On the Asian Century, Pax Sinica & Beyond (XIII): Pakistan’s state-terrorism and the plight of the Pashtuns
In North-West Pakistan, that is in the global epicentre of Jihadism, Islamic extremism, and militancy, a new peaceful, socio-political movement has emerged. Facing a double threat, from regional and international terrorists on one side and from the federal government and its security sector agents on the other, local Pashtuns articulated their grievances and launched the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (Movement for the protection of Pashtuns, PTM). Led by liberal and secular politicians and activists, the civic grassroots initiative PTM gained much popularity in the region during the last few years and translated the human suffering incurred by the Pashtuns into a national discourse with growing international significance. Today, the PTM is one of the ‘most powerful human rights voices’ in Pakistan.
Being the target of numerous, heavily armed campaigns by both the Pakistani army (for example Operations Zarb-e-Azb and Rah-e-Nijat) and by militant groups, areas of Pashtun settlements are largely destroyed. Livelihoods have been spoiled, and millions of people were or are still displaced. Moreover, in criticizing the violent excesses by the military, the Pashtun became the ‘target focus’ of Pakistani authorities, which have declared them and their demands to be anti-national.
Subsequently, Pashtuns witnessed repressive measures (such as extra judicial killings, enforced disappearances, discrimination and surveillance) by the country’s security forces. It goes without saying that Islamabad ignores the PTM plight.
The criminalisation and hostility towards an anti-war and anti-terrorism movement campaigning for human rights by a state may come appear odd to those members of the international community not familiar with the power dynamics, policies, and motives of the national establishment (military as well as civilian) in Pakistan. The violent suppression of the Pashtun people must be seen as part of the country’s larger strategy of using state-terrorism not only against its neighbours – foremost India and Afghanistan – but also against those citizens and peoples living in disputed territories within Pakistan (Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistani called Azad Jammu and Kashmir/AJK). In order to enlighten this rationale, the following observations and indicators must be highlighted.
Pakistan’s authorities spend tremendous efforts to silence the PTM. Reporting on the PTM is censored, especially in what concerns the huge rallies the movement holds. In contrast, the government grants hard-line Islamists an increasing public space to spread their ideology of hate against the country’s neighbours as well as western states, and propagate humiliation and violence against religious-ethnic minorities within its borders. ‘Political mainstreaming’ of Jihadi terror groups and their leaders – allowing them to form parties and join elections – constitutes official policy. However, the PTM must face severe attempts of political marginalization by the authorities. Non-violent protests by the Pashtun are dissolved by the security agencies using disproportionate coercive force. It is reported that Pakistan’s armed forces opened fire on unarmed demonstrators killing numerous Pashtun activists and supporters.
Moreover, there is clear evidence that the military, police, and intelligence (ISI) are kidnapping PTM leaders on a regular basis and are involved in extrajudicial killings. One of the latest examples is the assassination of Arif Wazir. Even members of the National Assembly (Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar, elected in the July 2018 polls), belonging to or sympathizing with the PTM have been arrested. Pakistan thus denies the Pashtuns (despite fact that they are the second largest ethnic group in the country) their legitimate political and constitutional rights – freedom of expression and to assemble, among others. Besides serving as evidence for state-sponsored terrorism, the suppression of the PTM – which is perceived as dissent – constitutes a severe truncation of democracy and a disrespect for the rule of law by Pakistan’s deep-state.
Another indicator for state-terror against the Pashtuns is that the Pakistani army is using Islamist proxies, not only to conduct destabilising activities in India and Afghanistan, but also to undermine the PTM. Here, it is crucial to highlight that the Pakistani army not only conducted campaigns against certain factions of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (Pakistan Taliban, TTP) but also collaborated with others. More concretely, facilitated by the military, some elements of the TTP became government-backed militias assigned with the task to fight the PTM. In order to do so, apparently the Pakistan military allowed TTP fighters to return to the region after they were pushed out into Afghanistan. These ‘pro-Pakistan’ militias, also known as Aman (Peace) Committees, are not only linked with intimidation and atrocities against the Pashtuns (including the killings of PTM members) but also with an increasing influence by the TTP in the Afghan border region, for example in South Waziristan. These ‘peace committees’ are armed and can operate with impunity, posing a severe threat to both PTM leaders and the common citizenry.
As indicated above, the Pakistani army is arguing that the PTM constitutes a threat to the country’s national interests. However, in reality the PTM is simply trying to hold the army accountable for their violence and other injustices committed against the Pashtun people – as well as questioning the integrity of Pakistan’s security sector agents. As such, the PTM is also challenging the corporate interests and social-political prerogatives (reserved domains) of the military by revealing the failures of the army in its ambiguous fight against terrorism. The Movement is also uncovering both the army’s and the Inter-Service Intelligence’s (ISI) large-scale involvement in the sponsorship of terrorism and the conducting of state-terror against both the Pashtun and other groups (including ethnic and religious minorities). It does not come by surprise that one of the movement’s most well-known slogans is ‘those responsible for terrorism wear a [military] uniform’. We believe that military operations in Pashtun settlements aim to eliminate the political opposition and critics of the armed forces rather than to tackle the threat of terrorism in a comprehensive and effective manner.
In sum, the ongoing suppression of Pashtuns and its non-violent PTM is a clear indication that Pakistan continues to use state-terrorism on the domestic front, meaning against its own citizens and peoples under its administration. Furthermore, one must expect that Pakistan will maintain instruments of state-sponsored terrorism in its foreign policy, particularly in its support for cross-border terrorism (Wolf, 2017) and narco-terror against India.
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 Some of the main demands by the PTM include the following: the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission to address claims of extrajudicial killings and missing persons; the removal of landmines and other unexploded ordinances from the Pashtun tribal areas; the compensation of losses suffered during military operations; assuring the security and political rights for Pashtuns; an end to the harassment of Pashtuns at checkpoints and during raids; and the disbanding of the so called “peace committees”.
 For example, by allowing the (former) spokesperson for the Pakistan Taliban/TTP, Ehsanullah Ehsan, a TV interview in 2017.
 Or surprisingly re-emerged after they were “officially eliminated” during earlier military operations.
 The Aman (Peace) Committees, also called Aman Jirgas, are usually appointed by the army or the police ‘in order to deal with security issues and bring peace in an area. The government provides them with authority to undertake out-of-court arbitrations’.
 This includes open armed actions against PTM rallies (such as the one on May 26, 2019 at the Khar Kamar checkpoint in the North Waziristan region), leading to the murdering of Pashtun people, and clandestine activities through target killings (for example, fake encounters by police forces) of both prominent Pashtuns (like Naqeebullah Mehsud) and key figures of the movement’s leadership