New Wine in a New Bottle

This Pashtun Uprising is different from those of the past. It is peaceful, and it focuses on rights within Pakistan, and not a broader Pashtun cause.

The coming out on the streets of large numbers of ethnic Pashtun marks a new phase in the history of Pakistan’s interface with its Frontier. What sparked this was the extra-judicial killing in January 2018 in Karachi of a young Mehsud tribal from South Waziristan. The local protests over this morphed into something larger with rallies in Islamabad, Peshawar and Lahore drawing in many others outside the Mehsuds. The demands in these protests also evolved beyond demands for enquiry into extrajudicial killings and amelioration of specific issues in South Waziristan such as demining, tracing missing persons removal of army road blocks etc. These rallies became the platform for a generalized sense of rage, helplessness and dissatisfaction amongst Pashtuns in general, and those in the tribal belt in particular, at having been treated no more as pieces on a chess board as the global war against terror was waged on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This change was captured in terms of nomenclature by the protesters first calling themselves the ‘Pashtun Long March’ and then the ‘Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement’ (Movement for Protection of Pashtuns) – PTM .

What has attracted most attention about these rallies is that they are peaceful. They provide a platform for denunciation and critique of Pakistan strategic policy, beginning with the anti-Soviet Jihad, the Pakistan army’s war in the tribal areas beginning from South Waziristan from 2004, and finally, and perhaps most destructive of all, the concerted use of land and air power from 2015 in Op Zarb i Azb. For those who live in the tribal areas, this history of extremism, militancy, counter insurgency operations and Pakistan state policy towards Afghanistan is a cocktail that has caused internal displacement, loss of livelihood, numerous disappearances and gross human rights violations

Many parallels from the past have been drawn for the PTM. Its peaceful protests compare with the famous Red Shirts and Bacha Khan, although the latter was at his strongest in the settled areas of the frontier rather than in the tribal agencies. The critique of the Army and the state intelligence agencies, and the general sense of anger and alienation also superficially suggests a linkage to equally old roots of Pashtun nationalism, separatism and to rejecting the division of tribals and tribal lands through the Durand line. There are also strong traditions of armed resistance to outside troops in the traditional tribal areas – troops of British India before 1947 and Pakistan post 1947- and the Pir of Ipi exemplified this in the 1940s and 1950s.

In this century as the Taliban and Al Qaeda displaced from Afghanistan post 9/11 sunk roots in North and South Waziristan and other agencies they had as their protectors local fighters who had participated in the Afghan Jihad against the Soviets. A figure such as Nek Muhammad was the first Pakistan Taliban leader with whom the Pakistan Army reached a formal agreement in 2004 – the core of the agreement was that the Army would stay away from the sanctuaries the Afghan Taliban had in South Waziristan, but Uzbek and other foreigners affiliated with Al Qaeda would not be given sanctuary by the local tribes. The agreement itself followed fierce fighting between the tribe he belonged to — the Waziris — and the Pakistan Army. The Agreement failed, and Nek Muhammad was killed in what was the first US drone strike within Pakistan. Nek Muhammad was the subject of numerous parallels drawn with the Pir of Ipi as representing a tribalist urge to keep outsiders away from their traditional homelands.

The rest, as they say, is history and the Pakistan army battled it out with the Taliban in agency after agency leading in turn to a war of attrition all over Pakistan. In the decade till 2016 there was no one in Pakistan left unscarred by this conflict, but clearly the worst hit were the Pashtun of the tribal areas. For them this war was not one of militancy versus the writ of the state since the writ of the state itself was believed to be responsible for militancy. Throughout the intense conflict after 2004, intelligence agencies sought to separate those elements who could still be useful as instruments of policy in Afghanistan. For the demonstrating Pashtun in PTM rallies, state policy is the principal driver in all the violence the region has seen. This is encapsulated by the slogan “Yeh Jo dehshat Gardi Hain, Iske peeche Vardi Hain.” (There is a uniform behind the terrorist).

That war now is now over, or at least seems to be over. After years of siege, Pakistanis are flocking to tourist spots, festivals, musicals and sports fields. For the tribal areas the aftermath is more mixed: Devastated habitations and livelihoods to start with, but more insidious, the racial profiling and consequent sense of exclusion many Pashtun experienced elsewhere in Pakistan. In many senses the current protests led by the PTM are a struggle to claim the peace–that the Federally Administered Tribal Areas should end their anachronistic existence and politics. The rule of law as elsewhere in Pakistan, howsoever flawed, should be given space and the security mindset that has governed the area and is responsible for its devastation should be ended.

The differences of the PTM with the traditional strands of Pashtun nationalism therefore stand out. The Awami National Party — successors to Bacha Khan’s legacy and ideology — was and is a force in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa rather than in the tribal areas. In many ways, with the renaming of the Frontier as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the acceptance of Bacha Khan as a Pakistani icon with the naming of Peshawar airport after him, and possibly most of all the 18th amendment of the Constitution reflected the end of that history where Pashtun voices were seen as somehow in contradiction with the idea of Pakistan. Similarly, the peaceful mobilization of the PTM distinguishes it from the armed rebellions of Pir of Ipi and others. The current protests are in fact a demand for rights within Pakistan, and the devastation that has taken place in the tribal areas gives the demand that added intensity.

Older issues about a Pashtun political identity that straddles the Durand line or opposition to the Durand line per se are not so much their concern. This is therefore also in some ways a generational shift of emphasis. The prickly and often confused response of the Pakistan military to the PTM in part reflects the dualism that still plagues its policy towards the tribal areas in particular but to Afghanistan in general. But more than this if those flocking to PTM rallies are clearly looking to the future with rights as the country’s citizens, Pakistan’s establishment trapped by history and Pavlovian responses cannot stop itself from constantly looking back. Trapped by images of their own experience over the past decade, any critique of its presence appears to the military as implying a reversal to the bad old days. But in the absence of a rethink they could well be going down the often-trodden route of self-fulfilling prophecy.