A new movement demanding security for Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtun minority is transforming into a nationalist struggle with long-term consequences for the country’s politics, security, society, and foreign policy.
On April 8, tens of thousands of supporters of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), or Pashtun Protection Movement, held a major gathering in the northwestern city of Peshawar. As the capital of mainly Pashtun-populated Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, the city of 2 million is considered the epicenter of Pashtun politics.
The enthusiastic turnout showcased the aspirations of an estimated 40 million Pashtuns in Pakistan who want peace and prosperity after decades of regional and global conflicts and failing states amid the struggle of the world’s largest tribally organized society to join a modern era shaped by nation states, technology, ideologies, and economic forces.
PTM leaders are conscious of their potential historic role. Said Alam Meshud, a physician turned activist, says that for the first time in history the Pashtuns across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and adjoining northern districts of Balochistan Province have become united.
“It is an understatement to call it the Movement for the Protection of Pashtuns. It is a national uprising,” he told the April 8 gathering.
“We are united as Pashtuns first and have overcome the tribal divisions of being Achakzai, Yousafzai, Wazir, Mehsud, and Orakzai,” he said, listing some of the major Pashtun tribes in the three regions. “The military is the real power in this country, and they are unwilling to admit the blunders and oppression they have committed. We are no longer ready to accept our subjugation.”
For most of its 70-year history, Pakistan, created as a homeland for South Asia’s Muslims, has dreaded ethnic nationalism. As the new state’s elites aggressively pushed its diverse population to adopt an Islamic identity, many resisted. Over the decades, highly centralized military dictatorships, competition over resources, deprivation, and alienation contributed to a host of ethno-nationalist movements.
Bengali grievances in the former East Pakistan resulted in the formation of Bangladesh in 1971. Baluch nationalist factions are currently engaged in their fifth armed insurrection. In the southern province of Sindh, grievances among the predominant local Sindhis and Mohajirs -- Muslim migrants from India in 1947 and their descendants -- have manifested in political parties.
The Pashtuns, however, have a more complicated history. While some movements have primarily sought autonomy and rights within Pakistan, others saw the new country as the continuation of British imperialism during the initial decades after independence and even supported an independent homeland, Pashtunistan.
Pashtuns inhabit one of the foremost geopolitical areas in the contemporary world, and their aspirations have often clashed with global powers and regional states. An egalitarian tribal social formation also prevented them from absorbing into states. Their status as the majority ethnic group in neighboring Afghanistan and the second-biggest ethnic group in Pakistan poses additional challenges.
The division of Pashtuns between the two countries has plagued relations. While Kabul does not recognize the 19th-century Durand Line bisecting the Pashtun homeland as an international border, Islamabad has attempted to dominate Afghan affairs by hosting and supporting Islamist hard-line groups including the Taliban.
Ali Wazir, a leader of the PTM, says they are aware of these complications and are not seeking independence.
“We want the state to recognize us as equal citizens and grant us everything that goes with that,” he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website.
Wazir’s grievances are deep-rooted. Since 2003, he has lost more than a dozen members from his extended family to the violence that gripped FATA and other Pashtun regions after 9/11. His elder brother Farooq Wazir was the first victim of targeted assassinations in their South Waziristan homeland in 2003.
His father, brothers, cousins, and uncles were subsequently killed, but their murders were not investigated, and no one was held responsible. Insecurity also ruined his family’s businesses, forcing them to seek shelter elsewhere.
In late 2016, authorities demolished Wazir’s market in South Waziristan’s headquarters, Wana, after a blast killed a military officer. The demolition was carried out under a century-old colonial-era law that empowers the authorities to punish a clan or tribe for the alleged crimes of an individual or any crimes taking place on their territory.
The core leaders and supporters of PTM share similar suffering across FATA and Pakistan’s Pashtun heartland, where tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in militant attacks and military sweeps. Millions have been displaced by insecurity.
“For now, the PTM is not a political party chasing an election. We are trying to exorcise the demons holding Pashtuns hostage,” Wazir said. “Our aim is to bring back peace, prosperity, and happiness. We want Pashtuns to be able to live in peace on their historic homeland, to move freely, to educate their children, and to access health care.”
While the PTM lacks an organizational structure and other trappings typical of political parties in Pakistan, it is clearly moving in the direction of articulating Pashtun grievances into a nationalist political organization.
The movement emerged after a 10-day sit-in protest in Islamabad in February that was prompted by the January murder of a young shopkeeper and aspiring model, Naqeebullah Mehsud, in the southern seaport city of Karachi.
The protest ended after authorities made assurances that the demands about ending enforced disappearances, unlawful killings, racial profiling, harassment, discrimination and mines littering FATA would be met.
Wazir, however, says the authorities are slow to address their demands. He says the movement wants a fundamental reorientation of the Pakistani state from one dominated by a military obsessed with countering real and imaginary enemies to one invested in the welfare of its citizens through democracy and federalism.
“I don’t see the state giving up so easily. They have not changed their policy of backing [Islamic] militants, and they exploit our resources without any checks,” he said.
PTM leader Manzoor Pashteen is building this argument, too.
“We are being killed as this insecurity wrecks our economy,” he told supporters on April 8. "Peshawar is barely able to feed its residents. Our industry and [FATA’s major trading towns] such as Miran Shah and Bara were destroyed."
He also hinted at longstanding minority grievances over how the Punjabis, Pakistan’s largest ethnic group, dominate the economy. With a population of more than 110 million, the eastern province of Punjab claims a lion’s share of resources. The Punjabis dominate national elites and institutions such as the parliament, government bureaucracy, and the armed forces.
“No matter what happens on the Wagah [border crossing linking Punjab to India], it is kept open while Pashtun businesses [along the border with Afghanistan] are frequently shut,” he said. “Protecting Pashtuns also means looking after their well-being, honor, property, and mineral resources.”
A fierce critic of the Pakistani military, Pashteen also wants the country’s 207 million people to be treated equally.
“You have to ensure the country belongs to everyone including the Sindhis, Punjabis, Baluch and Pashtuns,” he said, listing the major ethnic groups in Pakistan. “If you refuse to do this and deny us justice, you will be making it clear that this country only belongs to a few individuals.”
Such outspoken criticism is now meeting the coercive strategies Pakistani governments typically employ to silence critics and those demanding autonomy and rights. Pakistani authorities reject PTM accusations about grave rights abuses including enforced disappearances, illegal killings, torture and ill-treatment.
Pakistani military spokesman Asif Ghafoor recently declared Pashteen to be a "wonderful young boy" and said that authorities have met most of his movement's "genuine" demands. But he hinted that the movement's popularity and support in neighboring Afghanistan is problematic.
"You have seen that it [the movement] found new angles. The movement began to get the most support from Afghanistan. Different voices started to flow in," Ghafoor told journalists.
A Pakistani journalist says pressure from the military is forcing the country’s media to largely ignore the PTM’s campaign. Alleged military trolls accuse the movement of being linked to the Directorate of National Security (NDS), the Afghan spy service, and India’s foreign intelligence, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).
Wazir, however, rejects such accusations. “Everybody knows the RAW and NDS are not behind us, and such accusations are merely an old tool of oppression,” he said. “If I were an agent or in contact with a foreign intelligence service, I wouldn’t be alive now.”
However, he says they have received strong sympathy from fellow Pashtuns in Afghanistan.
“The Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan are linked, and both have suffered because of terrorism and insecurity," he said.
As charismatic PTM leaders attract Pashtun youth in droves, traditional political parties -- especially established Pashtun ethno-nationalist political parties -- are conflicted over how to respond.
The Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, which has most of its following in Balochistan, has wholeheartedly supported the PTM by participating in its gatherings and backing its demands.
The Awami National Party, however -- a larger party with a substantial following in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa -- is confused. While its supporters have thronged PTM events, its leaders are trying to make sense of their sudden rise. Many of its leaders openly support the movement, but party heir apparent Aimal Wali Khan, the son of leader Asfandiyar Wali Khan, has even warned party members of repercussions for their involvement in PTM activities.
Wazir says the movement attracts support from across the political spectrum because it is inclusive. “Followers of various political parties are with us, and it is for the people to judge what some party leaders are trying to do,” he said.
He says the PTM is not ideological but populist and that it seeks to bridge the traditional divide in society. “All Pashtuns, be they religious or secular, are suffering, and our aim is to end their misery,” he said.
For now, Pashteen is not deterred by the campaign to cast him as anti-state. “Whenever we talk about our rights and justice, we are accused of trying to break this country,” he said in a video posted on Facebook.
The 26-year-old says they are determined to campaign until Pashtun suffering ends in Pakistan.
He told supporters to be ready to march on Islamabad again if they feel that the authorities have failed to meet their demands.
“They [the government] will have to give us international guarantees [that our rights will be granted] this time around,” he said.
Editor's note: This piece is updated to reflect the Pakistani government's reaction to the PTM's accusations.