Pakistani activists of the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM) take part in a protest last year against the arrest of party leader Alamzeb Mehsud in Karachi. Photo: AFP / Asif Hassan

The Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM) emerged in late 2017 as an anti-military and anti-Taliban movement to advocate the case of Pashtuns in Pakistan in general and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in particular.

The PTM presented a five-point charter of demands: End Pashtun profiling, present missing persons before the court, clear FATA of landmines, establish a commission on extrajudicial killings of Pashtuns, and punish ex-police officer Rao Anwar, the alleged killer of Naqeebullah Mehsud.

Led by the energetic Manzoor Ahmad Pashteen, the PTM categorically criticized the pro-Taliban and anti-Pashtun policies of the Pakistani military. Before the emergence of the PTM, speaking out against the military was tantamount to inviting death. The Pashtun uprising seriously challenged the established narrative, that a patriot should not criticize the army as it is the only loyal guardian that protects the state of Pakistan against hostile countries. 

On April 8, 2018, addressing a mammoth public gathering in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pashtunkhwa province, Pashteen proclaimed, “We are against those who do wrong, whether it is ISI [Inter Services Intelligence], MI [Military Intelligence], good Taliban, bad Taliban or peace committees, we are against them.”

At the same meeting, another PTM leader and current member of parliament (MP), Ali Wazir, addressing the military said, “You are naturally shameless, otherwise your history is still buried in Bengal; unless you give [us] our rights, we will not let you sit in peace.”

On September 30, 2019, after his release from prison, another MP and key PTM member, Mohsin Dawar, slammed the military establishment in the National Assembly and conveyed a silent but meaningful message that no matter what Pashtuns are suffering from military atrocities, “one day I shall hold all of them accountable.”

He added that fake charges, detention of activists and imprisonments would not change the PTM’s struggle for constitutional rights and struggle against insecurity, suppression and injustice. 

Undoubtedly, the PTM also helped mainstream political parties criticize the military for involvement in political affairs. During then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s regime from 2013-2018, the establishment politicized the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to counter anti-military mindsets in the country.

Major political parties including the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) became the major victims of “accountability” charges. Sharif and former president Asif Ali Zardari were jailed in corruption cases, but to date, nothing has been proved against them.

Speaking against the military, Sharif called them “aliens,” and Zardari, now chairman of the PPP, called them the forces of darkness who are sabotaging the democratic system in the country.

In the wake of the PTM’s continuous mass public gatherings, staunch anti-military narrative, social-media campaigns, scheduled protests and support of Pashtun intelligentsia across the globe, the then spokesman of the Pakistan Army, director general of Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR) Major-General Asif Ghafoor, came forward with open criticism of the PTM.

Without any solid evidence, Ghafoor alleged that the PTM was a foreign-funded movement, probably backed by India or Afghanistan, but nothing was proved against the PTM or Manzoor Pashteen. 

On February 2, 2019, the PTM made a call for worldwide protest against insecurity in the Pashtun belt of Pakistan. In Loralai district of Balochistan province, a mob of police and other law-enforcement agents attacked a PTM rally. As a result, a member of the PTM’s Central Core Committee, Professor Arman Loni, was killed. The incident intensified Pashtun grievances in the country. A more vibrant narrative was taken up by the PTM against the military. 

Soon afterward, on April 29, 2019, Ghafoor categorically warned the PTM that its time was up. A month later, on May 26, the army opened fire on a peaceful rally of activists held by the PTM in Kharkamar, North Waziristan; 13 activists were killed and more than 30 seriously injured.

The PTM leadership, especially Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar, were blamed for this incident. The provincial government arrested both of them and imprisoned them for more than eight months, but nothing was proved against them. Thus it damaged the military’s credibility and was a major setback for its campaign against the PTM.  

The series of protests continued. The military opted to undermine the PTM by any means.

When Ashraf Ghani won the presidential election in Afghanistan, the PTM leadership called it a success of democracy and congratulated him. On the occasion of Ghani’s oath-taking ceremony, special invitations were given to Ali Wazir, Arif Wazir, Mohsin Dawar and other key figures of the PTM.

The Pakistani government at first prevented Dawar and Ali Wazir from participating in the ceremony, but finally gave permission – but late at night when there were no flights to Afghanistan available. Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir decided to travel by road. On their entry to Afghanistan via the Torkham border point, the Afghan government provided helicopter service to speed their arrival. The ceremony was even delayed for two hours so that PTM men could attend, which shook the Pakistani government and military establishment.

Some concerns echoed in the Pakistani political hemisphere that the PTM would pay a price for participating in President Ghani’s oath-taking ceremony. They were correct; on May 1, 2020, unidentified gunmen assassinated Arif Wazir as he was going to home from Wana, South Waziristan.

The PMT organized mass protests across the country to condemn the assassination of Arif Wazir, yet the entire state apparatus remained completely silent on the murder. A complete blackout was observed in mainstream media.

None of the federal ministers condemned his killing. At a press conference, when Minister for Information and Broadcasting Shibli Faraz was asked about the murder, he responded that he didn’t know anything about the incident. A tweet of the governor of Punjab’s verified account circulated in social media in which the Indian intelligence agency RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) and the Afghan NDS (National Security Directorate) were blamed for the attack. 

The point of consideration is: The military is the sovereign power of Pakistan. Political, security and religious affairs are firmly in control of the military establishment. Any threat to the monopoly of the military is considered a threat to Pakistan. In this regard, censored media, installed politicians and civilian institutions are also supporting the establishment’s cause of influence and authority in the country.

On the other hand, the PTM, a powerful civil-rights movement, demands constitutional rights and security of Pashtuns in the country. Though its anti-military narrative is strong and backed by Pashtun intelligentsia at the global level, challenging the military in a state like Pakistan is a matter of taking serious risk.

The military establishment will surely exercise its power to undermine the PTM at any cost, but the use of violence will prove catastrophic, leading the state to ethnic mobilization and national disintegration.

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Rahim Nasar

Rahim Nasar writes on regional security, political and strategic affairs with special focus on South Asia, Central Asia and Indian Ocean regions. He tweets on @RahimNasari.