The Pakhtun Movement- the Arrival of a long-time Revolution in the making

Spearhead Analysis – 04.04.2018

By Fatima Ayub
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

The infamous British-era Durand Line is inhabited by nearly 50 million ethnic Pashtuns, on both sides of its war-torn borders in the northwestern frontiers of Pakistan and the neighboring terrain of Afghanistan. The Pashtuns  over the decades have been stereotypically described, perhaps on account of their geographical proximity by historians and contemporary writers, as the martial race who loves to fight and kill with little regard for peace and development.

In the past year, two important movements relating to Pakhtuns and led by Pakhtun youth that have emerged in Pakistan  have attempted to shatter the prevalent stereotype and announce the arrival of a politically conscious and socially charged people who stand united in their demand to be seen, heard and acknowledged. : The FATA Youth Jirga, the youth movement calling for the merger of Federally Administered Tribal Areas with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the second spurred by the killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a young Pashtun in Karachi, amalgamating into a revolutionary arrival of what is referred to as the Pakhtun Long March, a 10 day protest in the federal of the county that has demanded an immediate end to violations of rights of Pakhtuns, their enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings that have plagued the ethnic group for over a decade.

Since 9/11 and the advent of the War on Terror that was waged in Pakistan’s frontiers, it is difficult to understand how this Pashtun region turned from a peaceful borderland into an incubator of extremism.

Currently, at least 70 percent of the region’s five million people live in poverty, the literacy rate is just 10 percent for women and 36 percent for men, and the infant mortality rate is the nation’s highest. For years, Pakistani militants have used the lawless area to initiate assaults against Pakistan’s government and against United States-led forces in Afghanistan. The situation is being exploited to carry out subversive and terrorist activity against Pakistan from Afghanistan. The recent ingress of IS into Afghanistan has led to violence in Pakistan as it tries to get a foothold in Pakistan.

Both the Pashtun movements have common characteristics: they are completely peaceful, largely led by youth, demanding justice from a state seen by them as complicit in rights violations. These movements have no political affiliations and involve an organized use of social media for projection.

The demands of both relate to the security policies of the state, and involve a discussion on Pakhtuns, who have been linked to the narrative of terrorism. This discussion is considered taboo. This was evident in the conspicuous lack of coverage given to the Pakhtun Long March sit-in in Islamabad.

Access of media personnel and news to and from Fata has been limited owing to threats from both state and non-state actors. There remain few alternatives to news by pro-establishment journalists who only seek to highlight the stats and numbers of attacks and causalities and the official statements to go with them.

Even with the recent Pashtun protests, the mainstream media has provided little coverage to either of the movements but the triumph of the Pashtun Long March, despite the attempts to nullify it speak volumes about how the persistence of the protesters and their message reverberated loud and clear, with the rest of the population of the state who stood by them and their political elites, who were ultimately forced to listen.

Naqeebullah Mehsud; A profile

What is striking about Naqeebullah’s murder that set off the Pashtun awakening is the banality of the incidence.  By any standard, Naqeebullah’s murder has not been the first and neither have the details or reasoning behind his cold-blooded assassination new in the long line of violent testimonials against the Pashtuns.

 On the evening of January 3, Naqeebullah Mehsud, a 27-year-old father and aspiring model from Waziristan, was forcefully abducted during a raid by police personnel in Karachi. He went missing for at least 10 days.

On January 13, police said that they had killed four “terrorists” suspected of having links to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group and the Pakistan Taliban. A police inquiry ordered by the Supreme Court of Pakistan later revealed that Anwar had presided over 444 killings in 745 police shootouts.

The investigation found no evidence to Anwar’s claim that Mehsud was a “terrorist”.

Rao Anwar since then like most guilty absconders was on the run till his surrender– and Pakistan in the following days awakened to a rallying cry of the Pashtuns that since long had been in the making.

A History of Oppression and Marginalization

Since 2001, the Pakistani military has launched 10 operations against militant strongholds in the region, most recently in 2013 in North Waziristan.

Decades of state neglect have inflicted immense damages on the lives of the tribal people. However, their worst suffering began following the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

Since then, the people of FATA, which is composed of seven tribal districts spread along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan like a crescent, have been the worst-affected populace in Pakistan and the region. Caught between the crossfires of first, the Taliban and their al-Qaeda guests and later, the Pakistani security agencies, the tribal peoples’ houses destroyed in the name of anti-Taliban operations; their mosques and hujras (Pashtun guest houses) bombed by the Taliban and al-Qaeda and their families and elders displaced to camps ill-equipped to deal with the strenuous weather.

Finding justice for any of the atrocities committed against the Pashtuns has been elusive; The Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan (FATA) are governed under regulations dating from the era of British colonial rule. Pakistani courts and Parliament have no jurisdiction there; instead, they are ruled by a “political agent” appointed by the central government. Pashtuns and others living in the tribal areas have few rights and can be exiled, their homes and businesses razed, and members arrested en masse over minor transgressions.

These protests then must be put in the context of the FATA region’s history. FATA formed the buffer between the British Empire in India and Afghanistan, an area close to the Russian Empire’s sphere of influence in the 1800s.

The Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) of 1901 was a criminal law promulgated by the British to grant autonomy to the Pashtun tribes in exchange for a promise of security against Russian invasion. After the partition of India and Pakistan, the Pakistani state has continued to implement the FCR in the tribal areas and used it as a base to launch the resistance against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, with the help of the CIA.

Today, the imposition of curfews in Fata and Swat is routine, and rounding up of locals after an attack on the military has also drawn protests. The collective punishment clause of the draconian colonial Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), 1901, has been employed several times whereby all male members of a tribe are punished for the act of one person from the tribe, and in the absence of a court system, justice is administered by the local political agent.

In the realm of law too, the Pashtuns have been relegated to subjects ruled by a different, law-less reign. The normal Pakistani judicial system is not applicable in the tribal areas; the only road leading to justice is the office of the British-era political agent or the outdated jirga system, under which tribal elders decide cases ranging from petty crimes like theft and the land disputes to blood feuds. Jirga justice has been used to justify cruel rituals such as “honor killings” and “swara” (giving a girl, irrespective of her age, to the aggrieved party to settle a blood feud).

Manan Ahmed Asif, a professor of history at Columbia University, called the tribal areas “a geography outside the laws of the nation,” where militant groups had found that “violence could be meted out with little regard to its inhabitants.”

A cursory glance will reveal that even today, there exist several checkpoints set up in Fata and in Swat, often at very close intermittent distance from one another that make movement for locals cumbersome. Instances of humiliation of locals here causes resentment of being treated like a suspect in one’s own land. For South and North Waziristan Agencies, locals were issued special cards without which they could not enter, referred to as ‘Waziristan visa’ by locals. In the wake of the protests some steps have been taken to address these issues.

Mobile internet has been blocked in Fata since June 2016, and broadband connectivity is restricted to only a few towns, in what appears has been a deliberate attempt to minimize any plight of the people of these bereft regions from being highlighted.

In the aftermath of the military offensive, Pakhtuns often found themselves being racially profiled in the rest of the country, polarized by even the provincial laws that saw them as ‘others’

Following 2010, the Sindh and Punjab governments unconstitutionally barred entry of IDPs from FATA after the military operations, and citizens hailing from FATA began to be profiled as terrorism suspects.

This public narrative, including in the media, also played a major role in making these extrajudicial killings possible. Additionally, anti-terror laws such as the Protection of Pakistan Act 2014, the Anti-Terrorism Amendment or Act and the Actions (in Aid of Civil Power) of 2011 have legalized arbitrary detention of suspects without a warrant, as well as given policing powers and immunity to the law enforcing agencies, both of which have affected due process and human security.  

In the case of Naqeebullah Mehsud’s murder, many political anthropologists cite that the movement for justice picked up pace because the perpetrator was a civilian police officer, and thus the murder was obviously and blatantly an injustice. Police capacity and competence remains marginal forcing the military and rangers to take up law enforcement though the administrative machinery remains under the provincial government.

More poignantly, there is a long-held grievance bordering on resentment; An organization in Pakistan’s insurgency-wreaked regions says its preliminary lists have identified more than 8000 people who have become untraceable over the course of the last decade. The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) or Pashtun Protection Movement, an organization in Pakistan’s insurgency-wreaked region, has identified over 8000 disappearances of Pashtuns that are untraceable to this day. While the Pakistani government agreed to immediately address the issue of landmines and promised justice for Mehsud, its response to other issues such as enforced disappearances was muted.

Since 9/11, the term “missing person” has been very prevalent in Pakistan’s public narrative, with average citizens, political activists, journalists or people suspected of links with terrorist organisations disappeared or killed

For years, families of alleged separatists, militants, activists, and dissidents have accused government agencies of abducting and detaining their loved ones.

The military and numerous Pakistan intelligence agencies, however, vehemently deny their involvement.

In 2011, the government established the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances to investigate the issue. By late 2017, it claimed to have traced more than 2,000 people. But the fact remains; the identification of most of the victims filed as ‘recovered’ persons were actually dead bodies, and aside from the confirmation of their identity and death, the Commission has failed colossally in initiating any investigation against the persecution of the individuals.

Additionally, promised reforms for FATA or its merger in KP never materialized, and the existing colonial structure in the region left the Pashtuns often at the mercy of bureaucratic elites allied with war lords

The Pashtuns for many years thus have been aware that the only time that the Pakistani state has truly engaged the tribal areas or its inhabitants were when FATA residents were needed to fight Pakistan’s wars — be that the 1948 fighting in Kashmir, the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, the strengthening and backing of the hardliner Taliban militia in the early 1990s, or providing a support base for the Taliban jihad in Afghanistan.

Naqeebullah Mehsud’s killing, when viewed in this context, was just the tip of the iceberg.

The Significance of the Pashtun Awakening

It is a great testament to Pashtun solidarity and leaders of the protesters that the movement has been entirely peaceful, in contrast to many other popular protests in the recent past in Pakistan, such as the Tehreek-e-Labbaik in Islamabad in November 2017 that turned violent. The current peaceful Pashtun Long March has even been compared with that of the non-violent political movement for independence led by Pashtun leader Bacha Khan.

What makes this particular uprising so palpable is its recognition and resonance throughout not just Pashtun communities here and across the border but also non-Pakhtun communities ravaged by sectarian and ethnic persecution.

The movement has been refreshingly inclusive, despite shunning  any political affiliation. The protest brought together participants from all major political parties across all Pashtun regions. The organizer of the protest, Manzoor Ahmed Pashtun, has been very clear that this is a non-political movement for justice. 

The protesters camped in Islamabad from Feb 1 to Feb 10 ended the sit-in after the government promised to agree to their demands. These included an inquiry commission to investigate extrajudicial killings of Pakhtuns; arrest and trial of Rao Anwar, the police officer held responsible for Naqeebullah’s extrajudicial killing and, as reported in this newspaper, hundreds of others; an end to mistreatment of locals during curfews in Fata; release of forcibly disappeared Pakhtuns; and complete removal of landmines in South Waziristan that have claimed several lives.

The movement has contributed to considerable gains for the Pashtun people where parliament finally extended jurisdiction of the superior courts to FATA and the army also retracted the hated Watan card, also known as the ‘Waziristan visa’, to enter Waziristan. The Watan cards had been meant for compensation purposes for people affected by the Pakistani military’s operations in FATA, but were instead being used to discriminate against locals, almost akin to needing a “visa” to enter their own territories. 

The Pakhtun Long March has also seen some success in recovering missing persons as demanded by the protesters. Empowered by social media many other Pakhtuns have also mobilized in peaceful remonstrations in Swat, Khyber Agency, and Bajaur Agency against mistreatment at check posts, curfews and raids on locals’ houses, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings.

As for the military checkpoints, the Mehsud tribesmen believe the Taliban have been routed and there is no reason for security personnel to block them from entering their own villages in the name of security. “Authorities should stop imposing curfews and beating civilians,” said a pamphlet distributed among the protesters.

As the protesters in Islamabad were delivering speeches and chanting slogans for the due rights of the tribesmen, hundreds more set an alleged Taliban office on fire in Dera Ismail Khan city, located on the periphery with South Waziristan. The Taliban group was accused of killing a young man from the Wazir tribe. In the highly charged environment, the tribesmen stormed a house allegedly used by the pro-government militia and set it on fire. Later, they were recorded on video chanting slogans such as “death to good Taliban.” Good Taliban refers to those allegedly supported by the Pakistani authorities.

In a major concession for civic freedom, all political parties will be able to campaign freely in the run-up to this year’s parliamentary elections. They also accepted demands for letting North Waziristan residents rebuild their markets and promised to reopen the Ghulam Khan border crossing with neighboring Afghanistan so that the local economy, mainly based on trade and transport, can recover.

Perhaps most interestingly, a new “brand” of tech-savvy youth leadership from FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has emerged. These youths are using social media to organize peacefully, lay out clear aims and achieve what the previous generation could not.

Despite the media and internet blockade of the region, The Fata Youth Jirga, with their online and on ground advocacy contributed to the favorable vote in parliament finally extending jurisdiction of the superior courts to Fata.                          

A wake-up call for Pakistan

Today, the Pashtun youth and the tribal areas of the 21st century are different from what they were five or six decades ago — particularly in their ability to access information digitally and their desire to become connected to mainstream political, social, and economic movements.

And herein lies a lesson for Pakistan’s authority figures; It is time Pakistan realizes that the politics of information and communication technologies are radically different from previous mediums of communication such as newspapers, pamphlets, radio and television, which were easy to censor. Circum­venting censorship attempts on the internet is far easier, and social media has empowered citizens to mobilize and organize against injustices peacefully.

The story of Naqeebullah Mehsud strikes a chord with millions in Pakistan, not just for Pashtuns because of their shared ethnicity, but for all communities who have suffered the brunt of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and discrimination that Pakhtuns have already faced for decades. 

The shared, violent history of brutality felt and grieved over decades by marginalized groups who are only now coming to realize their commonalities in itself should serve as an ominous omen to the state and its suddenly, politically and socially conscious peoples.

 Policy makers may be playing into the hands of pro-Afghanistan Pashtun nationalists, who have always argued that Pashtuns were never given their due rights and status as first-class citizens. Pashtuns, especially those from FATA, still ask whether Pakistan considers them an “unwanted child,” and thus shuns them in their time of need. There is the danger of external forces especially those based in Afghanistan exploiting the environment to turn these movements into a Pashtun insurgency but fortunately the Pashtuns in Pakistan are extremely well integrated in all institutions of Pakistan and are respected for their talents, courage and work ethics.

Long gone are the days of intimidation tactics such as registration of FIRs against protesters. Labelling organic local movements as unpatriotic and supported by foreign agencies is not going to work. Oppression, covert or overt has never worked well for the state. The Pakhtun millennials have grown up in a post 9/11 security state and witnessed displacement, violence and discrimination. There is an urgent need for the state security policy to prioritize human security and fundamental rights, even when fighting terrorism. The organised and determined youth will not settle for less.

The FATA reforms need to be urgently undertaken. The massive infrastructure and development work undertaken by the military has to be carried forward and resources made available for the rehabilitation of displaced people and the return of the Afghan refugees.