any kind of a civilised dialogue. Impossible. And now you had Bilawal Bhutto who also said some horrible things about the Prime Minister when he was in the United States.


That makes good optics, and good sound bites domestically, but internationally if you are a foreign minister, if you're a Prime Minister, you cannot say these things and then expect or hope that you can hold a dialogue with top political views.


Nikhitha: Yes, sir. It would be interesting to see where the evolution of India-Pakistan relations would go today. You had extensive experience working in Jammu and Kashmir and abroad with a specialisation in security issues. So how has your career sort of influenced your research interests in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region specifically, and what insights have you gained during your professional career that has influenced your work as an author?


Mr. Tilak Devasher: To be honest, during my service career, I didn't think that I'd be writing; although I worked on Pakistan while in my service career. So, my interest in writing and studying about Pakistan started after I superannuated. So I superannuated in October 2014. And it was after that that I started reading and researching about Pakistan.


So nothing in my professional career except for a broad understanding of leadership in Pakistan and so on. So all my research, all my work, and all my understanding of Pakistan have, been after I superannuated.


So I've read more on Pakistan, you know, in fact, I've read everything on Pakistan after I superannuated. I didn't think I would be writing when service is so busy handling, you know, day-to-day work, you don't think about what will happen next.


Also, my father was in the Indian Air Force and two of his flight commanders in the Royal Indian Air Force were people who subsequently joined the Pakistan Air Force and became their chiefs. So he used to tell us stories about them. So, my interest in Pakistan started from a very early age.


Then in school, in college, and in university, I studied the partition. I studied the history of the freedom struggle. I just became interested in Pakistan, the wars of 1965 and 1971, and one question, which would always bother me during college and even through my career.


The two countries that were joined together or were separated in 1947, how have they developed so differently? Why is Pakistan such a violent country? Why is it a terrorist state almost? Why is it becoming a failing state? Why has India developed? So that also got me interested as an intellectual pursuit to talk about, to study about, but all my research, everything started after I started.


Nikhitha: That's very interesting, sir. But today you have become an authority in Pakistan studies. Thank you so much for, giving us your time and sharing your rich insights on a wide range of topics ranging from Pashtuns from the Pakistan- Afghanistan conundrum and even the domestic situations in Afghanistan and in Indo-Pak relations in general. I'm sure our audience tends to gain a lot from your, uh, from your rich, uh, insights and your books. Thank you so much for joining us and for providing us with your insights.


Mr Tilak Devasher: Thank you for inviting me, and it was nice having a conversation with you and I wish your organisation all the very best for the future.

Especially I like talking to younger people, you know, to share whatever little I know. So I hope your audience response provides some topics which will help me in the future. Thank you so much.


Nikitha Nelson: Thank you, sir.




Watch the entire interview on the Geostrata's YouTube page


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BY NIKHITA NELSON

IN CONVERSATION WITH MR. TILAK DEVASHER, A MEMBER OF THE NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISORY BOARD AND AN ACCLAIMED AUTHOR OF A WIDE RANGE OF BOOKS FOCUSING ON THE PAKISTAN AND AFGHANISTAN REGION.


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