The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Pakistan, a young Pashtun man was killed by police. Another has risen to lead a movement.

In a rare public challenge to Pakistan’s powerful armed forces, thousands of Pashtuns rallied April 8 in the northwestern city of Peshawar to call for an end to abuses by the police and military. (Abdul Majeed/AFP/Getty Images)
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PESHAWAR, Pakistan — The slight, sad-faced man of 26, in a plain white tunic and a red embroidered cap, might seem miscast as the emerging leader of millions of ethnic Pashtuns and the voice of pent-up grievances that this struggling tribal minority has accumulated in the years since the Cold War arrived in next-door Afghanistan a generation ago.

But when Manzoor Pashteen took the stage at a recent rally in this Pashtun heartland city, the self-effacing veterinarian was transformed into an impassioned firebrand. He demanded that Pakistan’s security forces produce hundreds of missing detainees and stop harassing residents of his native Pashtun tribal belt, where conflicts with Taliban militants have been raging for years.

Thousands of supporters cheered and chanted songs including “What Is This Freedom?,” a popular protest ballad about wartime repression. The emotional crowd included students and professionals drawn by social media, and burqa-covered tribal women carried posters of husbands or brothers who were seized in security raids and never seen again.

The rally on April 8 was a pivotal moment for the Pashtun Protection Movement, known by its Urdu initials, PTM. Once a tiny group that denounced abuses in the northwest tribal area, it burst onto the national scene in January after Naquibullah Mehsud, a young Pashtun man in distant Karachi, was shot dead in a police anti-terrorism operation. 

A surge of anger swept Pashtun communities across the country. For the first time, this scattered and struggling populace found common cause, especially via social media, raising the specter of a nationalist uprising among the minority of 40 million. Many Pashtuns have long dreamed of taking back a chunk of Pakistan that was arbitrarily cut off from Afghanistan by the British a century ago.  

Pashteen and his budding movement leaped into the fray. He organized a 10-day sit-in at the Islamabad Press Club, bringing together Pashtuns to denounce extrajudicial killings, disappearances and other official abuses. Since then, the movement has grown rapidly, drawing large and excited crowds to rallies, while Pashteen’s red cap has become a symbol of rebellion on social media.

A protest on Sunday in Lahore drew thousands, and Pashteen vowed to keep up the pressure.

“Pashtun discontent has been like lava, bubbling along for years and waiting to erupt,” Afrasiab Khattak, a former senator from the Pashtun-based Awami National Party, said in an interview last week. By building links with large but unorganized Pashtun communities in Karachi and Quetta in the southwest, Khattak wrote recently in the Nation newspaper, Pashteen’s Peshawar-based movement “has already become a political force to be reckoned with.”

Pakistan’s Pashtuns have borne the brunt of cross-border conflicts that have pitted Pakistani troops against both Afghan Taliban insurgents and domestic militant groups. Commingled with a huge Afghan refugee population, repeatedly displaced by fighting and constantly crisscrossing the Afghan border, Pashtuns have often been stereotyped as criminals, insurgents and tribal terrorists. 

Pakistan targets Afghan Pashtuns and refugees in anti-terrorism crackdown

Pashteen and his associates, largely young and educated Pakistanis who grew up in the chaos and routine violence of war, say they seek only justice under the law and the constitution, not to provoke ethnic unrest or secession. They take inspiration from nonviolent activists of the past, especially Bacha Khan, a Pashtun independence leader who worked with Mahatma Gandhi in India before the partition that created Pakistan in 1947.

But their explosion onto the national scene has aroused suspicion and concern in some quarters, especially in the powerful state security apparatus, which has been startled and angered by Pashteen’s accusations. His most provocative slogan charges that “the uniform is behind terrorism.” Military officials insist they have worked hard to eliminate terrorism from Pakistani soil, while U.S. officials accuse Pakistan of harboring Taliban insurgents.

“The Taliban are the product of the military. Our people have been caught between them for years, and they have suffered endless abuse and humiliation,” Pashteen said in an interview last week. He described a litany of abuse in the conflict-afflicted tribal areas, from soldiers confiscating a poor man’s chickens to insurgents brutally enforcing Islamic rules. “We want peace, and cruelty from either the army or the Taliban is not peace,” he said.

Publicly, the military has responded with mixed signals. Officials agreed to a few of the PTM’s demands, such as ending a requirement that anyone entering the militarized border tribal areas must present a special citizenship ID card. The army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, met with Mehsud’s family in Peshawar and vowed to bring justice, but he also warned that “engineered protests” would not be tolerated, a clear reference to the April 8 rally.

Behind the scenes, critics allege that security agencies have pressured mainstream Pakistani media not to report on the movement’s events, which have received almost no television coverage. They said security agencies are behind a competing spate of rallies where speakers have denounced Pashteen’s movement as treasonous and backed by Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies. 

But Pashteen and his movement have continued to press ahead. On Sunday, the PTM held another large and exuberant rally in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, undaunted by the temporary detention of its leaders the night before, the denial of a local permit and the deliberate flooding of the field where the gathering was planned.

Punjabi activists joined the event, lending it broader ethnic legitimacy. Pashteen spoke with extra boldness, vowing to hold rallies across the country. To those in the military who charge that he and his associates are terrorists and traitors, he retorted, “I am telling you, we are not terrorists, but you are terrorists . . . you are traitors.”

The new Pashtun movement has received an outpouring of support from Afghans, including a strong endorsement from President Ashraf Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun. But this has only made the movement more controversial, because relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan are tense. Both have repeatedly accused each other of sponsoring cross-border insurgent and terrorist attacks.

Pashtun political parties in Pakistan, on the other hand, have reacted warily to the nascent movement, partly out of fear of competition and partly because of concern that it could sabotage their longtime efforts to succeed within the formal political system, especially a campaign to bring full legal and political rights to the neglected, federally controlled tribal areas by merging them into the rest of Pakistan.

The Awami National Party, the country’s largest and oldest Pashtun party, has been especially critical. It recently removed two of Pashteen’s close associates from party posts after they refused to leave his movement. One former party official has worked to bring victimized tribal women to speak at PTM rallies — both an extraordinary departure from conservative Pashtun culture and a rare threat to security forces that are widely popular with the public and have long justified mass raids and detentions in the name of quelling Islamist terrorism.

At the April 8 rally, a woman whose face was covered by a burqa came to the stage and told her story to the spellbound crowd.

In an interview last week, she recounted again how her husband, a factory worker, had been detained by soldiers with no explanation in 2015, how she went to many army and police facilities but learned nothing, and how she has struggled to support her children alone ever since. 

“My husband worked from morning until night to feed us. If he did anything wrong, he should be taken to court,” said the woman, 30, who gave her name as Basroza and said she had never been to school. “I just want to know if he is dead or alive. This way, it’s like he was never even born.”

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