Asfandyar Wali: Profile of Pakistan’s Progressive Pashtun Politician

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 2

On January 10, Pakistan’s secular and Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party (ANP) won a critical electoral battle in Bajaur Agency. The ANP political party is led by the seasoned politician Asfandyar Wali Khan. The election struck a blow to pro-Taliban elements in the region, and also marks the revival of a party that appeared to be hibernating during the recent Talibanization process. The Pakistani military’s hidden alliance with religious political parties made it difficult to effectively tackle the Taliban threat in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in the United States. After 2003, the military opted for a show of brute force in Pakistan’s tribal belt which created more problems than it solved. The ANP was routed in national and provincial elections in 2002 because anti-Musharraf and anti-American sentiments were at their peak leading to support for the religious alliance Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA). The mistakes committed by the United States in Afghanistan in terms of not providing enough financial resources for reconstruction and overwhelming dependence on military options to tackle extremists also contributed toward the marginalization of the liberal and progressive forces in the region, including the ANP.

Nevertheless, the potency of Pashtun nationalist forces should not be underestimated. Given their checkered history and traditional support base, they are potentially an effective and viable political force to challenge the religious extremists in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the adjacent Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). This analysis profiles Asfandyar Wali and his party, which has shown determination in reversing the radical Islamist political trends in the Pashtun-dominated areas of Pakistan.

Background: History of the Awami National Party

The ANP was formed in 1986 through the merger of several left-leaning political parties. Khan Abdul Wali Khan (the father of Asfandyar Wali) was elected as its first president. Wali Khan, son of the legendary Pashtun political leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, died in 2006. Ghaffar Khan was known as Bacha Khan and as “Frontier Gandhi” because he was a close associate of India’s leader Mahatma Gandhi. A believer in non-violence, Ghaffar Khan was an ardent supporter of the idea of a united, independent and secular India. To achieve this goal, he founded a political movement known as Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God), also commonly referred to as the Surkh Posh (Red Shirts), during the 1920s. It became a powerful force in the Pashtun-dominated region. The Pashtuns and tribal elders of the region, however, voted to join Pakistan in 1947, as the idea of the nation of Pakistan proved to be quite attractive to the Muslim identity felt among the majority of Pashtuns. Geographic disconnection with the newly emerged independent India also led many Pashtuns to opt for Pakistan, despite being adherents of Ghaffar Khan who was aligned with the Indian National Congress. Ghaffar Khan was thrown in jail by the newly formed state of Pakistan, yet Pashtun nationalism continued to remain very relevant to the politics of the area.

Ghaffar Khan, who had briefly championed the cause of Pashtunistan (an independent state for Pashtuns) in 1947, spent most of his life either in jail, on house arrest in Pakistan, or in exile in Kabul. He died in 1988 and was buried in Jalalabad, Afghanistan as per his wishes. His name is highly respected and popular among Pashtuns on both sides of the border.

Wali Khan was no different. Despite being called a traitor by some (due to his family’s links with India and their brief campaign in 1947 for an independent Pashtunistan), he was an important political leader in his own right. He was a strong proponent of provincial autonomy and a leading light in the National Awami Party (NAP), a national political party with leftist inclinations. In the 1970 elections, NAP, led by Wali Khan, did well in the NWFP and in Balochistan province, earning a place in the ruling coalitions in both of the aforementioned provinces. These governments, however, were short lived as Wali Khan was again jailed and his party barred from politics by the federal government on the controversial pretext of conspiring against the state of Pakistan.

In summation, when the ANP emerged in 1986, the party was neither new to politics nor led by any armchair politician. Since then, it has participated in five national and provincial elections. It continued to have a presence in the National Assembly (except in 2002) and always had a fair representation in the NWFP assembly. For instance, in the NWFP legislature, out of a total of 80 seats, the ANP secured 10 seats in 1988, 23 seats in 1990, 18 seats in 1993 and 32 seats in 1997. In the 2002 elections, the ANP could manage only seven seats in an expanded assembly of 124 as a result of the fallout from U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

Who is Asfandyar Wali?

Asfandyar Wali, the elected president of ANP, is also heir to the legacy of Ghaffar Khan. An astute politician, he has been an elected senator since 2003. Previously, he served in the NWFP provincial assembly (1990) and two national assemblies of Pakistan (1993, 1997).

He holds an MBA and was a political activist associated with the Pakhtun Student Federation during his college days. His home, Wali Bagh in Charsadda, was an ideal nursery for political training since this has been the headquarters of Pashtun nationalist forces for more than half a century. The political upheavals that his family faced groomed him further. During the 1990s, the ANP lost some of its credibility due to corruption scandals that it had been associated with while in the government. The party, however, was then run by Naseem Wali (wife of Wali Khan and stepmother of Asfandyar Wali). Therefore, Asfandyar’s reputation escaped this stigma since he was not in the driver’s seat of the party’s decision-making process. Since then, some notorious and corrupt ANP leaders were sidelined (and in some cases removed from party positions) by Asfandyar Wali when he took over the party leadership in 2000.

In terms of political orientation, the ANP is a nationalist Pashtun party that aspires to make Pakistan a truly democratic state. It also pushes for provincial autonomy and social justice. It was one of the very few political forces in Pakistan that was openly critical of how the Afghan resistance against the former Soviet Union in the 1980s was labeled as a jihad and sponsored from Pakistan (with the help of U.S. and Saudi money). Framing the conflict in religious terms meant increased influence of Islamic parties and decreased relevance of secular parties like the ANP. The ANP remained critical of Pakistan’s pro-Taliban policies in the pre-9/11 phase. Their warnings, however, fell on deaf ears.

In the present political context, the ANP is actively challenging the NWFP religious alliance MMA and is critical of Musharraf’s policies in the tribal belt. Despite official obstacles, Asfandyar visited Pakistan’s tribal areas in November 2006 to hold political consultations with his supporters to the dismay of pro-government tribal elders (Dawn, November 18, 2006). If Afghan President Hamid Karzai respects and trusts anyone in Pakistan, it is the ANP and Asfandyar Wali. The idea of a regional Pashtun peace jirga (that was discussed at the recent Bush-Musharraf-Karzai meeting in Washington) was a brainchild of the Asfandyar-Karzai dialogue. Asfandyar had articulated his support of this idea when he visited Washington in early 2006. The Pakistani government, however, is wary of this concept despite its commitment to the United States to undertake such an exercise since it fears that such an arrangement may lessen the Pakistani government’s direct role in the Pashtun areas. Islamabad, therefore, is now backtracking by delaying and modifying the spirit of the regional jirga idea.

In Pakistan, it is difficult to challenge the military-intelligence establishment. Asfandyar, however, continues to do so, and recently he argued that the Pakistani government, instead of introducing new political or economic reforms in the tribal areas, has turned the region into a battlefield by using it as “a sanctuary for their guests” (Daily Times, September 28, 2006). Responding to Pakistan’s recent proposal to fence and mine the Pak-Afghan border in an effort to control the Taliban’s movements, he bluntly called it a conspiracy to divide the Pashtuns.

An Interview with Asfandyar Wali: A Way Out

In a telephone interview with Asfandyar Wali on January 13, he argued that a Pashtun peace jirga involving Pashtun nationalists, civil society actors and religious players from both sides is the last hope for the region. He interpreted the recent ANP victory in the Bajaur elections as a bright spot in the overall troubling scenario and made a case for allowing liberal political parties to operate and function in the tribal areas. This can only happen, he emphasized, if the Political Parties Act of Pakistan is extended to FATA.

In reference to the causes of conflict in the tribal areas, he lamented the fact that only pro-government maliks (tribal elders who are on the government payroll) are engaged and mushiraan (“people’s” maliks who are financially independent) were completely ignored. This led to a failure in resolving the crisis in FATA. Furthermore, he thinks that Pakistan should have distinguished between the pre-9/11 foreigners who are by now well settled in the area and the post-9/11 foreigners that came in to find a sanctuary.

He also believes that fundamentalist forces are now battling for influence and territory in Sind and Punjab provinces. He was very confident that the “ANP is in a position to take on MMA in NWFP and tribal areas, but we are not in a position to take on the establishment.” When asked what his expectations are from the international community and the United States, he replied: “the international community should ensure a level playing field for all political forces in the region.” Elaborating on this further, he narrated a humorous Pashto proverb that can be roughly translated as: “I don’t need any charity, but please chain your dog.”


Critics of ANP argue that supporting Asfandyar and his party might lead to the cessation of the NWFP from Pakistan and even to the unification of Pashtun areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is unlikely since the Pashtuns of Pakistan are well entrenched in the political system and have been integrated socially and culturally into the national fabric of the country. Another relevant criticism fired at the ANP is its provincial or nationalist identity. Since its inception, however, the ANP has always had some representation in the National Assembly and the Senate of Pakistan and has never called for a separate homeland. What it has asked for is more provincial autonomy, which is within the restraints and provisions of the federal constitution of Pakistan.

The ANP as a political party, however, needs better organization. To be able to pursue its liberal and progressive agenda it will have to join hands with other secular forces in the NWFP as well as in other parts of Pakistan. The Bajaur by-election was a test case for the ANP. The seat was vacated by Haroon ur Rashid, an MMA representative who resigned his seat in protest against the bombing of a madrassa in which 80 people were killed (Daily Times, January 15). The ANP won because the MMA boycotted the election and other political parties (the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Muslim League-N) supported its candidate. Still, it was a success since a member of Pakistan Muslim League-Q, supported by President Musharraf’s followers, was also a candidate.

The crux of the matter is that Asfandyar Wali and the ANP are potentially capable of reversing the Talibanization trend in the tribal areas provided that the Pakistani establishment recognizes the high stakes involved, such as the growing influence of religious extremists in the region and the increasing number of suicide attacks within Pakistan itself. One may also hope that U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ policy statement declaring “success in Afghanistan is our top priority” leads to significant financial investment in the development of Afghanistan, crippling the appeal of the Taliban in the region (The Nation, January 18). Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s latest announcement that President Bush would ask Congress for $10.6 billion in aid for Afghanistan will, if approved, be a step forward for peace and stability in the region.