Conflicts in South Asia: An interdisciplinary Approach to Conflict-ridden Pakhtun Society as a case study

Authors: Irfan Khan

Conflicts in South Asia: An interdisciplinary Approach to Conflict-ridden Pakhtun Society as a case study


Conflicts that the South Asian states are facing today stem from their complex internal dynamics with external factors impacting, exasperating and garbling the situation. The study holds that existing scholarship on conflict in Pashtun society lacks certain basic premises. These premises originating in International Relations theories nullify the whole trajectory of the existing scholarship on conflicts in Pakhtun society on logical grounds provided by Browne, Wallerstein, Jonathan Goodhand. Their theories of IR cast the conflicts in Pakhtun society in new lights that existing scholarship has failed to grasp. It plays the traditional way, which informs the major bulk of its current research in Pakhtun society, in the age of Critical Theory. The way globalisation, hegemony, and causes for the perpetuation of conflicts are held by these unheard voices in existing scholarship on conflicts in Pakhtun society allows us to break away with a circular motion in finding resolutions to these conflicts. These writers are discussed in this paper as a foil to existing scholarship on Pakhtun society to make the case for the need of a paradigm shift in our perceptions of these conflicts. Browne, Wallerstein, and Jonathan Goodhand are the most prominent links that provide this justification. It sets a new angle on conflicts in South Asia. Qualitative, Inductive, exploratory and interpretive method of research has been adopted to lay bare the many dynamics of these conflicts and to look for possible lines of actions to be able to avoid these pitfalls in the future.

Keywords:  Ethnic Conflict, FATA, Pakhtun Society, Geostrategic, Global Powers


Utmost hitches the South Asian states are facing today stem from their complex internal dynamics with external factors impacting, frustrating and distorting the situation. South Asia has witnessed some very serious inter and intra-state conflicts causing political and economic environment negatively. The region remains at the mercy of international powers politics disturbing domestic and external policies. It becomes a classic case of Realist paradigm of International Relations where states are seen aligning themselves according to their own national interests. While the reality is the national interests of super powers who have used secondary, security states as mere pawns in securing victory against a perceived enemy that they themselves have created (Dahl, Gazdar, Keethaponcalan & Murth, 2003).

Pakistani scholarship focused on the Tribal regions of Pakistan has conspicuously missed this point. The Point which is the line of thought that Duffield is coming from holds empire responsible for most of these conflicts. Is it not ironic that in Pakistan we ask for mediation from those who have created the problems in the first place? The point is that aid/development is 'handed out' by the same roots that give us conflicts as well. This connection is fundamental to understanding the layers of different conflicts that have come on one table against Pushtoon nation who is paying the human cost of these multifaceted conflicts in its heartland: Federally Administered Tribal Areas or FATA.

Federal Administration Tribal Area (FATA) has been historically the site of what has been euphemistically called the Great Games. Successive imperial powers have used it as their launching pad for expeditions in the Afghan hinterland. In other words, it has at the core of conflicts in the wider South Asian region under one pretext or the other. British Imperialists used it to contain a buffer between its Indian territories and the expanding Russian empire. United States has used it to fight its war of revenge against an infidel Russia. They sowed the seeds of using religion as a foil to the godless Russians. The chickens of that flawed experiment have come to roost in the shape of religious extremism which today feeds conflicts in FATA and beyond.

FATA has primarily approximately 5 million Pakhtun inhabitants, which comprise about 2.27 percent of Pakistan’s total population as per Government 2017 census (Govt of Pakistan Population statistics, 2017).Geographically FATA is divided into three authorities:  remote areas, administered areas and protected areas. FATA is ruled under 1901 Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), hence permit the local tribes to settle their disputes via the traditional Jirga system instead of formal judicial courts.

Great twentieth century powers i.e., USA and USSR, have played their ideological battles less on the strength of their ideologies and more like political Islamist today on the strength of their military muscle. This was the introduction of violence whose negative vibes and tremors can still be felt across global cultures. Violence in pursuits of national interests, depleting natural resources, the required fuel to forge ahead of competing notions, has been adopted as a legitimate tool that can momentarily yield dazzling successes. Historically, the most troublesome areas exist where tribal societies, especially those with deeply entrenched tribal customs, live outside or resist the state’s rule of law. Pakistan’s tribal areas have been subject to many empires, “perhaps more invasions in the course of history than any other country in Asia, or indeed the world” (Caroe, 1958).

Pakistan’s history is also marked by the presence of various sorts of violent conflicts. These may be classified as sectarian, ethnic, religious or nationalistic insurgencies. During the past one decade or so however—particularly after Pakistan became a key ally of the United States of America in its ‘War on Terror’—the incidence of violent conflict in Pakistan has reached serious proportions, not witnessed earlier in its entire history. The death toll from violent conflict that includes sectarian violence and terrorism has been on an upward trend for the past couple of years the victims were Pakhtun comprises the largest ethnic groups in the world with an estimated 25 million (CIA World Factbook, 2016).

Statement of Problem  

Contemporary theories of conflict resolution in International Relations suffer from some kind of flaw otherwise how they can fail to resolve conflicts. These theories have been put through their paces in the case study of Pakhtun society with the premise of understanding the causes of this conflict. They have been found wanting on a number of counts giving rise to the problem under discussion. If, it is supposed, conflicts resolution theories suffer from some kind of a fundamental flaw, then how do resolve conflict in Pakhtun society?

Realist paradigm, for instance, provides the hegemonic structure, to use a Gramscian term, to Empire's hiding behind flawed narratives that are fed through the attendant hegemonic Capitalist structure of globalisation. Realism, as construed by International Relations theorists, has come under severe strain recently (Duffield, 2010; Chomasky, 2006). They have shown how this realist paradigm, in its various guises, favours the interests of the insured lives only. It does not, therefore, resolve conflicts because in itself it is handmaiden of the perpetrators of these same conflicts. If this the case, how can a case for the Pakhtun society be made which is also, in turn, the case for Pakistan's future as well.

All this theoretical wrangling in International Relations, with realist paradigm as its central axis, gives rise to the many problems that Pakistani indigenous scholarship on conflict resolution seems to be facing. It is based in a structure which clashes directly with its own social dynamics. This creates tremendous confusion for an ordinary student of conflict resolution in Pakistan and South Asia. This confusion has been studied in this research for a clearer understanding of our theoretical oversights in conflict resolution studies in IR departments in Pakistan, which produces the bulk of our research on our regional conflicts.

Literature Review

Literature that exclusively focuses on the Af-Pak region makes certain interesting observations that betray a severe lack of understanding, linking and making sense of the conflict in the region.

Perspectives of various scholars have advanced our understanding of conflicts in Pakhtun society from informed positions, however there are missing links in the literature reviewed. This research is seeking to explore the conflict in Pakhtun society from alternative perspectives as presented by Brown (1997), Gramsci (1971) and Goodhand's (2010), for instance, who maintained that the root causes of conflicts are located in the proximate or elite triggered causes, in shadow economies that feed on conflicts and hegemonic tendencies. This focus on elite triggered causes, for instance, is clearly missing from current scholarship. One of the causes for the perpetuation of conflicts identified by Brown is 'bad leadership'. None of the scholarship reviewed has taken issues with this proximate cause of conflict simply because leadership has continuously seen being subject to an Imperial, hegemonic discourse; in a world whose order has been shown by Wallerstein (1980). This has led to shadow economies, with deep roots in Capitalism, to thrive in conflicts.

Kamp (2008), for instance, observes that the causes of present day militancy and extremism in Pakistan go back to the 1970’s when General Zia UlHaq overthrew Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Butto. He further notes that the ensuing Islamization process that was set in motion by the military dictator put Pakistan on a trajectory whose extreme point has manifested itself in Talibanization. On a cursory reading this could not be justified given the one dimension aspect of the construction of the said argument. It does not, for instance, reveals the whole truth behind Zia’s purported Islamisation process. Was Zia not installed by the US? Was this drive for Islamisation not to be used to garner support for fight against “the godless” communist USSR in continuation of cold war’s global political posturing (Kemp, 2008).

Malik (2011), On the other hand, has dilated on the possible causes of the conflict calling it ‘a complex phenomenon’. The factors given to perpetrate violence are:

“As a matter of fact, conflict is a complex phenomenon and the root causes may relate to multiple factors that may include grievances of the perpetrators of violence; ideological hegemony of a particular group of population; political exclusion; socio-economic inequality; lack of social justice; and poor governance including the weak capacity of institutions responsible for maintaining law and order” (Sadia, 2011).

Collier and Anke (2004) contend that both ‘greed’ and ‘grievance’ perpetuate conflict. Greed, according to them, is one of the factors that have been traditionally used by successive administrators to perpetuate the status quo. This has been seen to be money making opportunity in a rugged terrain. This has led to the formation of ‘shadow economy’ on the one hand and the survival of outlawed outfits on other. In other words, this incentive based resolution of deep set grievances has led to further deterioration of the conflict in the region. Collier’s ‘grievance’ hypothesis, on the other hand, holds ground in that they base their conclusion on the failure of political structures in the region to solve or resolve conflicts.

Francis (2002) highlights similar grievances as the factors that lead to the total breakdown of the structures in a social setup that comes closer to Jonathan’s (2010)who pointed out that “the view that war is primarily about ‘greed’ rather than ‘grievance’ is simplistic”. What these factors clearly elaborate is that an unjust capitalist system whose theoretical underpinnings are provided by ‘Liberal technologies of power’ (Duffield, 2010), would continue to hold societies, especially ‘the uninsured’ one hostage.

Abbass (2007) debates the myth of religion as a main factor in the current violence engulfing FATA. Abbas’s insight support Duffield’s and Collier’s views that beside religion these are very other factors i.e. the posturing of the world powers that have led to an eruption of violence in Pakhtun society on an unprecedented scale. Abbas’s research highlights this important strand in our conceptions of region as a hotbed of perpetual conflicts. He has convincingly shown that the majority of people and jihadis were drawn from ‘the mainstream Pakistani society’ and not, as is popularly perceived, from religious seminaries or Madrassa.

Shiwari (2008) continues in the same vein and highlights the economic backwardness of FATA as a contributing factor to the violence emanating from the region. His advocacy of finding “local” solutions to the impasse rings true given the current trajectory of knowledge in the West which suspects grand narratives and supports local solutions to the existential problematic.

Midgal (1987) holds the view that the breakdown of the structures of laws – ‘laws as power’- lead to both sides to the conflicts looking for ways to maintain a semblance of authority. In this context of FATA, Pakistan administrators have continuously failed to undo the unjust structure of FCR of an imperial hegemon. This failure has led to animosity between FATA and all successive governments because FATA has continuously challenged the legitimacy of an imperial mind set. This friction has led to the grievances nurtured by state’s perpetuation of the said law.

Rosen (1978) further leads credence to this failure of the state to undo structures of oppression by noting succinctly that any attempt to supplement tribal customary laws with those laws imposed from the top with no local connections would continue to be faced with violent hostility. With the documented absence of the absence of any kind of resort to political redress FATA has erupted in ‘unprecedented violence’ whose echos are continued to be felt in Pakhtun Society.

Easterly and Levine (1997) further added that “Ethnic and religious fractionalization as well as ‘polarization’ has also been found to contribute to violent conflict”, especially in Pakhtun society within the tribes or between tribes the ethnic and religious base fractionalization has served the violence and prolongation of conflict.

This study is dedicated to researching, from a new theoretical Perspectives i-e from Brown (1997) and Gramsci (1971) perspective, to explore the factors that has caused and perpetuating the conflict in Pakhtun Society. Where do we see the crux of the problem? Is it between the indigenous population rights vs State dictatorship or is it all about the Great Game designs and the actions of conflict actors for their hegemony or Is it the deliberate actions and decisions of Bad Leaders?

Research Questions:

  1. What are the root causes of conflict in Pakhtun Society?
  2. What factors perpetuates this conflict in Pakhtun society?

Root causes implies that the conflicts in Pakhtun society are linked to geostrategic posturing of world powers. Hence, South Asia is used an umbrella term to show the continuity of conflicts in Pakhtun society through alternative viewpoints in IR theories like (Brown, 1997) (Wallerstein, 1980) and (Goodhand, 2010). The word "factors" alludes to the debate generated in the exercise that has led to the formulation of these questions. This has been shown to be consistent with our perspective on the 'trigger points' for conflicts. 

FATA has always been used by respective Pakistani leaders as its Other. The writ of the government has not been extended to them because the leaders failed to evolve an integrative approach required to build nations. Beside this failure, it was compounded by the Cold War, that Ahemd, (2000), has equated with the Third World War given the sheer level of violence and death toll it has caused through proxies. Afghanistan was one such proxy war that necessitated Pakistani elite-level actors to play dumb and blind to the requirements for nation building. FATA was allowed to operate under the draconian colonial narrative for the region to give the region a sort of continuity with the old Imperial Great Game. FATA has always failed to appeal to our leaders as a human tragedy unfolding through their sheer ignorance. Elite-level actors have failed that's why we have always had a restive and bickering FATA.


This research attempts a qualitative, exploratory, subjective, and interpretivist approach to the study of the root causes of conflict in Pakhtun society because this allows us to dispel the myth of positivism, objectivity and other related approaches adopted traditionally in peace and conflict studies. This method of approaching the conflicts and their roots in Pakhtun society also help us reflect on the shortcomings inherent in previous research. This is also helpful in making us witness the gulf that exists between facts on the ground in Pakhtun society, the human toll that it suffers, as well as making us sensitive to the insensitivity of an objective approach.

I have adopted interpretivism and subjectivism because they allow me to fill the gap in current knowledge left by a long history of objective and positivist research. Both these later methodologies have been unable to bring a refined and clear understanding to the conflicts, especially in South Asia. The need for a different kind of approach by Michael Crotty (2015) as “meaning imposed on the subject by the subject” (p. 9), allows for an interpretation which is both local and meaningful for the context. The detachment that objectivism seeks for the social context is denial to it (ibid, p.10). Subjectivism has therefore been preferred over and above the mostly positivist stance inherent in objectivism. It helps the meaning formation grid to fully articulate itself from an informed, logical, and subjective perspective to resolve the existential threats that perpetual conflicts pose.

Subjectivity is, it can be seen, imposing its meaning to resolve conflicts from positions not otherwise available. Since a quality method of research is more in keeping with subjectivity epistemology, it has been adopted to drive meaning for further research and understanding.

The main purpose behind undertaking this exploratory and quantitative case study of a ‘real world’ event in the South Asian region is to be able to ‘reorient the focus of inquiry and play to its strengths. This, in Flyvberg’s (2001) view, will restore social and political to its classical position as a practical, intellectual activity aimed at classifying the problems, risks and possibilities we face as human and societies and at contributing to social and political praxis” (Ibid, 252).

That allows us to take a philosophical stance to shed new light on the conflicts in South Asian region and to be able to explore alternatives for peace that are currently ignored by dominant discourse in South Asian region. This is in line with what Crotty (1998) has defined as an essential element of exploratory research:

“The choice of research design depends upon the objectives of the research in order to be able to answer the research questions (Crotty, 1998). Therefore, the researcher describes the research elements in general before describing his own philosophical stance.”

Qualitative method has also been employed because of its ability to combine a diverse array of influences and methodologies for an exhaustive and in-depth study of the research point at hand. Qualitative research has been defined as:

“Qualitative research is multi method in focus, involving an interpretive naturalistic approach to its subject matter. This means that qualitative researcher study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of, or interpret, and phenomenon in terms of the meaning people bring to them (Newman & Benz, 1998).”

The case study is a useful analytical tool for research that “investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context; when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident; and in which multiple sources of evidence are used” Robert (2003).

The Case study is an ideal methodology when a holistic, in-depth investigation is needed. Case study, on the other hand, is designed to bring out the details from the viewpoint of the participants by using multiple sources of data. A case study is “an exploration of a ‘bounded system’ a program, an event, an activity, or individuals”.

This methodology of case study is also favoured for this research because it intends to have an in depth look at the issue involved in the conflict not only because the research hold ‘meaning, context and history’ to be illuminating for the proposed topic but also because it “plays in-depth and substantive qualitative attention to both historical context and long term dynamic process in explaining political institutions” (Feagin& Sjoberg, 1991).

Theoretical Framework

There are many overlapping layers and aspects that cannot be done justice if the research remains within the strict disciplinary boundaries. It would conceal more than that it would reveal if we were to apply the traditional approach of research which has been the wont in all previous research dealing with the many layers of conflict in the tribal FATA region of Pakistan.

The current interdisciplinary approach brings an array of insights from different perspectives to deepen and broaden our understanding of the problematic coming home to roost after a long wildness under false assumptions of conflict resolution.

This situation of Pakistani scholarship can be used to reflect on the situation from various viewpoints that illustrate for us the real causes of the conflict in Pakistan’s tribal region. Brown (1997), Wallerstein (1980), Duffield (2010), Gramsci (1971) and the whole host of other writers have perceptively captured the reality, a Realism of the conflict for us to be able to understand the circular motion of conflict in FATA and study the causes of its perpetual presence. 

Brown (1997, p.571) in his book International dimensions of internal conflicts pointed out that the proximate causes of internal conflicts are poorly understood by most researchers according to him “most internal conflicts are triggered by internal elite level actors- bad leaders who acts like a catalyst. Bad leaders potentially turn the volatile situation in open warfare.” He further added that “external forces occasionally trigger internal conflicts but the deliberate actions of neighboring states- bad neighbors’ play a vital role in this connection.”

Wallerstein’s (1980) World System Theory, this thesis holds, captures the South Asian region as part of what Duffield called ‘the uninsured life’ who’s “killing” indiscriminately or extirpation doesn’t count as ‘murder’ (Duffield, 2010).Brown (1997) further deconstructs this picture presented by Wallerstein (1980) and Duffield (2010) to show how this ‘uninsured life’ has been managed by Empire through its political economy: the crisis is ‘Elite Triggered’ and caused by among other ‘approximate causes’ by ‘bad leaders’ and ‘bad neighbours.[1]Pakistan has been blessed with both thus compounding and deteriorating social cohesion that the tribal belt had so overwhelming put at Pakistan’s disposal: in 1948, 1965 & 1971. 1970’s era are the dates when the people of FATA defended the frontiers of Pakistan against Indian aggressions. Remembered for the debacle of East Pakistan, the part played by friends and foes, the famous OIC conference at Lahore, global Oil crisis, USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan, Kissinger threat to Bhutto, Bhutto’s hanging at the hands of Zia ul Haq and Pakistan’s descent into Islamic militancy in the context of Great Game of cold war era.


Historically, the conflict has been seen to be "deeply entrenched in tribal customs" (Coroe, 1958, p.25), "the Frontier tribes never accepted any sole central authority" kind of formulations to justify holding them under an unjust system of FCR which curtailed their individuality. A man was forever enslaved to the tribe whose Mailkis bribed through 'greed' or 'grievance' Goodhand (2010) who works as a tool in the shadow economies which thrives only in conflict zones. That this may cause psychological mutations which unleashes violent repercussions has not been explored either in the literature reviewed, which is already subject to a discourse.

In similar other depictions of the Pakhtun society we are given causes that seem to locate the origins of conflicts inherent to Pakhtun society. Brown (1997) on the other hand, reverses these depictions of causes of conflicts by pointing out that there are other forces at work like policy decisions of political leaders ('bad leaders'), as well as geographical location of the conflict zone ('bad neighbours' and 'bad neighbourhoods') what Paul and Collier, et al elaborated that “certain geographic characteristics/ location like FATA have been found to be relevant in explaining armed conflict” (Collier, 2006)that play a significant role in conflicts and its perpetuation. A cursory look at the historical development of the strife within Pakhtun society illustrates these positions for us. President Gen Zia ul Haq's decision to be party to 'The Bear Trap' in Afghanistan, using Godliness vs godlessness as a pretext, was, applying Brown's (1997, p.578)formulation of the proximate causes of conflicts, the beginning of 'bad leaders' committing vital mistakes in national policies that lights a match to a power-keg of other social, political, and religious forces that redefine violence for us this statement is justified what Levine and Easterly (1997) claim that Ethnic and religious fractionalization as well as ‘polarization’ has also been found to contribute to the conflict perpetuation in the Pakhtun Society.

Our 'bad neighbors' and our very 'bad neighbourhood' played an important role in the deterioration of peace within our society. Our successive leaders have been forced into these decisions by the powers beyond his control: by the hegemonic imperial power. Pakistan had its first moment of 'either with us or against us' doctrine of Empire. It is a mistake to call it a Bush doctrine because it was part and parcel of the 'stick and carrot' policy of Empire for a long time. Perkin (2011) in ‘Confessions of an Economic Hitman' gives a peep into maintaining this hegemonic presence. Brown's (1997) construction of the problem, therefore, gives us a better handle on understanding the conflicts in Pakhtun society. He, for once, locates the causes of conflicts as not inherent to Pakhtun society but part of a larger geostrategic, geopolitical posturing of world powers.


The structure of today’s world power is illustrated by Wallerstein (1980). It's capitalistic roots and philosophical connections have been laid bare by Gramsci (1971). Its dark side immersed in 'greed' is shown by Goodhand (2010) in 'shadow economies'. They all present a foil before the existing scholarship on the conflicts in Pakhtun society that imbricate violence with Pakhtun society by isolating it from other currents of its social, political and religious life. The Pakhtun are living in a vacuum and not constructed by their social surroundings.

This paper provides alternative ways of looking at the conflict in Pakhtun society by maintaining that a fundamental change in our perceptions of peace and conflict needs to be undertaken if we are to take our immediate concern i.e. Pakhtun society towards conflict resolution. This paper makes the case for undergoing this paradigm shift in our perceptions using the arguments of three distinguished exponents of International Relations theories: Michael E Brown (1997), Emmanuel Wallerstein (1980), Gramsci (1971) and Jonathan Goodhand (2010). They can set us on a trajectory which leads to conflict resolutions. 



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About the Author

Irfan Khan is a PhD research scholar at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies and visiting faculty member at department of International Relationsand Political Science, University of Peshawar. He can be reached at