A Pashtun Awakening Against All Odds

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By Minahil Nawaz, TD’21

On January 28, 2020, Pakistani authorities detained two members of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) in the northwest city of Peshawar. As Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir led hundreds of supporters across the country to protest the arrest of Manzoor Pashteen, the leader of PTM, police disrupted the protest and detained the two. 

Founded in May 2016 by eight students at Gomal University, Dera Ismail Khan, the Pashtun Tahaffuz (Protection) Movement has been campaigning for the rights of the nearly 35 million Pashtuns in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan for over four years now. Led by Manzoor Pashteen, a student of veterinary sciences, PTM seeks to highlight the struggles of the Pashtuns who fled Waziristan due to fighting between the Pakistani military and militant groups. In the words of Dawar: “The PTM emerged as a reaction to the death and destruction unleashed upon the roughly 50 million Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan for years.”

Waziristan is one of the poorest and least developed districts in Pakistan, and is also the region where the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was born under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud in 2007. From 2007 onwards, armed militias including the TTP, al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network and others caused thousands of deaths in the region, and fought against local governance as terrorist groups. In response, Pakistan’s military undertook a series of operations against these militant groups, most notably Operation Zarb-e-Azb in 2014, to remove these groups from Waziristan. 

Though the Pakistani military was mostly successful in pushing many militants out of the region, it also implemented widespread enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in the region – actions that movements like the PTM have campaigned against. As stated by Dawar: “After the military finally moved into North Waziristan in 2014, about 1 million of North Waziristan’s residents were displaced, and our homes and livelihoods were ruined.”

In 2018, PTM became very prominent as they led protests against the killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a garment trader shot dead by police in Karachi, who claimed he was part of an armed militia group. Since the 2018 protests, many more Pashtuns have joined PTM, and Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir were even elected to the lower house of the Pakistani Parliament from North and South Waziristan respectively. 

As PTM came to represent the voice of Pashtuns from the northwest of Pakistan, a common rallying cry at PTM rallies was heard: “Yeh jo dehshat gardi he, isske peeche wardi he!” “This terrorism, the military is responsible for it!” In response, the military began to crack down against the PTM. 

In April 2019, the military alleged that PTM was being funded by foreign intelligence agencies. In May 2019, clashes between the military and PTM supporters in North Waziristan led to the death of three protestors. In September 2019, prominent PTM leader Gulalai Ismail revealed that she had moved to the United States after receiving multiple death threats from the military. In January 2020, the military arrested Manzoor Pashteen himself in a midnight raid in Peshawar, accusing him of sedition and criminal conspiracy. And most recently, Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir were detained by the police as well. 

The PTM’s protests has brought it into direct conflict with the Pakistani military, an institution so powerful in Pakistan that it is often considered a pillar of state. For nearly half of its existence, Pakistan has been under military rule. However, despite the threat from the Pakistani military, PTM continues to criticize, protest and fight for the rights of Pashtuns in Pakistan. 

In the words of Dawar: “My generation came of age amid bombs and bullets. We have seen our homes demolished and our elders killed. Our struggle will continue until we have the right to live, and until we win our right to live, threats to our lives are meaningless.”

“Two Pakistani lawmakers held after protests by rights activists.” Reuters, https://in.reuters.com/article/pakistan-arrest-activist/two-pakistani-lawmakers-held-after-protests-by-rights-activists-idINKBN1ZR1WB 

“Why Pashtuns in Pakistan are rising up.” Mohsin Dawar, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/04/17/why-pashtuns-pakistan-are-rising-up/ 

“Why is Pakistan’s Pashtun movement under attack?” Al Jazeera, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/01/pakistan-pashtun-movement-attack-200128085744910.html