Young Activists, Fed Up With Alleged Abuses Challenge Pakistan’s Military,
BANNU, Pakistan—A movement of young activists, tired of being caught up in the crossfire of the war on terror in Pakistan’s northwest, is challenging the country’s military.
The group, from the Pashtun ethnic minority, is pushing back against what it sees as systematic human-rights abuses by Pakistan’s powerful military and its sincerity in combating all terrorist organizations.
The movement is led by a political novice, Manzoor Pashteen, and powered by a blitz on social media that circumvents a domestic media blackout on the group. The mainstream media’s regulator is increasingly enforcing a legal provision barring criticism of the military.
The Pashtuns in the country’s northwest have been the front line in Pakistan’s battle with extremism, with both the Pakistani Taliban and the Afghan Taliban made up largely of Pashtuns. But the activists say they want to show that Pashtuns are peace-loving as a community.
The group calls itself the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, or Movement for the Protection of Pashtuns. Overall, Pashtuns make up an estimated 15% of the population and predominate in the areas of the country that border Afghanistan.
At a recent group seminar held for 300 invited guests in the northwestern town of Bannu, more than 1,000 people pushed into a hot, airless auditorium. Dozens got out their phones to stream Mr. Pashteen’s speech on Facebook Live.
“Since 2004, due to terror and in the name of terror, the common people have suffered in our land,” Mr. Pashteen told the crowd, speaking in the Pashto language of the area. “The constitution and law of this country needs to be respected.”
Local students, forming a security cordon, struggled to hold the throng back from Mr. Pashteen, a fiery speaker who has catapulted in recent months from an unknown into a superstar for his followers. His trademark black and red “Mazari” cap is now a symbol of dissent—so much so that Bannu’s University of Science and Technology banned students last week from wearing it.
Beyond Pakistan, Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. There, they have demonstrated in favor of the movement, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, a Pashtun, has made a supportive statement.
Under American pressure, Pakistan sent its army in 2004 for the first time into the country’s tribal areas, which are populated by Pashtuns, as the place had become a haven for Taliban and al Qaeda fighters who had retreated from U.S. forces in Afghanistan. What followed was unremitting conflict, as a sliver of the local population became radicalized, formed the Pakistani Taliban and took control of the area, including parts of the adjacent province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, also populated largely by Pashtuns. The Pakistan army has countered with multiple operations ever since.
The movement says it has had enough of the fighting in Pashtun areas. It alleges that the Pakistani military is responsible for abductions, torture and extra-judicial killings. It has gathered details of 8,000 “missing” Pashtuns. And it says that Pashtuns are regularly harassed at army check posts. The military denies these abuses.
The group also accuses the Pakistani military of supporting some jihadist groups—the so-called good Taliban that work as its proxies in Afghanistan—but which terrorize the local population in their safe haven in Pakistan. The group says that these “good” militants are allowed to drift back into areas in Pakistan declared cleared by the military in Pakistan’s northwest, under the guise of “peace committees.”
“Terrorism as a state policy must end,” said Mr. Pashteen, in an interview.
Detractors of the Pashtun group say it is playing into the hands of Pakistan’s enemies, including Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies, by criticizing the country’s military.
The Pakistani military, which didn’t respond to requests for comment, says it is acting against all extremist groups. The military denies human-rights abuses and says it has quashed most of the domestic terrorist threat in recent years, but it still has some 200,000 soldiers deployed along the border to guard against militant groups based in Afghanistan. In turn, Pakistan says that Afghan and U.S.-led forces inside Afghanistan haven’t done enough to combat militants that threaten Pakistan from across the border.
“Peace has just come to FATA [the tribal areas], and certain people have started a new movement,” said Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Qamar Bajwa, last month in a speech. “Some people from inside and outside the country are trying to damage this nation, but I want to tell them, whatever you do, as long as the people are behind this army, nothing can happen to Pakistan.”
The movement’s members say they are also rebelling against their own Pashtun society, which is traditionally led by elders. The new, more-educated generations say they have seen their elders either killed by militants or largely acquiescing to militants and the military. Concerned Pashtuns from different areas have connected through Facebook, building an extensive network.
In a country where people fear to criticize the military by name, 26-year-old Mr. Pashteen’s blunt condemnation of the armed forces has unleashed a flood of similarly direct criticism of the military from his followers. He also calls out extremist groups, another feared topic.
“Who’s been bombarding our areas? I have to take their name,” Mr. Pashteen said. “These last 15 years, people have spoken in guarded language, but it wasn’t listened to.”
The movement’s criticism of the Pakistan military’s use of jihadist proxies echoes longstanding concerns in Washington. But the group blames the U.S. for fueling the conflictby giving billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan’s military since 2001. Earlier this year, the Trump administration suspended security assistance to Pakistan.
Although Mr. Pashteen had been campaigning largely unnoticed for a number of years, a movement coalesced around him this year, ignited by the case of an aspiring Pashtun male model allegedly executed by the police in Karachi. The accused police officer, who denies the charge, is facing trial. Thousands have attended the group’s protest rallies across Pashtun areas of the country, but also in Islamabad and the eastern city of Lahore, where non-Pashtuns also joined the events.
Karachi, where a protest is planned for Sunday, is far from the Pashtun historic heartland but it has the biggest concentration of Pashtuns anywhere, with an estimated 4 million living there. It is also Pakistan’s most violent and diverse city, with a history of ethnic conflict. The movement says that Karachi has seen the most cases of extra-judicial killings of Pashtuns.
Some experts see the military shaken by the group’s criticisms. In late April, Gen. Bajwa called in a group of retired Pashtun civilian and military officers for consultation, said Saad Muhammad, a retired brigadier who attended.
The army announced Friday a reduction in the number of check posts in North and South Waziristan, two parts of the tribal areas most ravaged by terrorism. However, the movement says it is concerned about the military’s overall antiterror strategy, not just check posts.
“Deep down, the army feels some of their grievances are justified, it feels they need to talk to them,” Mr. Muhammad said. “If it deals with them harshly, other powers in the region could take advantage.”
—Safdar Dawar contributed to this article.
Saeed Shah at firstname.lastname@example.org