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Commentary: Pashtun People Power Is Jolting The Military Establishment In Pakistan


Members of Pakistan's Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM) stage a demonstration Lahore late last month.

Abubakar Siddique, editor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Gandhara website, is author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. This article first appeared in The Washington Post. The views expressed here are those of the author alone and not of RFE/RL.

A new movement demanding security for Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtun minority is calling for the country’s leaders to roll back destructive policies that have fomented domestic volatility, ruined neighboring Afghanistan and fueled the longest war in U.S. history.

Since February, tens of thousands of young grass-roots activists of the PTM -- the Urdu initials for the Pashtun Protection Movement -- have been campaigning to compel Pakistan’s powerful generals to undo the destructive policies of the past four decades.

The PTM essentially wants Islamabad to recognize the fundamental human rights of more than 30 million Pashtuns, who are the second-largest group among Pakistan’s population of more than 207 million. The movement is pushing Islamabad to provide justice for thousands of alleged victims of forced disappearances through the court system and probe tens of thousands of extrajudicial killings in the Pashtuns’ insurgency-plagued northwestern homeland and across the country.

Military leaders have accommodated the PTM's lesser demands for relaxation of curfews, for demining programs in remote mountainous regions and for an end to aggressive searches at checkpoints. But the generals are unwilling to make a paradigm shift by relaxing their grip on power and honoring the country’s laws and constitution by addressing disappearances and illegal killings. Crucially, they are especially reluctant to end their country's participation in the war in Afghanistan.

They are trying to discredit the PTM’s rise by calling it a "hybrid war." They have questioned the patriotism of the movement’s young leaders, arrested and harassed its activists, and attempted to sabotage its protests. Their fingerprints are all over the unspoken ban on media coverage of the movement, and they have unleashed an army of trolls on social media to malign it as an anti-state conspiracy sponsored by hostile foreign powers.

The Pakistani military’s mighty machine has worked overtime to link the movement to Afghanistan, where Pashtuns are a majority and elites have historically harbored irredentist claims. To their annoyance, Kabul has welcomed the Pashtun awakening in Pakistan, hoping the long-suffering masses will ultimately arm-twist Rawalpindi, a garrison city next to Islamabad where the army is headquartered, into abandoning hopes for dominating Afghanistan through hard-line Islamist proxies such as the Taliban.

PTM leader Manzoor Pastheen (center) waves to supporters at a Lahore rally in April.
PTM leader Manzoor Pastheen (center) waves to supporters at a Lahore rally in April.

In Pakistan’s 70-year history, the PTM is perhaps the most vocal grass-roots movement that has directly challenged the men in uniform. Given that four army generals have ruled for nearly 35 years, or half of Pakistan’s history, their power — even under anemic civilian administrations — has remained unchallenged as they have defined the nuclear-armed nation’s foreign and defense policies. To the detriment of democracy and against the wishes of most Pakistanis, they have led their country into deepening domestic radicalization, international isolation, authoritarianism and poverty.

Their power is buttressed by monetary incentives after generations of generals turned the military into the country’s largest financial and industrial conglomerate. Their latest venture is a meatpacking plant, while real estate also remains a favorite.

Given these vested interests, it is not hard to see why the PTM’s sudden rise has rattled Pakistan’s generals. Most of its criticism targets the military, epitomized by the slogan "The uniform is behind this terrorism."

Yet the generals' tactical and strategic maneuvers have run their course. Since the 1970s, Islamabad has invested heavily in hard-line Islamist factions to compete against and even fight secular Pashtun movements and regimes in Pakistan and Afghanistan. After the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, military planners in Rawalpindi became obsessed with Pashtun dissent out of the fear that such movements could break up Pakistan with Kabul’s help. More than 40 million Pashtuns in the two countries are tied by language, lineage, historic memories and a shared interest in peace.

Beginning in the 1970s, Pakistani leaders chose the wrong path to counter this imagined threat by bankrolling Islamists and discriminating against Pashtun citizens by stereotyping them as warlike while denying them rights, modernity and prosperity.

After four decades and the deaths and displacement of millions of Pashtuns, Pakistan has gained little. The PTM, a manifestation of Pashtun social awareness, is likely to remain a major political player. Pakistan has lost its friends in Afghanistan as most Afghans see Islamabad as the primary source of their misery.

The generals in Rawalpindi still have an opportunity to address historic wrongs and choose the right course. Honest answers to the PTM’s demands -- through the formation of a truth and reconciliation commission that the movement has called for — would be a good beginning.

A strategic shift, leading to a focus on Pakistanis’ welfare rather than endless war, is needed. Trying to suppress dissent through threats is likely to result only in instability and greater alienation of the Pashtuns and other minorities.

It’s time for the Pakistani generals to embrace the best course for their country rather than their interests. They must accept the supremacy of the Pakistani Constitution and heed the rule of law.

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