Paradise lost, on fire, or on a river of hell: purple prose abounds in descriptions of Kashmir today. But in this instance, the hyperbole may be alarmingly close to reality. Since 1989–1990, Kashmir (i.e., the Valley rather than the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir for which the name is often informally used) has been a battleground pitting a popularly backed insurgency—sometimes accompanied by armed militancy—against Indian state dominance undergirded by one of the highest concentrations of armed forces among civilians in the world. The armed forces are about 700,000 strong in the Valley, producing an astonishing average of one soldier for every eleven civilians. A death toll in calamitous numbers (perhaps 70,000 killed and 8,000 “disappeared”, many of whom are presumed dead) countless instances of rape and torture, and the declining health of civil liberties as of individuals in Kashmir have many worried.
Most accounts seeking to explain this state of affairs begin around August 14–15, 1947. On this day were born not only the two nation-states of India and Pakistan but also the rival claims of both to Kashmir. If Kashmir’s troubles were only about the Indo-Pakistani territorial contestation, 1947 would be where to start. However, the “Kashmir Problem” encompasses other contentious aspects that have drawn less attention and whose roots are buried deeper in time. These include a crisis of legitimate governance and the interweaving of religion and politics—all playing out in the midst of contested relations between different loci of central and local power. A narrow focus on the year 1947 alone, moreover, holds Kashmir’s history hostage to Indian and Pakistani official narratives. This is evident in the work of countless political scientists and policy experts. New scholarship has pushed historical examination to go further back by at least a century, if not more, to capture vital transformations in the understandings of sovereignty, territoriality, and the legitimacy to rule that shaped Kashmiris well before 1947. These changes cast long shadows that reach into the present.
With an estimated thirty million or more in Pakistan, twelve million in Afghanistan, and perhaps a million or more in a global diaspora, Pashtuns or Pukhtuns comprise a complex ethno-linguistic population with a rich cultural tradition and literature, varied political and economic contexts, and diverse national and Islamic identities. Historic and literary references to communities that have been thought to identify “Afghans” date to the 10th century and, according to the source and scholar consulted, many centuries earlier. The assumption of any uniquely “Pashtun” identity as equivalent to the diverse “Afghan” cultural, religious, and ethnic identities that evolved over centuries has obfuscated a full understanding of the emergence of distinct regional Pashtun ethno-linguistic communities and the origins of frequently studied cultural idioms. Millions of Pashtuns have lived in close and daily contact with many other ethnic groups (Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Baluch, Punjabis, etc.), and color-coded maps of ethnic homelands in Afghanistan and Pakistan are best seen as guides to often complex social geographies rather than absolute markers of ethnically pure settlement areas.
For perhaps a thousand years, Pashtuns and regional forefathers have circulated within imperial and merchant networks connected by Silk Road pathways, Persian and north Indian trade routes, and Indian Ocean sea lanes. Pashtuns sought livelihoods as horse traders, military entrepreneurs, agrarian pioneers, and regional rulers in the northern, eastern, and Deccan regions of India. An Afghan state with variable territorial claims consolidated after 1747. Leading Pashtun clans from around Kandahar and the eastern districts took positions in the dynasties that soon ruled from Kabul and core provinces.
Pashtuns between the Oxus and Indus rivers adapted to, avoided, and served 18th- and 19th-century Russian and British imperial economic and political forces. In the high European “new imperialism” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Afghan territories were framed by treaty-negotiated boundaries. Never colonized, Afghanistan became economically dependent on British–India subsidies and linkages. Into the mid-20th century, Afghanistan’s Pashtun political dynasties and Islamic and political activists on both sides of the British-Indian Durand Line offered leadership and alternative visions of the future to anticolonial and Muslim nationalists, including those in British India.
In recent decades, core Pashtun homelands and diasporic communities have fully experienced the disruptions and violence that followed the partition of British India in 1947, postcolonial “national” consolidation, conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, Cold War alliances and conflict, the rise and fall of the Taliban, and civil war. Like others, Pashtun lives were shaped by the transnational dynamics of economic globalization, urbanization, migration, and the international crises that traumatized the world after September 11, 2001.