Pakistan’s Pashtuns take on the army for war crimes

The protection of Pashtuns against the perpetual cycle of war has become the rallying cry of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement.

Embed from Getty Images

In February of 2018, a crowd of young university graduates from the Pashtun ethnic group staged a peaceful sit-in in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Its aim was to protest the alleged war crimes of the army during military operations targeting the Taliban in the Pashtun-populated northern areas of the country. Although Pashtuns have suffered the brunt of terrorist violence by the Taliban for over a decade — as well as the violence of counter-terrorism operations by the state — the immediate cause of the agitation this time was something more specific. It was theunfounded terrorism charges and extrajudicial murder of young businessman and aspiring model Naqeebullah Mehsud in January 2018 by Karachi police. Like hundreds of thousands of ethnic Pashtuns, Naqeebullah had been displaced to Karachi by violence in his hometown of Waziristan. 

Within a few days of his murder, a big crowd of Pashtuns, including students, intelligentsia, women, political leaders and the public thronged the site of the protest. The crowd chanted with one voice what has now become the motto of the movement: “Da sanga azadi da (What kind of freedom is this)” and “Ye jo dehshatgardi hai, iske peeche wardi hai (The ones responsible for terrorism are the ones in uniform).” The protest was also joined by non-Pashtun political and human rights activists and lawyers, such as the late Asma Jahangir. Solidarity, albeit short-lived, of this nature across ethnic divides had been a rarity in Pakistan.

Eventually, the sit-in in Islamabad came to be known as the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement or PTM. Under the leadership of a young tribesman, Manzoor Pashteen, PTM has mobilized Pashtuns from the tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, or KP, in the north to Balochistan, which is in the southwest of Pakistan. Pashteen has provided a platform to his people who are divided along tribal lineages and political ideologies. The movement has also mobilized Pashtuns across the border in Afghanistan and the Pashtun diaspora in Europe, the United States and Canada. Although much more work is needed, mobilization of this scale has been unprecedented in the history of Pashtun struggle.

PTM has four fundamental demands: The arrest of police officer Rao Anwar, who is responsible for the killing of Naqebullah and over 400 other extrajudicial murders; clearance of landmines in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA; producing Pashtun missing persons before court for fair trials; and, finally, the removal of check posts where soldiers have harassed local Pashtun men and women. Most importantly, PTM demands the United Nations to inquire into the crimes of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity by the army against innocent Pashtuns by establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The movement deems the involvement of the United Nations necessary because Pashtuns have lost trust in the national institutions of Pakistan.

Such a characterization of institutions like the judiciary, the prime minister’s office and national parliament is accurate because none of them seem free or able to take on the country’s mighty army, which is leaving no stone unturned to quell PTM. The response of the state, which is basically the army, has been one of repression and intransigence. In a speech in April 2018, army Chief Gen. Bajwa called PTM “engineered protests,” which, he said, won’t be allowed to succeed. Although he did not name PTM, it is clear that the General made the remark in reference to the rights-based movement. Recently, Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, who oversees the army’s media wing, threatened PTM leaders by saying, “Their time is up.” He branded PTM leaders as the agents of the Indian foreign intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing and the Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security. Moreover, the state’s controlled media has completely blacked out the organic civil rights resistance and has attempted to slander it.

The army and spy agencies have harassed, tortured and even killed PTM activists. On May 28, during an attempt to provoke PTM on violence in the Boyya area of North Waziristan, the soldiers opened fire on unarmed PTM protestors, leaving 13 dead and many injured. The security forces arrested PTM leader and member of parliament Ali Wazir, along with eight others, on charges of terrorism. Parliamentarian and PTM leader Mohsin Dawar also surrendered himself to the authorities.

Embed from Getty Images

Meanwhile, in February, the police killed Arman Loni, a professor and leader of PTM in Loralai, Balochistan. The security agencies banned the entry of PTM Chairman Manzoor Pashteen and other leaders in Balochistan for attending the funeral of Loni, claiming that their presence would disturb the peace and order of the region. Since funerals, as the civil resistance literature shows, are a potent source of mass mobilization, it is no surprise why the state’s security apparatus blocked the leaders from entering into the province. However, the fearless PTM leaders refused to be intimidated by threats and attended the funeral.

Despite the state’s repressiveness, PTM continues to mushroom in size and spirit. In Pakistan, due to fear of the army, assembling a movement of PTM’s scale was like crossing a bridge on a slender hair. In an interview with Al Jazeera, the young leader Pashteen said, “My father, wife and mother expect every day to hear the news of my death or disappearance.” But it seems like PTM has broken the cold spiral of fear. As a recent Chilean protest sign read, “They took away so much that they also took away our fear.” PTM leaders have repeatedly said that they cannot be coerced into submission because they have nothing to lose anymore. Ali Wazir has lost over a dozen members of his family to violence by the Taliban and has his businesses destroyed for standing up to the militants. All this happened under the state’s nose.

In the wake of 9/11, the people of Pakistan, particularly, the Pashtuns have suffered the most. It is public knowledge that close to 72,000 Pakistanis have lost their lives to terrorist violence. However, what is not yet known publicly is that the Pashtuns have suffered the brunt of the war. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, 42,094 deaths resulting from terrorist violence in Pakistan — out of 58,855 total from 2005 to 2016 — were in FATA and KP. Sindh followed with 7,732 casualties, along with 6,010 in Balochistan and 1,972 in Punjab. In proportional terms, 82 percent of fatalities took place in FATA, KP and Balochistan, which are predominantly Pashtun-populated regions. Moreover, the violence of the Taliban and army has destroyed bazars and homes and has displaced about 6 million Pashtuns multiple times in a single decade. 

It is against this backdrop that PTM emerged. The protection of Pashtuns against the perpetual cycle of war has become the rallying cry of the movement. Although the army has attempted to rouse PTM into violence in order to eliminate it by full use of force, the movement’s leaders have repeatedly said that Pashtuns are tired of war and have no wish to engage in a conflict. Inspired by the nonviolence philosophy of the late Pashtun leader Ghaffar Khan, the leadership has made a commitment to a peaceful political struggle against state repression. Pasthteen has said time and again that the Pashtun struggle will continue nonviolently until the last man of PTM is alive. 

This story was produced by International Institute for Peace

Founded in 2011, the International Institute for Peace is a UNESCO Category II organization based at Rutgers University, Newark. We are dedicated to the promotion of research and education on peacebuilding and conflict transformation, and the cultivation of a culture of peace.

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.