Rahimullah Yusufzai reports on a pressure group that is speaking out for one of Pakistan’s persecuted minorities, and angering the country’s powerful military

A rights-based movement started by members of the ethnic Pashtun group in northwestern Pakistan is attracting attention and support from political and human rights groups in the country.

The Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), or Pashtun Protection Movement, is also getting unprecedented coverage in the international media, which is compensating for the blackout of its activities on Pakistan’s numeroustelevision channels. The PTM and its supporters have also made extensive use ofsocial media to spread its message and defend its policies.

Led by 26-year-old veterinary medicine graduateManzoor Ahmad Pashteen, the PTM has been highlighting the issue of missing persons and the humiliation faced by many tribal people at roadside security checkpoints,not only in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata)where it first emerged, but also in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. The group is also demanding respect for the Pashtun people, who have long borne the brunt of militancy and military operations in their conflict-hit areas. Other PTM demands include the removal of landmines, which have taken a heavy toll in Fata, and the formation of a judicial commission to investigate the cases of those who have gone missing or been killed in fake police encounters.

One issue that put life into the PTM’s campaign was the assassination of a young tribesman, Naqeebullah Mehsud, in January this year in a fake police encounter in Karachi. Mehsud, an aspiring model from South Waziristan – one of the seven tribal regions in Fata – was kidnapped by the police from his shop on the orders of senior police officer Rao Anwaar Ahmad Khan. He was subsequently killed, along with three others, after being accused of involvement in terrorism. A police investigation later found that Mehsud was innocent. Following the intervention of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, Anwaar was eventually forced to surrender, after avoiding arrest for weeks. The PTM’s foremost demand was that Anwaar be arrested and punished. The case is now in the court, but the PTM has kept up the pressure and has vowed to win justice for Mehsud’s young wife and children.

The PTM has angered Pakistan’s powerful military by directly criticising it

However, the PTM has angered Pakistan’s powerful military by directly criticising it and blaming it for the suffering of the people of Fata. At its protest meetings, provocative slogans were raised against the army. It is the first time that the military has faced such severe criticism. Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa reacted by calling the protests engineered and saying that soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the fight against terrorism and for the defence of the country were the real heroes. Army officials have pointed out that the PTM is supported by elements hostile to Pakistan, citing as evidencea statement by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and other Afghan officials in support of the PTM and the media coverage given to it by the Western media, particularly the US. Denying the charges, the PTM leaders maintained thatthey were using their constitutional right to highlight the suffering of their people in a peaceful political way. They claimed the media blackout of their protest meetings was done at the behest of the army.

Despite the harsh rhetoric, the PTM and the government, including the army, have remained engaged through meetings and negotiations. The army arranged meetings of PTM leaders with generals commanding troops in North Waziristan and South Waziristan, two of the most affected areas in Pakistan due to the conflict, and also with Major General Asif Ghafoor, the director general of the army’s media wing, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR).

Formal talks have also been held between the PTM and a jirga (council) of tribal elders and parliamentarians formed by the government. However, no headway has yet been achieved in the few rounds of talks that were held. The PTM has reservations about the representative status and authority of the jirga, but it hasn’t yet withdrawn from the talks.

Issues raised by PTM will remain relevant even if Fata eventually becomes part of KP

The army has already taken steps to remove the grievances of the tribal population of Fata and also of the people in Swat and the rest of Malakand division, which is part of KP. With around 200,000 troops deployed in Malakand division, Fata and on the border with Afghanistan, the Pakistan Army has the most critical role in the region for maintaining security and preventing the return of local and foreign militants who fled across the Durand Line border to Afghanistan after suffering defeat in successive military operations. The army has drastically reduced the number of security checkpoints, tried to improve dealings with people passing through the checkposts by deploying Pashto-speaking soldiers and instructing them to be polite, expediting de-mining operations in Fata, and undertaking massive development work in the education, healthcare, agriculture and other sectors to create better conditions for the more than two million tribespeople who were displaced by the conflict and have now been repatriated to their homes and villages.

However, the PTM is still not fully satisfied. After each public meeting that draws crowd, the group becomes more demanding. It has become emboldened due to support from human rights activists, progressive political workers, and those belonging to other ethnic groups seeking their rights. Still the PTM has its roots in Fata, located on the border with Afghanistan and poised to undergo changes following the passage of the bill in the Pakistan’s parliament for its merger with neighbouring KP province.

The decision by the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) to end the special status of Fata and make it part of KP was taken just a week before the end of the five-year term of the government. Though it will take time to fully integrate Fata into KP and extend the country’s judicial and administrative system to the hitherto neglected tribal areas, the first steps have already been taken for the merger to be accomplished by 2019.

CATALYST: The January assassination of a young tribesman, Naqeebullah Mehsud, spurred on the PTM’s campaign
CATALYST: The January assassination of a young tribesman, Naqeebullah
Mehsud, spurred on the PTM’s campaign

The mainstreaming of Fata has been an old wish of many tribespeople and the demand of almost all political parties and human rights groups. The process was in the works, more so since 2016, when the PML-N-led federal government under Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif constituted the Fata Reforms Committee to make recommendations for bringing the tribal areas into the national mainstream through political, constitutional and economic reforms.

The government was made to realise the urgency of the situation after spending two years trying to create a political consensus on the reforms recommended by the Fata Reforms Committee.  Unrest among the tribal people, particularly the youth, could no longer be ignored. The youth-dominatedPTMhad started attracting support not only in Fata, where it first emerged, but also among the ethnic Pashtuns of KP, Balochistan and even Pakistan’s most populous city, Karachi.  While the PML-N understood the importance of the landmark Fata reforms that it had undertaken and the credit it could claim if these are implemented, its government was handicapped due to opposition to Fata’s merger with KP by two of its political allies, the JUI-F led by Maulana Fazlur Rahman and the PMAP headed by Mahmood Khan Achakzai.

The merger of Fata with KP will take time, though it has been announced and the bill passed. Replacing the tough Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR)by a proper judicial system and installing a new administrative and policing structure in Fata will need sustained political commitment and resources.

Issues raised by PTM will remain relevant even if Fata eventually becomes part of KP. The army would remain deployed in Fata for the foreseeable future. Also, Fata will not become fully stable until neighbouring Afghanistan is made peaceful and stable.

The PTM has not taken a public stand on Fata reforms, the merger and other relevant issues. It could face differences in its ranks if it supports or opposes Fata’s merger with KP. This is the reason it is not making public its stance on the merger and reforms issues. One issue that will keep the PTM going is that of missing persons, which provides it emotional support. However, the group will find it increasinglychallenging to sustain its appeal in view of the changing situation in Fata and the renewed vigour with which the government, in particular the military, is trying to solve the problems facing the tribespeople and make life easier for them.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Pakistani journalist and Afghanistan expert. He was the first and last reporter to interview Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and twice interviewed Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1998. His achievements have been acknowledged by several prestigious awards, including Tamgha-e-Imtiaz and Sitara-e-Imtiaz

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