February 19, 2020
A crackdown of Pashtun activists in Pakistan has drawn international opprobrium at an inconvenient time for Islamabad and Washington as they try to shape a public narrative to make a peace pact with the Taliban as palatable as possible.
The Trump administration wants the U.S.-Taliban exit deal to be seen as a victory for peace rather than a humiliating defeat at the hands of rag-tag insurgents who will continue destabilizing Afghanistan and the region.
In order to do this, the United States wants the world to believe that Pakistan has suddenly stopped using its northwest tribal areas as an extremist incubator to “keep the pot boiling” in Afghanistan. However, allegations suggesting otherwise that have recently gone viral threaten to upend Washington’s story line.
On February 15, a Pakistani court ordered the release of 28-year old Pashtun rights leader Manzoor Pashteen, who was arrested at the end of January for allegedly violating colonial-era sedition laws.
Since 2018, Pashteen has led the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) whose stated mission is to ensure members of the nation’s largest ethnic minority, representing about 15 percent of Pakistan’s population, are afforded proper legal rights.
Pashteen, whose family was among six million people displaced since Pakistan joined America’s war on terror in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, has said PTM also wants to reform the constitution which he says favors the ruling Punjabis.
PTM have accused Pakistan’s military of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances and other forms of repression against the Pashtun tribes in the country’s northwest. For the Americans, at this critical juncture, the most serious charge is the allegation that Pakistan’s army continues to protect terrorists in these areas.
This illustrates that, unlike armed separatists, Pashteen and his comrades have been wielding peaceful protest and courageous truth-telling as their chief weapons in countering Pakistan’s military. Some supporters have characterized the nonviolent nature of his movement as akin to those led by Martin Luther King and Bacha Khan, the frontier Gandhi.
What is impressive about Pashteen’s arrest is the speed with which it made headlines around the world despite Pakistan’s attempt at a media blackout. Najim Azadzoi, a former professor of Kabul University and currently an architect in Boston, Massachusetts, explained how PTM differs from past movements.
“With today’s help of Facebook and social media his role and activities are getting more attention and are different than that of his previous predecessors like Khan Abdul Ghafar Khan, Khan Abdul Wali Khan and even Mahmood Khan Achakzai and Asfandyar,” Azadzoi told Afghan Online Press.
Pashteen, for his part, has been clear about the group’s priorities.
“We are not seeking a violent revolution, but we are determined to push Pakistan back toward a constitutional order,” Pashteen wrote in an op-ed piece for the New York Times last February.
NOT ABOUT PASHTUNISTAN
The historical roots of the crisis lie in the Durand line drawn by the British crown in 1893 that demarcated the border between Afghanistan and then-India.
As part of the empire’s classic divide-and-rule stratagem, the Brits deliberately drew the 2,430-kilometre boundary to split the Pashtun tribes, leaving some 15 million in Afghanistan and almost 35 million in the territory that is now Pakistan.
The Pakistani military has accused Pashteen of operating as an agent for Afghanistan and India in a bid to consolidate the tribes on both sides of the border to establish a so-called Pashtunistan.
However, Azadzoi said Pashteen is focused on defending the rights of the Pashtuns inside Pakistan against a crackdown by the country’s military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
Azadzoi acknowledged that Pashteen might be more popular inside Afghanistan, including among Pashtuns, Tajiks, and Hazaras. Support for Pashteen cuts across Afghan ethnic lines because of his open-minded views, the former professor added.
Yet Azadzoi said he doubts the PTM wants to forge a full-fledged cross-border Pashtun nation – a scenario that, in the first place, would unlikely be economically viable.
“To me, a Free Pashtunistan, or Pashtuns across the border to join Afghanistan, will not happen soon. It is a matter of a stronger economy. A poorer Afghanistan will not support [or] accommodate another 20 to 30 million Pashtuns. And, the Pashtuns in Pakistan are enjoying a better life than Pashtuns in Afghanistan,” Azadzoi argued.
Besides, the military has brought forth zero evidence to back claims of PTM collaborating with foreign entities or that Pashteen has broader aspirations that threaten Pakistani national security.
The Pashtuns of PTM appear to have, prudently, set a reasonable objective: equal treatment under the law. However, as legitimate a grievance as this may seem, there are forces within Pakistan who are more interested in eroding the very identity of minority groups, let alone protecting their rights.
Pakistan has a long history of trying to subjugate ethnicity to religion and nationhood in the Pashtun tribal areas just as they have tried to deculturalize other minorities. They have tried to achieve these objectives not only by force but via ideological, political and economic means.
Pakistan’s military, for example, has used religion as an ideological weapon. They actually favor extremists over the more secular Pashtuns in the northwest tribal areas – partly because the Islamists are easier for Rawalpindi to control, according to some PTM members.
Pashteen’s movement has also accused the central government of exploiting natural resources in the northwest province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa without sharing the dividends with the local Pashtun population – thereby keeping the region poor, underdeveloped and a hotbed for terrorists as part of this process of subjugation.
Afghan Women’s Fund Director Fahima Gaheez, an award-winning human rights activist, has traveled to the refugee camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan to work on women’s rights and education. Gaheez, who grew up in Afghanistan, told Afghan Online Press that Pakistan’s central government is not concerned with improving education or modernizing the lifestyle of the Pashtun and Baloch people.
“In order to control the areas, the Punjabi government of Pakistan left the areas of Pashtuns and Baloch undeveloped – instead of schools they pushed guns,” Gaheez said.
The Pashtun areas, she said, have been a hub for terrorism since the outbreak of the U.S.-USSR proxy war more than 40 years ago.
The Pakistan government, she added, with the help of the Arab sheiks and U.S., brought terrorist training camps to Pashtun and Baloch areas and used these terrorists against Afghans on the other side of the border and to undermine India in the struggle over Kashmir.
Through the process of Talibanization, she added, Islamabad has even tried to destroy Pashtun culture and language.
Pakistan then used the very extremism it fueled as a pretext to justify the military’s attacks as they sought to put down members of the anti-state Pakistani Taliban while protecting the Afghan Taliban, the latter being used to destabilize Afghanistan.
Many among Pakistan’s elite actually support the concept of eroding ethnic and tribal identity in the name of national interest. Cultural critic Nadeem F. Paracha, has boldly recommended that Prime Minister Imran Khan use his Pashtun credentials towards this end.
“The aim should be to amicably defuse the resurgence of classical Pashtun nationalism in the province,” Paracha wrote in his regular opinion column for Dawn on February 2.
Pashteen’s slogan, “The uniform is behind this terrorism” has gained popularity and underscores concerns over the security establishment’s role in politics. Such fears are well-founded given the military has overthrown Pakistan’s civilian government three times since the 1950s.
The slogan also haunts the U.S. government, no doubt, just as it thinks it is on the verge of a breakthrough in Afghanistan.
Last week, the Pentagon announced that the U.S. struck a weeklong “reduction in violence” truce with the Taliban which, apparently, has not been implemented considering the militant group continues to attack and kill people on a daily basis.
U.S. relations with Pakistan hit a low in the post-9/11 era but have been revived under Trump.
Washington has been delighted that Islamabad has been able to persuade the Taliban to negotiate with the U.S. The Trump administration unfroze military aid, recently applauded Pakistan for jailing Mumbai attack mastermind Hafiz Saeed and backed Islamabad’s bid to avoid a G7 blacklisting over terror financing charges.
In short, the U.S. has put much on the line and fears Pakistan’s military could blow up Washington’s carefully crafted public relations campaign.
This is why conspicuous silence has been emanating from the Trump administration over the PTM affair. This is why the State Department did not return multiple requests from Afghan Online Press to comment on Pakistan’s crackdown.
Gaheez recommended that rather than ignore the movement, the United States as the “champion of human rights” should support the PTM. In addition, she said, Washington should pressure Pakistan into closing all terrorist training camps.
On the other hand, perhaps PTM should count itself lucky that the United States is ignoring them. The Baloch, for example, have learned what happens when they ask Washington for help.
Facing a similar situation as PTM, Baloch activists for years urged the U.S. government to pressure Islamabad over human rights abuses. In return, in July of 2019, the State Department designated a Baloch rebel group as a terrorist organization.
Gaheez felt the Trump administration targeted the wrong entity.
“Instead of [the U.S.] labeling Baloch Liberation Army as a terrorist organization… the Pakistan army should have been recognized as a terrorist organization,” Gaheez said.