TANK, Pakistan -- He once took great pride in serving and later allying with Pakistan’s powerful military in its war against the Taliban in the country’s restive western Pashtun border region with Afghanistan.
But militant commander Turkistan Bhittani says he now regrets fighting for the military. He even warns others against taking up arms for the Pakistani Army, which admits to having lost thousands of soldiers and officers in quelling a decade-long Taliban rebellion in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
“If I am not safe, then who else can be safe here?” Bhittani asked protesters who gathered on February 22 around a main square in the city of Tank in southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. “I sacrificed 136 of my people for this country, the army, and Islam. And yet what is my reward?”
Bhittani and hundreds of other members of the Naimatkhel clan -- a part of the larger Pashtun Bhittani tribe -- were protesting the killing of his nephew, Zahoor Rahman Bhittani. His mutilated corpse was found near Tank on February 21, five days after he was kidnapped. Zahoor, also known as Zarqawi, was an active member of the “peace committee” that Bhittani headed.
“The senior military officer in this region must have an entire book of my sacrifices,” Bhittani said. “I am willing to forgive everything, but I just want the government to protect Tank district [from the return of the militants].”
Bhittani, now in his 50s, is a mercurial character. His story illustrates the complexities of the war Pakistan has fought against militants -- many of whom the country’s powerful military originally created or supported -- and the challenges Islamabad will need to address to stabilize its erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
Forming an arch along the Afghan border, FATA was merged into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in May. With tens of thousands of civilians killed and millions displaced, the insurgency took a heavy toll on FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where a majority of residents are Pashtuns. They make up the largest ethnic minority among Pakistan’s 207 million people.
“Under the leadership of Turkistan Bhittani, some members of his tribe have protested to gain government protection and called on the authorities to arrest the killers of Zahoor so that he can get justice,” Shaikh Rehmatullah, a journalist in Tank, told Radio Mashaal.
Javed Khan, a police official in Tank, told Radio Mashaal that the police are investigating the murder but have made no arrests yet.
Bhittani rose to fame years after retiring as corporal in the paramilitary Frontier Corps in 1998. Some accounts say he fought for Afghanistan’s hard-line Taliban regime. After the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001, he joined the Pakistani Taliban factions who primarily protected and fought for the Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
But following the formation of the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in 2007, Bhittani fell out with its founding leader and his former ally Baitullah Mehsud. The TTP’s avowed aim was to enforce Islamic Shari’a law down the barrel of a gun, and the Pakistani state was its main target. Bhittani sided with the military, and his rivalry with the TTP morphed into open warfare in 2008.
He called his faction an “aman” or peace committee that helped government efforts to drive the TTP out of Tank into neighboring South Waziristan, where it was ultimately crushed in large-scale military operations. More than half a million Mehsuds, the region’s main Pashtun tribe, were displaced by the fighting over more than six years.
Beginning in 2008, more than 100 of his supporters, including his brother Hindustan, were killed by the TTP in an all-out war. He survived numerous assassination attempts, including several suicide bombings. In one Taliban attack, his entire village was torched.
In 2010, he disappeared. He reappeared only in 2016 after what he claims were six years in government detention. Once back in Tank, Bhittani revived the peace committee, but it never regained its former control and influence.
The brutal murder of his nephew, however, seems to have led Bhittani to rethink his association with the military.
“I just want to request that all Pashtuns -- whether in Pakistan or Afghanistan -- please stop sitting in the [military] cantonments,” he said, using a popular euphemism for working for the Pakistani military as a militant ally. “I once used to sit in a cantonment. Look what happened to me.”
It was not immediately possible to reach the Pakistani military for comment. But last June, chief military spokesman Asif Ghafoor praised such peace committees after members of one such group clashed with protesters in Wana, the administrative headquarters of South Waziristan.
“They fought in the war against terrorism and are now doing their part in the [current] phase of stabilization,” he told reporters.
Journalist Adnan Bhittani has followed Turkistan’s career for more than a decade. He told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website that the only path to sustainable peace in former FATA is to ensure that Islamabad truly backs its claims of ridding the region of militants so that none of them can regroup or engage in intimidation and violence.
“The state needs to be present with all its institutions,” he noted.
Nearly a year after FATA’s merger, police, courts, and many other government departments still do not exist in the region, whose population is nearly 6 million according to the recent census.
“Once established, all state institutions must work in unison to deliver,” he said.