Pashteen’s PTM: A ‘Rights Movement’ or a new ‘Regional Agenda’?

Editor GVS Moeed Pirzada argues that Manzoor Pashteen’s continuing rallies, that are creating an impression that he is not being heard – despite being in touch with Army establishment on his own request – represent clearly a different set of ambitions.


Ahmed Khan, (not his original name) waits in his car behind a long line of other vehicles, for his turn to be checked. He can spot army soldiers with smart tablets putting in CNIC numbers of motorists for verifications. They are probably connected with NADRA records, he thinks. After more than 30 minutes, of increasing frustration, he reaches the point and was asked to get out for a physical body search. He finally managed to cross the check post in about 45 minutes.

Ahmed, originally from a rich SWAT landed family and traveling from Islamabad was furious. He was not alone, many others described similar scenes. This was a few days after a suicide bomber blew himself at Army’s sports unit, in Sharifabad, in Kabal Tehsil of Swat killing 13 soldiers including a Captain. The attack in the first week of February was worst since 2013 and brought back memories of TTP’s reign of terror.

It also brought back those check posts that dotted the landscape of SWAT after the army operation of 2009. Ahmed, the traveler from Islamabad, was not alone, for feeling the way he felt. Hundreds of others soon took to protesting, a tribal Jirga threatened a strike and local MNA, PTI’s firebrand, Murad Saeed, took up the issue in the parliament. Check posts disappeared – replaced in many instances by Aerial Drones that silently hover over the heads.

Manzoor Pashteen in Swat, Why?

On Sunday, 29 April, Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) supporters, led by Manzoor Pashteen, staged a rally in a Kabal ground attracting almost 5000 people. Local sources describe Pashteen speaking only in Pashto, to a crowd that had less than 500 locals (from within 15 Km radius); he thanked all those who have traveled, on his call, from Kohat, Zhob, Qila Saif Ullah, DI Khan, Swabi, Bannu, South Waziristan and even Quetta.

Pashteen’s supporters traveled in at least 270 vehicles, mostly coasters, counted at Dargai check post located near the Dargai fort. Local politicians claimed that they had told the administration to not let outsiders enter Swat (enjoying peace and tourism) in such large numbers from outside but their protests were turned down.

From “Boom Boom Afridi” to Gen Tariq KKhan who fought in tribal areas, as IGFC, and headed Pakistan’s first Strike Corps at Mangla, Pashtuns are an integral component of Pakistani mosaic. 

Pashteen and others including Mohsin Dawar spoke about extrajudicial killings, missing persons and mistreatment of Pashtoons in Pakistan. Strong words were uttered against the army which itself has a huge component of Pashtoons. Rally was mostly a function of the support it had from Mehmood Khan Achakzai’s “Pakhtoon Khwa Milli Awami Party” (PkMap) whose local leader, Khurshid Kakajee, Senator Usman Kakar and KP President, Mukhtar Yousafzai also addressed the crowds.

One day earlier, on Saturday, another large rally was organized, in the Grassy ground (Cricket Stadium) by a local movement which calls itself, “Pakistan Zindabad Movement” supported by local MPA, Abdul Hakim, and Abdu Rahim, leader of the Traders Association Mingora. Local politicians with representation in parliaments of KP and Islamabad see Pashteen’s PTM as trouble makers working on foreign agenda.

Local elite vividly remember TTP’s reign of terror and are grateful for peace in Swat, that has brought increasing investments and tourism and are worried that this disruptive political activity in the name of “Rights movement” may drive away tourists that flock Swat and its several adjacent areas in three months of summer starting from June.

Who is financing PTM?

A PTM supporter claimed that local elite who organized “Pakistan Zindabad Movement” and its rally are stooges of establishment and Saturday rally was financed. Criticism is valid, since holding political rallies is expensive. But this raises the question: who financed Manzoor Pashteen’s rally and why? This question becomes even more important because its apparent that Pashteen had no local support, in Swat; he brought his followers from far-flung areas – as he admitted himself – at great expense.

Why? This 27-year old’s grievances – admittedly genuine – are centered on issues inside the war-battered South Waziristan, where he belongs to one of the tribes (Mehsud); why is he turning that into a generalized Pashtun victimhood all across the country? Issues in Swat, as locals point out, are very different from South Waziristan.

TTP’s reign of terror, of public executions and floggings, of Khooni Chowk, was quickly routed by Army action in the summer of 2009 which saw one of the biggest heliborne operations, through attack helicopters, in recent history, around Peochar, a hill resort near Mingora. Several hundred young Taliban fighters were killed, unaccounted dead bodies kept floating in river Swat – many still counted as “missing” by their families.

There were reports, and even unconfirmed videos, of extra-judicial killings especially after some SSG commandos were beheaded by TTP after abductions – but the issue died then in 2009. Army check posts were troublesome to the local population but were gradually removed. Life returned to normal with civilian administration, police, judiciary and investments.

Read more: What is Pashtun Tahafuz Movement and what are its objectives?

In recent years’ tourists have thronged Swat, with such vengeance that it often creates road blockages. However, Swat Expressway kick-started in September 2016, with an estimated capital investment of Rs. 40 billion, is about to be completed; 81 km long, 80 meters wide, the highway will connect areas in Swat with Islamabad-Peshawar motorway and increase connectivity all over as it stretches from M1 motorway to Chakdara; passing through Nowshera, Swabi, Mardan and Malakand.

It will reduce the three-hour travel time to just 45 minutes. The road will be 80 meters wide and will reduce a three-hour travel time to just 45 minutes – giving a huge boost to trade and economy in the region all-around Swat. What bothers Swat’s intellectual elite is the lack of an effective criminal justice system; those who still remember Swat of the pre-1969 merger with central legal authority, point out that local western-style courts fail to deliver.

But all this is very different from the hot molten lava of a wounded Pashtun nationalism which PTM is trying to sell to disaffected communities of Pashtuns wherever they may exist from Waziristan to Lahore to Karachi.

Under Wali of Swat, a quarter-million population spread over 8000 sq. Km area, had access to 32 Tehsil Courts headed by Qazis that provided for swift, inexpensive justice that was rapidly implemented by the state authorities. Currently, an expanded population, two million strong, is being served by 12 police jurisdictions and modern courts that are often marred by inefficiency, lethargy and corruption delaying justice.

Local elites point out that failure of the criminal justice system and inability to resolve property and personal disputes is what had created the space for the Taliban to enter with their promises of quick justice – and those issues still exist. But all this is very different from the hot molten lava of a wounded Pashtun nationalism which PTM is trying to sell to disaffected communities of Pashtuns wherever they may exist from Waziristan to Lahore to Karachi. Swat has obviously not been a success in this endeavor but its struggle continues and much has to come.

Read more: Pakistan Zindabad Movement: Turning tide against the new wave of sub-nationalism

Pashteen’s Little Heard Meeting with DG ISPR?

DG ISPR (Inter-Services Public Relations) office located in Pindi, not far from the British Era Hotel Flash man, received an unusual call on Feb 8. It was from Manzoor Pashteen’s supporters, then doing a protest in Islamabad, requesting a meeting with DG. A surprised ISPR team – that had heard little of this “Pashteen” questioned: why Pashteen wants to meet DG ISPR?

How can ISPR help him? PTM supporters – many of whom had previously met ISPR as part of FATA Youth Jirga- requested that he wants to come and discuss his demands in person and this may lead to the end of their ongoing protest in Islamabad – centered around the arrest of SSP Rao Anwar of Karachi who allegedly killed Naqeeb ullah Mehsud.

Consequently, Pashsten and Mohsin Dawar, along with a total of 15 PTM workers or supporters (including many from SWA, verified through their CNIC cards) met DG ISPR. In a meeting that lasted more than 4 hours, they complained of problems in South Waziristan and presented five demands related to: Arrest of the murderer of Naqeeb Ullah Mehsud, Watan Card & harsh treatment at Check Posts, land mines, missing persons and compensations for the loss of property.

During this meeting, they were shown videos of development works across FATA and inter-dependent regions of KP (including: SWA, NWA, Khyber Agency, Malakand & Swat) and were connected on phone with Garrison Commanders (GOC) South Waziristan and North Waziristan and meetings were fixed with them. PTM leaders including Mohsin Dawar subsequently had those meetings, by around 15th of February, and text messages of thanks were duly received in ISPR.

Manzoor Pashteen addressing a PTM rally in Lahore

It was a result of those meetings that Watan Card checking was suspended, check posts were reduced, measures were taken to reduce waiting time at check posts, separate check posts for women were promised and efforts are being done to expedite the removal of landmines.

The records of this 4 hours long meeting – and the positions Manzoor Pashteen adopted subsequently – helps us to understand that, 27 year old, Manzoor Pashteen’s movement is less about issues inside South Waziristan and more about shaping a larger agenda – relying upon different changing causes to use them as excuses from time to time.

From the first moment, it has been acknowledged, by almost everyone in Pakistan, that these demands are genuine and they make sense and all issues should be addressed step by step.

But when, in the third week of April, Corps. Commander Peshawar, Gen. Nazir Butt, commented, while talking to media, that he thinks that demands of PTM are genuine – and he wants a Jirga to meet PTM leaders to resolve these issues – many in the international media and think tanks misconstrued that as a great achievement of PTM protests, or rallies, that they are now being listened – ignoring the basic fact that they were being listened even before.

Read more: Is the ‘Pashtun Tahafuzz Movement’ being exploited?

Waziristan: Struggle towards Normalcy

Reality is that the overall political and administrative system of Pakistan, a poor developing country, is under tremendous pressure because of its 15-year-old war against terrorism – ever since it decided to side with the US lead war in Afghanistan after 9/11. Pakistan is the only country that has regained its stability and maintained its center of gravity after the developments of 9/11 – it could have also followed the path of Iraq, Syria and Libya.

It is therefore understood that many new challenges have appeared while winning a difficult war. For instance, land mines were not laid by Pakistan Army but were deployed by TTP and its various affiliates to check the mechanized movement of a regular army that moves with armored personnel carriers, trucks jeeps and paraphernalia.

Hundreds of soldiers and officers succumbed to these land mines often referred to as IED (Improvised Explosive devices) in media. Maj. Gen. Sanaullah Khan Niazi was a famous case that generated global headlines. Locals, however, point out, that when Army allowed residents of South Waziristan to return, in 2015, it failed its responsibility in fully clearing the areas of these IEDs and several children and adults lost their lives.

Manzoor Pashteen's PTM
Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan militants in Swat in 2007

Army sources assert that removal of land liens is tedious and 100% success is not possible since IED’s drift from actual locations due to rain and winds. But locals have a point and its Army’s responsibility to expedite the removal of land mines. Also, the compensations of Rs. 400,000/house for repair or reconstructions offered by the federal government through Political Agents (PA) were insufficient – and this needs a better and more generous solution.

Having said this, one cannot ignore the context; normalcy and the local residents are returning to these areas after more than 10 years, thousands have died anonymously in these areas in hundreds of battles and skirmishes; Taliban always took away their dead bodies and buried them on their own and many went on to fight in Afghanistan – so there might not be as many “missing persons” or in custody as being claimed.

But all these issues can be addressed professionally one by one – as it happens after the end of protracted wars. Pashteen’s continuing rallies, creating the impression that he is not being heard – despite being in touch with Army establishment on his own request – represent clearly a different set of ambitions. It has also given rise to suspicions that he and his young crowd don’t have a mind of their own but are mere pawns in a larger scheme of things.

All those, who had vociferously demanded army action against Islamist or religious Pashtuns and supported drone strikes and “army action” are now shedding crocodile tears for ethnic Pashtuns. So a full-fledged effort is going on to add muscle, fiber and fabric to the narrative of Manzur Pashteen.

Watan Card has also been misrepresented to media or perhaps misunderstood. Official records reveal that Watan Card was initiated to help the Temporarily Displaced Persons (TDPs) after the 2009/10 operations against TTP in the agencies on the request of the locals of South Waziristan who were displaced from heights and were relocated to low lying areas in Tank, Bannu, Laki Marwat and DI Khan and so on.

Displaced persons were given money (Rs. 12,500/card/month) food and rations and these locals insisted that cards be issued to them to distinguish those who have voluntarily displaced, to facilitate operations, from those who have been living outside the agency on their own. Later, after 2015, the army and FC at their posts started using ‘Watan Card’ as an additional ID card to distinguish locals from those who may come from outside.

Though these cards have been suspended now on PTM’s insistence but it is interesting to point out that most Afghan refugees in these areas have Pakistan’s NIC cards but they don’t have ‘Watan Cards” and this may have led to issues in the area. It is believed by the locals that Afghan refugees constitute a significant support for Mr. Pashteen.

Pashtun Nationalism: Rise & Fall?

Pashtun nationalism in itself is not a new thing. Most areas that today constitute north and northwest of Pakistan made the corridor through which Central Asian, Turkish and Persian warriors – and whatever then constituted modernity – entered the vast low lying plains of Indus and headed south and east down towards Lahore or Delhi.

For the greater part of history, these areas, inhabited by Pashtuns or related tribes, at least up to Indus at Attock, have remained with undefined borders; kingdoms were identified with the cities they held. Afghan rulers of Kabul finally lost Peshawar valley to Sikh rulers of Punjab in earlier 19thcentury. Once Sikhs lost to British, in 1849 – India’s new rulers moving upwards from South – Afghans tried their level best, through war and pleadings, to regain control of Peshawar valley – but lost more territory in every effort.

Most of what constitutes today’s Baluchistan was lost by Kabul in last quarter of 19th century. This is how Baluchistan has large Pashtun population and Mahmood Khan Achakzai represents a certain sentiment – but mostly misunderstood and against the tides of history. Britain developed a modern commercial enterprise in South of Lahore leading to the rise of large metropolises like Bombay, Calcutta and Madras; areas upwards of Lahore were mostly frontier of the British empire.

By 1870’s Rawalpindi emerged as the largest military garrison in British India; objective was to contain threat from north and north-west, present-day KP had no name in British minds except calling it: North-West Frontier Province (NWFP); a term that irked Pashtun nationalists. After British withdrawal, rulers in Kabul thought of renewing the old claims. Afghanistan objected to Pakistan’s membership of United Nations in 1947/48 and encouraged tribesmen in FATA to rise against Peshawar and Karachi.

Manzoor Pashteen's PTM
Mahmod Khan Achakzai

Tribes guaranteed their freedoms by Jinnah never sided with Kabul. In 1960’s when Sardar Mohmmad Daud became Zahir’ Shah’s Prime Minister he sent troops across the Durand line into Bajaur Agency to stir an insurgency but tribes stood with Pakistan and routed the Afghan forces. Dauod was confronted by another Pashtun, in Pakistan: Ayub Khan.

Field Marshal came down hard against rulers in Kabul, he shut down Afghan transit trade indefinitely creating a crisis for landlocked Afghanistan. Issues were somewhat resolved by interventions of Britain and Saudi Arabia but Daud lost his hold on power mostly for this crisis – and had to resign in March 1963; Pakistan only then resumed normal trade routes for Afghanistan, in May 1963.

Irrespective of these setbacks, NAP (now ANP) of Bacha Khan and later Abul Wali Khan continued feeding on to the dream of a Pakhtunistan; whatever Pakistani establishment did from Karachi or Islamabad it could not suppress the idea. But strange things happen in history.

Pakhtunistan died its death in the Afghan war of 1979-87; confronted by the cultural differences of millions of Afghan refugees, now in their midst, the natives of the then NWFP (now KP) realized that they – in their outlook on life – are not the same people. Pakistani Pashtuns had moved on in the process of history deep into Pakistani identity, whereas Afghans due to their own peculiar experiences had moved in a different direction.

Read more: US Interest: Kiss of Death for PTM?

Pashtuns: An Integral Component of Pakistani Identity

Recently a naïve American writer defined Pashtuns as a “suppressed minority in Pakistan”. This is hilarious. Field Marshal Ayub Khan, shaped modern Pakistan from 1955 onwards laying the basis of its industrial structure. Yahya Khan, his successor in power, presided over the end of united Pakistan; Ghulam Ishaq Khan, respected civil servant turned President sacked first PM Benazir Bhutto and then PM Nawaz Sharif and when Nawaz insisted that he will take President along, it was the third member of the troika, Gen. Waheed Kakar, himself a proud Pashtun who fired them both.

Gen. Naseerullah Babar, often credited, though erroneously, for the creation of Taliban was a Pashtun who headed Pakistan’s first civilian lead operation against MQM in early 1990’s under Benazir Bhutto.

From Hashim Khan, to Jehangir Khan to Jansher Khan to Younas Khan to Umar Gul to “Boom Boom Afridi” Pashtun faces have defined Pakistani sports; from Capt. Karnal Sher Khan, Nishan-e-Haider, in Kargil, to Gen. Tariq Khan who fought in tribal areas, as IGFC, and headed Pakistan’s first Strike Corps at Mangla, from Ahmed Faraz to Jamal Shah, from ageless Zeba Bakhtiar to unforgettable Marina Khan Pashtuns are an integral, proud and assertive component of Pakistani mosaic.

From Army, Airforce, Central Superior Services, Corporate Board Rooms to roadside businesses and from talk shows to film and tv dramas, Pashtuns of all accents are a force inside Pakistan. Imran Khan, the most well-known face of Pakistan across the globe, often not referred to as Pashtun, had his mother from Waziristan and father from Mianwali. And it was the tragedy of Army Public School in December 2014, in Peshawar, that defined the national moment towards action against Taliban changing Pakistani laws and politics.

Lar o Bar Yo Afghan?

Is this interlocking embedded identity of “Pakistani Pashtun” now under threat by the antics of Manzoor Pashteen and his mentor Mehmood Khan Achakzai – shouting “Lar o Bar Yo Afghan” (Up and down, we are one Afghan nation; an old ANP era slogan meaning that from up in Afghanistan down in Pakistani territory we are one nation) in rallies and ably supported by US led media and think tanks?

While they may not succeed against the force of history and the strength of Pakistani nationhood, there is much to suggest that something like that is being conceived or promoted under the garb of a “rights movement”. Read Manzoor Pashteen’s twitter handle, connected with his Facebook page, fortunately in Urdu, and you can see that he is far less interested in finding solutions to the local problems and far more interested in inciting strong emotions of victimhood around an ethnicity and thus hate towards perceived aggressors.

But, no record exists of his taking any position against the hundreds of drone strikes that targeted FATA; this is a surprising disconnect, because for most Pashtuns the elephant in the room has been US presence in the region and attacks against Pashtun identity after 9/11. US media and think tank persons have suddenly started to present Pashtuns as an aggrieved helpless minority in Pakistan who are somehow dependent upon PTM to regain their confidence or win rights.

Manzoor Pashteen's PTM
Mahmod Khan Achakzai

A Kashmiri writer from Srinagar, analyzing the situation, recently wondered if a “Pashtun Spring” is being manufactured; and we know that “Spring Revolutions” originate and evolve less on ground and more on media and cyberspace and sudden interest of publications from New York Times, Washington Post, Foreign Policy to Asia Times Online and many many others points towards systematic efforts to create a “narrative”.

BBC Pashto, VOA –Deeva and France 24 all have been overactive – and all are state funded broadcasters. This is being reinforced by plethora of newer western web sites that are all using different words but more or less the same substance, a consistent message moving from different directions to create and reinforce a mental reality. This is further reinforced by teams of activists connected with NGO’s and international media inside Pakistan.

Most in Pakistani media and the strategic community had seen that video – thanks to WhatsApp traffic; however, it was dismissed as too ambitious and far too diabolical an accusation against the American friends. Tarpley is believed to be a conspiracy theorist. But then anyone who disagrees with the mainstream US narrative is declared conspiracy theorist – and has a funny post against him in Wikipedia.

All those, so-called “liberals” inside Pakistan, who had vociferously demanded army action against Islamist or religious Pashtuns and supported drone strikes and “army action” are now shedding crocodile tears for ethnic Pashtuns. So a full-fledged effort is going on to add muscle, fiber and fabric to the narrative of Manzur Pashteen – it had taken Gandhi and Jinnah several years of struggle before getting this kind of attention.

A respected US think tanker has even suggested in alarming fashion that Pakistan Army may use force against this movement. This is shocking and, apart from unusual interest, represents a “forward development of narrative” – totally disconnected from ground reality. Analyzing this propaganda, Pakistani authorities should instead be worried that any third force may harm any PTM rally or leader to manufacture a crisis inside and around Pakistan.

Read more: Pakistan Army ready to negotiate with Manzoor Pashteen; Corps. Commander calls…

Short-Term and long-term Implications of PTM?

What can PTM achieve in near future? PTI – sounds different from PTM only for one letter- had won in KP, in 2013 elections, riding on a wave of popularity, a kind of definite shift in politics. While widespread stories of ANP/PPP corruption did help, but it was mostly a Pashtun feeling – in a war-torn province hard hit because of post 9/11 events – for Imran Khan who had taken a strident position against US drone strikes.

ANP and PPP were seen as pro-American and thus not nationalist enough. Both parties were also hamstrung for being in the government and did not have that free hand to take positon on regional and international issues. Now PTM, that sounds very similar to PTI (just like TTP sounded similar to TTA; though very different in motivations) is trying to shape a new kind of “wounded Pashtun nationalism”.

And it is merely using “localized grievances in South Waziristan” disguised under a “Rights Movement” to create a bigger political capital; if it succeeds it can be in a positon to affect the overall direction of politics before the general elections that are scheduled in end July 2018.

PTI having serious prospects of getting around 45-50 seats in Punjab, is now hamstrung and cannot fully identify with a “wounded Pashtun nationalism” – and if it failed to counter the movement, it may suffer in polls in KP. PTM can throw its “political capital” with any player – perhaps decision will lie with Mehmood Achakzai whose main constituency lies in Baluchistan, and had hitherto no serious presence in FATA or KP.

Long-term implications?

In 2014, Webster Tarpley, a controversial American historian, author and analyst, appearing on Russian TV (RT) – Putin’s nemesis for CNN – argued that while President Obama is talking of special relationship with Pakistan, his agencies are planning to create secessionist movements in Pakistani Baluchistan and FATA – to disrupt the possibility of a new energy corridor that can connect China with the Middle East. (CPEC was little heard then).

A bemused, Anchorwoman asked how is it even possible? And Tarpley explained that by agitating Pashtuns living on both sides the Pak-Afghan border and forcing an autonomous area between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Most in Pakistani media and the strategic community had seen that video – thanks to WhatsApp traffic; however, it was dismissed as too ambitious and far too diabolical an accusation against the American friends.

Tarpley is believed to be a conspiracy theorist. But then anyone who disagrees with the mainstream US narrative is declared conspiracy theorist – and has a funny post against him in Wikipedia. Tarpley also claimed, several years ago, that US and Israel are encouraging insurgent groups to split Syria in several parts.

Today, almost all world, outside the transatlantic mental corridor, can readily understand that US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia tried using insurgent groups to dismantle Syrian state and have failed due to the Putin’s unusually muscular intervention. Tarpley’s forgotten video clip, from RT, is now again in circulation, on WhatsApp, focusing minds from Peshawar to Karachi.

Read more: Manzoor Pashteen spoke up in Lahore; what’s the solution to their…

The real solution for grievances in FATA lies in its mainstreaming and the best way forward remains its earlier integration with KP. A govt. The commission headed by Sartaj Aziz, adviser to PM, had submitted a detailed report recommending the same. However, despite having a massive demand from all political parties, FATA members and KP government and support from Army establishment, Nawaz Sharif kept dragging his feet.

His argument was that “not without Maulana on board”. So Maulana Fazal ur Rehman and Mehmood Achakzai singlehandedly did not allow FATA merger into KP – thus setting a stage on which now PTM is dancing. And now both Maulana and Achakzai are supporting PTM.

Nawaz – whose daughter recently joined PTM bandwagon – had thus not failed Pakistan on one or two counts but on many fronts. But, then this is what happens when someone suited to be a Mayor of Dina or Kamonkey becomes prime minister of a 200 million strong, strategically important, nation.

Moeed Pirzada is a prominent TV Anchor and Editor Strategic Affairs with Dunya News Network and a known columnist. He previously served with the Central Superior Services in Pakistan. He studied international relations at Columbia University, New York and Law at London School of Economics, the UK as a Britannia Chevening Scholar. He has been a participant in Chaophraya Dialogue, has lectured and given talks at universities and think tanks including Harvard, Georgetown, Urbana Champaign, National Defense University, FCCU, LUMS, USIP, Middle East Institute, and many others.

The writer is grateful to all those politicians, journalists, intelligence officers, supporters of PTM, and businessmen who agreed to speak off the record on this subject.

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