Why Pakistan is taking Pashtun activism seriously

As Pashtun communities fight for greater freedom of movement and against discrimination, the Pakistan military worries that dissent will turn to violence, further destablising the region.

In April, Pakistan’s powerful military issued a stern warning to the leaders of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement or PTM, an ethnic civil rights movement advocating rights for the country’s estimated 33 million Pashtuns. “Their time is up,” decreed the director general of the media wing of Pakistan’s armed forces, Major General Asif Ghafoor in reference to the PTM.

Ghafoor accused the PTM of receiving funds from India and Afghanistan to destabilise Pakistan. The PTM dismissed the accusations, saying the charges were levelled against the civil alliance for demanding accountability. In the weeks following, an armed confrontation between Pakistani forces and PTM supporters at a checkpoint in the former Federally Administered Tribal Area (Fata) left at least 13 people dead. The violent protest, the army said, was being led by two prominent PTM activists – Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar. The two activists have been arrested. Manzoor Pashteen, the charismatic 26-year-old founder of the PTM, termed the army’s allegations “false”.

The PTM’s slogan, “Ye jo dihshat gardi hai, es ke pechay wardi hai” (The uniform is behind this terrorism), has especially vexed Pakistan’s establishment, which view both the movement and the slogan as anti-state. Prime Minister Imran Khan, a Pashtun himself, has acknowledged the community’s sense of deprivation but cautioned against its agitation. Pakistan’s civil rights bodies maintain the PTM is being targeted for opposing military policy in the Pashtun belt.

Emerging from the Fata, a mountainous region along Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan, the PTM’s non-violent campaign has galvanised the Pashtuns to seek an end to discrimination, racial profiling, de-mining the areas the state refers to as “tribal”, greater freedom of mobility, unlawful detentions and harassment by forces.

The genesis of the PTM came out of the protests that erupted following the extrajudicial killing of a civilian, Naqeebullah Mehsud, by local police in Karachi. In 2018, a 10-day sit-in in Islamabad demanding justice for Mehsud transformed into a nationwide movement for Pashtuns. The leaders of the movement have repeatedly underscored that the PTM is not promoting an anti-state agenda nor would it use violent means to have its demands accepted.

Related article:

The PTM struck a chord with a sizeable section of ethnic Pashtuns as well as non-Pashtuns who are critical of Pakistan’s own “war on terror” and blame both the Pakistani military and insurgents for the destruction of Pashtun lands. The “tribal” belt, comprising the districts of Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Orakzai, Khurram, North Waziristan and South Waziristan, was left ravaged by the war that spilled into Pakistan following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The invasion resulted in deaths, displacements on a large scale and the total economic destruction of the region.

Even though Pashtun dissenters have found themselves at loggerheads with the Pakistani army, a significant number of the military’s cadres involved in the operations against insurgents in the “tribal” belt are ethnic Pashtuns. The group has historically maintained a prominent representation in the country’s political and military institutions. Estimates indicate roughly that the Pashtun representation in the army is between 15% and 22% among officers, and between 20% and 25% among the rank and file, despite Pashtuns constituting only 16% of the country’s overall population. Out of the 11 chiefs of the Pakistan army, four have been Pashtuns – Generals Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Gul Hasan Khan and Waheed Kakar – leading the institution for a total of 18 years.

The discontent among sections of Pakistani Pashtuns arose following the military operations in the “tribal” belt, when Pashtun fighters were split between supporting government forces and the fleeing Taliban militants. The civilians were caught in the middle when thousands of troops moved in to retake territory for insurgents.

Unravelling Pashtun dissent

To understand Pakistan’s dynamic relationship with the Pashtuns, it is imperative to examine this ethnic group through its collective ethos, identity and history. The Pashtuns have often been portrayed as strong and “warrior-like” both in colonial and contemporary literature.

After the partition of Indian subcontinent in 1947, some Pashtun nationalists called for the creation of Pashtunistan, carved from the Pashtun-dominated areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The idea of an independent Pashtun homeland bewildered Islamabad. Afghanistan’s historic refusal to acknowledge the Durand Line, the border dividing the two nations, kept the relationship between Kabul and Islamabad strained.

The Soviet invasion in 1979, however, altered the nature of Pakistan’s relationship with Pashtun nationalists, turning it from hostility to support and sustenance. Islamabad’s support of the insurgency against the erstwhile USSR made the clans dependent on Pakistani goodwill. It improved Pakistan’s image among Pashtuns as a reliable friend. Pakistan saw the mayhem in Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal as a great strategic opportunity and extended military and political aid to the Afghan Taliban, which emerged in 1994. This strategy culminated in the Taliban regime being installed in Kabul in 1996. Islamabad’s support of this religiously inspired manifestation of Pashtun nationalism largely solved the problem of Pashtun sub-nationalism. However, strong ties with the community in neighbouring Afghan provinces also eventually drew them into the conflicts that followed.

Pakistan changed course under US pressure in 2001 and joined Washington’s “war on terror”, once again alienating the Pashtuns. But Pakistan covertly kept supporting the Taliban, keeping Islamabad’s credibility intact at the expense of losing America’s trust. Pakistan also gave refuge to the Taliban leadership, who made Quetta in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province its new headquarters.

But in 2002, a Pashtun-led insurgency began in Pakistan, when Pakistan forces, at the behest of the US, entered the “tribal” areas in pursuit of Al Qaeda figures. The elders of the restive Waziristan region had warned that any military aggression would be perceived as a declaration of war. The conflict spread further into Pakistan after special forces troops killed some 300 militants at a central Islamabad mosque in 2007, sparking a fight waged mostly by Pashtun militants.

The Mashuds of South Waziristan established the Pakistan Taliban or Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and began attacking Pakistan’s military, while their cousin Waziris primarily targeted Nato troops in Afghanistan. The TTP unleashed a series of massive attacks that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Pakistani civilians. The then head of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar, called upon the Waziris to expel foreign fighters for attacking Pakistani forces and made the population hate the Taliban. The Mahsuds refused. A year after a drone attack killed Mahsud leader Hakimullah Mehsud, the Pakistan army launched its much-touted “Zarb-e-Azb” operations in 2014, to avenge the attack on an army public school in Peshawar.

The fight between two supposedly Muslim forces – the Pakistan army and TTP – was justified after the “tribal” leaders had invoked the right to wage vendetta under the pakhtunwali – the “tribal” code of ethics. The code was one of the reasons the Pashtuns in Pakistan also gave shelter to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters, thereby letting them regroup, conduct operations and train in Pakistan. This created a situation that makes it difficult for the US and Nato to achieve their goals in Afghanistan.

Pashtun nationalism has been based on ethnicity, clan loyalties and commitment to the pakhtunwali code, which is the way Pashtun society functions. The code’s paramount principle is the law of hospitality pertaining to the welcoming and protection of guests, which is said to reflect the honour of the host. A significant example is provided by Omar, who refused to hand over his guest Osama bin Laden to the Americans or even to the Saudis or Pakistanis. Although Omar was aware that his refusal would cost him and his people dearly, he was still unwilling to compromise on the code.

Revenge is equally important for communities like the Pashtuns, which traditionally lack the organs of civil government, such as police, courts of law and a prison system. A collective demand for revenge helps regulate behaviour. But it is in the clan’s interest that no one exceed the normative threshold of revenge. When this does happen, it tends to perpetuate a cycle of revenge spanning generations. In wake of the code, both national and religious identity is relegated to the background to give pride of place to “tribal” identity. The triad of so-called “tribal property” – zan (woman), zar (gold) and zamin (land) – must be defended at all costs and any transgression invokes retribution.

The PTM and Pakistan’s future

Scholars have maintained that for any group that lacks institutional cohesion, whether economic or political – such as the Pashtuns – identity often takes a leading role in the narrative of unity. It becomes imperative to understanding the Pashtun dissent in Pakistan through the territory-identity relationship in the context of its “tribal” structure. The political mobilisation of “tribals” is due to a process that has fostered the metamorphosis of group identity into a political identity that allows it to unify under a common banner. It would be unwise to perceive Pashtun resentment as a nationalist cause for separation from Pakistan.

Through PTM, Pashtuns have forced the Pakistani political and military establishment to acknowledge the injustice faced by the community. But the possibility of the group’s legitimate demands being hijacked to undermine the state makes both the movement and Pashtuns vulnerable to reprisals. If the PTM fails to serve the Pashtun population, it will be a major setback, both for them and for other social movements in process of emerging along the lines of the PTM.

The voice of the PTM has been amplified globally by the US media, which represents the group as antagonistic to Pakistan. This projection not only undermines the genuine and rightful demands of Pashtuns but also jeopardises the security and stability in the region. The nervousness of the Pakistani establishment should be understood in terms of possible violence from the PTM. If the movement changes from non-violent to violent, it may have massive implications, not only for Pakistan but also for the whole region. Islamabad has learned from its experience between 2006 and 2014, when the Pakistan Taliban insurgency was at its peak, that it cannot afford any backlash from its “tribal” population. It cannot afford the Pashtun dissent to turn into fury.

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.