Pakistan: The Pashtun lose patience

There is a common misconception that most of the world’s Pashtuns reside in Afghanistan. In reality, there are more Pashtuns in neighbouring Pakistan. It is on this point that the region’s entire insecurity dynamic rotates.

People Protest Flags

Pashtun play

April saw tens of thousands of Pashtuns gather in Peshawar, the largest Pashtun city in Pakistan, to protest against the Pakistani state’s policies toward their community. Despite the huge crowds, the event drew very little coverage from the national media, suggesting that editors were under pressure from the powerful Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to restrict their reporting on national-security grounds.

The rally was organised by the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM, ‘Pashtun Protection Movement’) of charismatic young leader Manzoor Pashteen. The PTM is highly critical of Pakistan’s army and police, which it accuses of human-rights abuses against Pashtuns that include extrajudicial killings, ‘disappearances’ and the destruction of Pashtun property and livelihoods on the Afghan border. The PTM is using social media to connect itself to the Pashtun diaspora and international news organisations, to the alarm of Pakistan’s security establishment.

The PTM is highly critical of Pakistan’s army and police, which it accuses of human-rights abuses against Pashtuns

Manzoor is a member of the Mehsud tribe. He was internally displaced from the semi-autonomous Pashtun agency of South Waziristan as Pakistan’s army battled the Mehsud-led Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militant group responsible for many brutal attacks on lowland Pakistan since 2003. Because of these, the authorities impose harsh sanctions on  the Mehsud Pashtun, regardless of whether they belong to the TTP.

A critical moment came in January 2018, when police in the southern metropolis of Karachi shot dead a 27-year-old aspiring model by the name of Naqibullah Mehsud. The police claimed he was a jihadist, but his family strenuously denied this, and images from his modelling career circulated widely in the media lent credence to their position. The killing energised the PTM and catapulted its leader Manzoor to national prominence.

Punjabi paranoia

Pakistan’s majority population is overwhelmingly Punjabi, an ethno-linguistic group that hugs the country’s eastern border and overlaps into neighbouring India. Since 2001, the relationship between Pakistan’s Punjabis and Pashtuns has become ever more tense. Compounding the problem is that Pashtuns, still prominent in the military, have not supplied a chief of army staff since the mid-1990s, and have never had a civilian political chief executive at any point in Pakistan’s history.

Since 2001, the relationship between Pakistan’s Punjabis and Pashtuns has become ever more tense

Their marginalisation presents a security threat not only to Pakistan but to Afghanistan and Central Asia. At more than 30 million, Pakistan’s Pashtun minority is easily double the size of Afghanistan’s Pashtun population. As this community  become more alienated, fears rise in Islamabad of a cross-border movement evolving around the Pashtun identity to create demands for ‘Pashtunistan’, which would pose a major threat to the territorial integrity of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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