Last month, the grievances of millions of ethnic Pashtuns echoed in Pakistan’s capital as thousands participated in a 10-day sit-in to demand rights and an end to unlawful killings, impunity, harassment, racial profiling, and landmines.
The protest has become a mass mobilization for what its young leaders say is an attempt to change security policies that have turned their homeland in the northwestern Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) into a war zone, wreaked havoc in neighboring Afghanistan, and made life miserable for the estimated 40 million Pashtuns who form roughly 20 percent of the country’s 200 million population.
Pashtuns are concentrated in an arc along Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan in FATA and the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. During the past 15 years, a majority of terrorist attacks and counterterrorism sweeps have been concentrated in the Pashtun heartland. Pashtuns make up a majority of the more than 80,000 people killed and maimed in the violence. Insecurity forced more than 6 million Pashtuns to flee their homes for months or years.
Officials typically reject responsibility for the suffering, saying their country is the real victim of terrorism. They often point to the deaths of alleged extremists as evidence of the success of their counterterrorism efforts, evoking this narrative to silence domestic critics and fend off pressure from international institutions.
A close look at statements by senior civilian and military leaders, however, gives an idea of what is wrong with Islamabad’s counterterrorism approach and why -- despite so much suffering -- the country is still seen as a bastion of jihadist networks.
The most revealing sentiment is a little-known speech by the civilian federal cabinet member in charge of FATA affairs.
While addressing a gathering of Pashtun elites in October 2015, Abdul Qadir Baloch made some startling revelations. He told tribal leaders, lawmakers, and professionals from among the Mehsud tribe that the state has spent the past seven decades using them for its own strategic ends.
The Mehsud homeland in FATA’s South Waziristan tribal district has been the epicenter of a complicated Taliban insurgency since 2004.
"During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, our people [military strategists] talked of fighting the war for the defense of Pakistan inside Afghanistan, because if the Russians were able to move forward from there then no one would have been able to stop them,” he said of Islamabad’s engagement in the anti-Soviet war in the 1980s.
Following the events of 9/11, he said, Islamabad ostensibly joined Washington and its Western allies to target Al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime hosting them in Afghanistan but failed to prevent the same groups from establishing a foothold inside Pakistan after the Taliban regime crumbled in late 2001. South and North Waziristan became the latest frontline in that war.
“Then South and North Waziristan within Pakistani territory were chosen to [support the latest phase of the war in Afghanistan],” he said. “From that time [in 2001] till today these two agencies (tribal districts) and other agencies in FATA have suffered terribly.”
But the afflicted areas soon became “nurseries for terrorism,” Baloch added. “They were used to propagate extremism and radicalize people into suicide bombers and do everything that reason would not permit.” He did not name on whose behalf this took place, but his comments have been interpreted by Pashtun protesters as backing their claims that Islamabad used their homeland as a sanctuary for militant groups.
Islamabad has repeatedly rejected any suggestions that it supports militant groups in FATA. “Pakistan has contributed immensely as a frontline state in countering terrorism and violent extremism over the past two decades,” said a Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman recently.
Nearly half a million members of the Mehsud tribe suffered atrocities under the Taliban before being forced to flee for nearly eight years after the army launched an offensive against militants in 2009. As in Pashtun communities elsewhere, hundreds of prominent Mehsud tribal leaders were assassinated. But most of these crimes were never investigated, and no one was held accountable.
As part of Pakistan’s counterterrorism drive, many young Mehsuds were killed in allegedly staged police gunbattles in cities such as Karachi. The southern seaport city has the biggest urban concentration of Pashtuns. The January murder of a young aspiring model and shopkeeper in Karachi was the catalyst for the February protest.
In his 2015 speech, Baloch went on to reveal why Mehsuds were forced to make so many sacrifices, saying the reason is their “special qualities.”
“You, the people of Waziristan, especially members of the Mehsud tribe, are extremists. You Mehsuds are extreme in bravery -- you sacrifice everything without thinking,” he said.
Baloch’s candid admissions are in sharp contrast to the standard Pakistani narrative that paints Islamabad as a victim of terrorism. While admitting past failures, most current officials are adamant about their counterterrorism achievements and resolve.
“We are harvesting what we sowed 40 years back,” Pakistan’s powerful army chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, told a Munich security conference on February 17.
“The Frankenstein was actually created by the liberal free world, with willing but myopic cooperation from our side after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979,” he added. “We all are responsible for making the world population in general, and the Muslim population in particular, hostage to this extremist ideology.”
Bajwa said that during the past 15 years, more than 35,000 Pakistani were killed while another 48,000 were maimed or sustained grave injuries as the financial cost for their country exceeded more than $250 billion.
“Very few countries have achieved as much success as we have in our war against terror,” he said. “With over 1,100 Al-Qaeda operatives killed and another 600 handed over to the United States, Pakistan is instrumental in the disruption and decimation of Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
But recent and past statements from senior officials raise questions about such claims. Two years ago, Pakistan's adviser for foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, said Islamabad holds substantial sway over the Afghan Taliban because the movement’s leaders reside in Pakistan.
"We have some influence over them because their leadership is in Pakistan and they get some medical facilities. Their families are here," he told a think-tank audience in Washington in March 2016. "We can use those levers to pressurize them to say, 'Come to the table'. But we can't negotiate on behalf of the Afghan government because we cannot offer them what the Afghan government can offer them."
In recent years, disagreements over counterterrorism and security policies have increased between civilian and military officials.
In January, as most senior Pakistani leaders united in condemning U.S. President Donald Trump’s criticism of Islamabad’s counterterrorism failures, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif urged the country’s powerful military establishment to give up self-deception.
“We need to ask ourselves why, despite our sacrifices, the world is not listening to us, why the blood of our army, police, civil security forces, civilians, and innocent children is so cheap in the eyes of the world,” he told journalists in Islamabad.
Sharif urged Pakistanis to first put their house in order and ponder why the world’s opinion about their country has turned negative.