At a time when Pakistan believes it has managed to pave the way for the Taliban to return to power in Kabul, the growing popularity of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement is an untimely thorn in the flesh.
On May 1, Sardar Muhammed Arif Wazir, a Pashtun political leader in Pakistan, was fatally wounded in a drive-by shooting by unidentified men as he stood outside his house in South Waziristan.
With gunshot wounds in the head and neck, Wazir was moved to a hospital in Islamabad, where he succumbed to his injuries the following day. The news of his death triggered an outpouring of grief and anger among the Pashtun in the North-West Frontier areas of Pakistan.
‘Dawn’ newspaper said thousands gathered for his funeral in Wana, the main town of South Waziristan, on May 4, despite COVID-19. On May 5, there was another large gathering to protest the killing, and protests in other towns.
Wazir was part of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), a group with wide support in what used to be the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, in particular in South and North Waziristan, the geographical centre of Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy. Though the identity of Wazir’s killers is not known, the PTM and its supporters blame the Pakistan Army and the ISI.
Mohsin Dawar, a prominent leader of the PTM, and a member of Pakistan’s Parliament, tweeted upon Wazir’s death that “Arif Wazir was murdered by ‘good terrorists’. Our struggle against their masters will continue.” The hashtag #StateKilledArifWazir began trending on social media soon after.
The PTM is a strident critic of the Pakistan Army’s proxy war policy through jihadist groups and its extension, the shadow wars within the country. Just two years old as a political party, it is the only organised political force that now challenges the Pakistan Army openly.
Wazir, a 38-year-old who had a large support base in South Waziristan, was an outspoken and vocal critic of the security establishment. Just four days before he was shot, he had been released on bail after being arrested on April 17 on hate speech charges for allegedly making an “anti-Pakistan” speech on a visit to Afghanistan earlier in the month.
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Wazir had spoken in Afghanistan about the impact of war on the lives of Pashtuns in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the need for unity in the Pashtun community. Over the last two years, according to HRCP, he was arrested six times and in all, had spent 13 months in detention.
Wazir’s violent death has once again brought attention to the PTM as a growing political movement in the north-west regions that has made the Pakistan state nervous and which it is doing everything to suppress. The Pashtun are Pakistan’s second largest ethnic group.
The PTM was building up since 2014 and burst on the political scene in 2018, when large numbers of Pashtun began a “long march” from Dera Ismail Khan — where many from the tribal areas have moved after being dislocated by the “war on terror” — 300 km away to Islamabad, to protest the killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a Pashtun youth, in an alleged encounter in Karachi.
Their peaceful two week sit-in in the Pakistan capital from January 28 to February 10, 2018, shook the security establishment.
The dharna was led by the 26-year-old Manzoor Pashteen, who founded the PTM as a 20-year-old student back in 2014. His family, like thousands of others, had to leave home in south Waziristan and settle in Dera Ismail Khan, a town in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
He and the others he mobilised had all come of age during the US war on terror in Afghanistan, in which Pakistan was enveloped from the start.The tribal areas on the North-West Frontier were in the direct line of fire.
For two decades and longer, FATA in general, and South and North Waziristan have been a safe haven for al-Qaeda, the Haqqani network and Afghan Taliban, under the indulgent gaze of the Pakistan Army. The region is a revolving door through which jihadists of all nomenclature enter and exit Afghanistan at will, crossing over the rugged mountains that constitute the border between the two countries.
As the two Waziristans became a battleground for the Americans (remotely via drones), the Afghan Taliban, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, and the Pakistan Army, the PTM’s aim was to protect, as its name suggests, the Pashtuns who lived there and whose lives had been destroyed.
The PTM describes itself as a non-violent rights based movement that frames its demand to be treated equally with other citizens of rhe country within the framework of Pakistan’s constitution.
The PTM anthem Da Sanga Azadi Da (of what use is this freedom) has resonated among the Pashtun. The party wants accountability from the most powerful institution in Pakistan for putting FATA in the eye of a storm that continues to rage in Afghanistan, for disappearances and the killings of civilians in targeted operations or as collateral, and other violation of rights.
The 2009 formation of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan was a turning point for those living in the tribal areas. The Pakistan Army’s subsequent operations against the TTP, termed “the bad Taliban” because they targeted Pakistan by carrying out suicide bombings and other attacks across the country, were seen by Pashtun as stereotyping the entire community as terrorists.
“Peace committees” that got weapons and money from the Army became de facto rulers of these areas, and acting as the Army’s proxies, pitted Pashtun against Pashtun. At the same time, the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and other goups that were “good Taliban” in the eyes of the Pakistan security establishment were given a free pass. The areas continue to remain turbulent. On Friday, news reports in Pakistan said one Frontier Corps personnel was killed and two others were injured.
“We are not anti-Pakistan; we are only anti-terrorism. We are against oppression in all its forms – be it perpetrated by “good or bad Taliban” or by the Pakistani military’s intelligence agencies,” Manzoor Pashteen told Deutsche Welle in an interview last year.
At a public meeting in Lahore, he asked: “Who is a traitor? We who ask for our rights peacefully as prescribed in the Constitution, or those people in uniform, who have violated the Constitution repeatedly?”
The 2018 Islamabad sit-in was PTM’s coming of age moment and transformation into a political party. It contested parliamentary elections that year, winning two seats. Dawar, who is in his 30s, and Arif Wazir’s cousin Ali Wazir, are its two parliamentarians.
Arif himself narrowly lost the simultaneously held election for the Khyber Pakhtunkwa provincial assembly by about 800 votes. He had been detained and and put in jail in the middle of his campaign.
The Army has been particularly harsh in the manner in which it has reacted to the PTM and its popularity among the Pashtun. It has described the PTM as “anti-state”, “traitors”, funded by foreign forces and as terrorists.
At a press conference in August 2019, Lt. Gen Asif Ghafoor, then the military spokesman, asked of the PTM: “Tell us how much money did you get from the NDS [Afghan intelligence agency] to run your campaign? How much money did RAW give you for the first sit-in in Islamabad?”
Though two of its leaders sit in the National Assembly alongside other elected representatives, the Army has successfully implemented a blanket ban on media coverage of the PTM. There was skeletal coverage of Wazir’s death. At the press conference, Ghafoor laid down that media must not interview any PTM representative, as this would be anti-Pakistan act. The PTM has countered by working through social media, where its leaders have a massive following.
Wazir was not the first PTM leader to be eliminated. According to the HRCP, in 2019, Ibrahim Arman Loni, a core committee member of PTM in Balochistan, was killed. Others have been in and out of detention, usually for sedition.
Gulalai Ismail, a PTM members and a women’s rights activist, had to flee Pakistan. Both parliamentarians have undergone arrest. In January 2020, Pashteen was arrested with other PTM members and supporters and was released on February 15, 2020.
Last May, the Pakistani Army and PTM supporters clashed near the site of a public meeting in North Waziristan where Dawar and fellow MP, Ali Wazir were present. The clash killed 13 PTM supporters, and left people 25, including five soldiers wounded.
The Army’s fears about the PTM go back to Pakistan’s muscle memory of Pashtun nationalism and a nascent Pashtun independence movement that drew from both sides of the Durand Line, around the time of India’s independence and Pakistan’s birth.
The Khudai Khidmatgar, led by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, opposed the partition of India, decided it did not want to be part of Pakistan and demanded independence instead. Some Pashtuns in Afghanistan still speak of a Greater Afghanistan that would include the north-west areas of Pakistan.
In Balochistan too, where a Baloch nationalist movement has long simmered, the PTM has support among the Pashtun. There is much interest in and support for PTM in Afghanistan, where it is seen as a counter to the Taliban. Conversely, Pakistan’s dance with the Taliban and Islamism is to prevent secular Pashtun nationalism from striking roots.
At a time that Pakistan believes it has managed to pave the way for a Taliban comeback in Kabul, the PTM’s growing popularity among Pashtun, is an untimely thorn in the flesh.
While there is no official response from the Army to the accusation that it was behind the killing of Arif Wazir, pro-Pakistan Army handles on social media sought to blame the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan intelligence agency.
Arif Wazir’s killing will not end the PTM. If funerals are any indication, the turnout at his was similar to the attendance for militant funerals in Kashmir. As well though, it has struck fear among a vanishing tribe of Pakistani dissenters that those who are outspoken against the Pakistan Army will not be tolerated.