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Pakistani Military Changes Tune On Pashtun Rights Movement

FILE: Manzoor Ahmad Pashteen, leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), speaks during a demonstration in Lahore (April 2018)
FILE: Manzoor Ahmad Pashteen, leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), speaks during a demonstration in Lahore (April 2018)

For nearly a year, Pakistan’s powerful military has questioned, criticized, and even persecuted civil rights activists demanding security and rights for the country’s largest ethnic minority, the Pashtuns.

But in an apparent change of heart, it has now offered to join hands with the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) to bring development and prosperity to their northwestern homeland where more than 50,000 civilians were killed and millions more displaced by nearly 15 years of militant attacks and military operations.

“The PTM is a non-violent movement, which is campaigning for its demands. We wish that the PTM leaders and other people [supporting them] will join the state in the [rehabilitation] phase, which is aimed at bringing relief and services to them,” Major General Asif Ghafoor, the military spokesman, told Pakistan’s private ARY television channel on January 2.

Ghafoor had previously criticized the PTM. In December, he warned that the movement “should not cross those lines where the state has to use its force to control the situation." Last year, Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa suggested the PTM’s campaigns were “engineered protests” and part of a hybrid war against his country.

“Our enemies know that they cannot beat us fair and square and have thus subjected us to a cruel, evil, and protracted hybrid war. They are trying to weaken our resolve by weakening us from within,” he said in April.

But in an apparent reconciliatory gesture, Ghafoor said he hoped that “the PTM leadership, for the benefits of their people, will talk to the government channels for their uplift so we can move forward in unity.”

He also acknowledged the suffering endured by more than 30 million Pashtuns over 15 years of unrest that began with the arrival of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in Pakistan’s former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) after a U.S.-led military campaign toppled the hard-line Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“We salute the residents of erstwhile FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa because they first faced the terrorists who had made their lives difficult,” Ghafoor noted. “Later on, they faced displacement when state forces went into [their homeland] to launch operations.”

Ghafoor said that violence in the Pashtun homeland adversely affects all its residents.

“I don’t think there is a single street in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or FATA where someone didn’t embrace martyrdom,” he said. “There is no individual there [in FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa] who has not seen some harm from this.”

But the PTM leadership, however, doesn’t seem impressed.

Lawmaker Mohsin Dawar, a key PTM leader, says they need to see concrete actions addressing their demands.

“As long as they have not accepted and acted on our demands and changed their policies, our struggle will continue,” he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. “We have heard a lot of nice words before, but we need to see concrete actions.”

The PTM emerged last February during a sit-in protest in Islamabad. The movement demands that Islamabad probe thousands of illegal killings and present thousands of victims of enforced disappearances to the country’s courts. It has also called for demining in the conflict region and an end to harassment of Pashtun civilians during raids and curfews and at check posts.

The PTM’s leaders have also consistently criticized the military for backing Islamist militant groups to foment violence in the Pashtun homeland and neighboring Afghanistan. The military rejects these charges.

The PTM’s often noisy and crowded street protests and robust online campaigning, however, attracted the wrath of the Pakistani authorities.

The movement’s leaders and supporters have faced police investigations, court cases, travel bans, imprisonment, business closures, beatings, and attacks by pro-government militants over the past year.