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RFE/RL Journalist Digs Deep Into ‘The Pashtun Question’

Ryan Crocker, Glen Howard, Abubakar Siddique - "The Pashtun Question" launch at JHU SAIS
Ryan Crocker, Glen Howard, Abubakar Siddique - "The Pashtun Question" launch at JHU SAIS

RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique's new book, "The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan” (London; Hurst. 2013) has been greeted enthusiastically by numerous experts. At the April launch of the book at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan and to Pakistan Ryan Crocker said, "This is a seminal work... For anyone who has interest in South Asia, read this book." Experts such as former National Security Council Director for Iraq Douglas Ollivant, defense and strategic analyst Julian Lindley-French, India-based journalist Avalok Langer, and Pakistani columnist Mohammad Taqi have all written positive reviews of Siddique's work.

The 271-page book is the culmination of four years of research that examines the Taliban, offers an analysis of the Taliban's literature, and provides guidance to policymakers on stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan. RFE/RL asked Siddique to comment on the book’s contribution to current scholarship on the subject.

RFE/RL: What did you set out to accomplish with this book?

Abubakar Siddique: I had wanted to write a book about Afghanistan and Pakistan for a long time. I saw no point in merely repeating what others had already said. I thought it would be much better to write a book that ​would provide an original, in-depth, thoroughly-researched and nuanced new perspective on the interconnected conflict in those countries. I certainly didn't want to write a book about other books.

RFE/RL: What was the biggest challenge you faced in writing the book?

Siddique: It was a major challenge to find the time to research and write this book while also chasing daily news cycles as a journalist. [In addition to covering Afghanistan & Pakistan for RFE/RL's Central Newsroom, Siddique is the primary editor of RFE/RL's English-language "Gandhara" website.] Most journalists are content with writing narratives of what they see and hear while reporting. But I wanted to write a book that was both scholarly and accessible to an ordinary reader. This required a much greater investment in time and effort.

RFE/RL: How does the content of the book differ from the kind of reporting you do on a daily basis?

Siddique: Well, scholarly research is obviously very different from daily news reporting. It demands sustained focus on a particular issue or topic. I vigorously studied most, if not all, of the available literature on the subject, and ended up covering a lot of new ground. I analyzed a significant amount of literature that was unknown in the West, such as the Taliban texts of the last few years that were distributed in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Fortunately, I was able to do reporting that complemented my book until 2011, after which I had to complete the manuscript on my own free time. Looking back, it was an effort that was well worth it.

RFE/RL: The book has been widely reviewed. Is there any reaction that stands out for you?

Siddique: I am truly humbled by all the praise I have received so far. One reviewer, author and Islamic history professor Brian Glyn Williams called the book "the most important work on the Pashtuns since Sir Olaf Caroe's classic 1954 field study on the subject, 'The Pathans.'" Leading Islam scholar Akbar Ahmed wrote that "The Pashtun Question" is "one of the best books on Pakistan and Afghanistan," while author and writer for "The New Yorker" Jon Lee Anderson called it "a must read."

The Pashtun Question debunks myths and challenges conventional wisdom in the West and in South Asia, so a lot of what I have argued is sort of new for people. My hope is that the book helps people look at Afghanistan and Pakistan from a fresh perspective and proves helpful in finding people-centric solutions to the myriad problems facing the two neighbors. Constructive criticism is, of course, always welcome.

RFE/RL: What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching & writing the book?

Siddique: Nothing I learned about Afghanistan and Pakistan was shocking to me. But I was surprised to again see that most Western literature about Afghanistan and Pakistan is about Western involvement and the West’s role, instead of about the people of the region.

My hope is that the book helps people look at Afghanistan and Pakistan from a fresh perspective.

One peer reviewer, who I obviously don’t know, criticized the text for this very reason. However, I told my publisher that The Pashtun Question will be praised for the original research and perspective it offers, so they should not worry too much about tailoring it to a "Western" audience. I think all the praise the book has received proves me right.

RFE/RL: As the author, what is the most important takeaway you want readers to have from The Pashtun Question?

Siddique: I would encourage readers to have their own impressions. I think I have demonstrated that it’s possible for Pakistan and Afghanistan to have a shared, peaceful and stable future rooted in the progress and development of the Pashtuns who live in the two neighboring countries.

RFE/RL: Thank you!

-- Martins Zvaners