Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) : Achilles Heel of Pak Army

 By Col. Harsh Vardhan Singh

Pakistan is a beleaguered state fraying both externally and internally; international isolation due to its radical ideological stand and internal dissent fueled by the despotic rule of a kakistocracy is incessantly pushing it to the abyss of a failed state which shall implode sooner than later. Imran Khan the selected Prime Minister and Gen Bajwa have been on the cross wires of Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) and are facing a Hobson’s choice of letting democracy take its course or usurping the democratic process yet again as is the historical precedence with Pakistan. Another thorn in the flesh of the Deep State which has kept the present government afloat is the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM); a secular, democratic movement of young Pashtuns demanding restoration of peace and tranquility in the tribal areas of KPK and FATA. PTM holds Pakistan Army responsible for gross human right violations in garb of successive counter terrorist operations in the tribal areas be it; OP AL MIZAN[1], OP ZARB-E-AZB or the latest avatar OP RADD-AL-FASAD. PTM slogans such as “Yeh jo dehshatgardi hai, iske peeche wardi hai (The ones responsible for terrorism are the ones in uniform).” and one in Pashto “Da sangaazadi da? (What kind of freedom is this?), has ruffled the feathers of the military commanders and has led to a media clamp down on activities of PTM nationwide.  The aversion to any movement with Pashtun overtones is deep rooted and steeped in history dating back to pre-independence even before Pakistan; the idea had materialized on ground.

Pashtuns were politically united for nearly a century under the banner of an Afghan empire that stretched eastwards from Amu Darya to as far as the Indus River. It was traumatic for the Pashtuns when the British seized 40,000 square miles of ancestral Pashtun territory between the Indus and the Khyber Pass, embracing half of the Pashtun population, and then imposed the Durand Line, formalizing their conquest. When they subsequently handed over this territory to the new, Punjabi-dominated government of Pakistan in 1947, the British bequeathed an explosive, irredentist issue that has perennially marked the rhetoric of Pashtun-dominated Afghan regimes and has poisoned the relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Durand Line has never been accepted by Afghanistan and Pakistan believes that after Bangladesh, if India was to fuel another secessionist movement it would stem from Baluchistan and/or Pashtunistan.

If history is a reliable guide, the prospects for the survival of the Pakistani state in its present form, with its existing configuration of constituent ethno-linguistic groups, cannot be taken for granted. There is no precedent in the history of South Asia for a state consisting of the four ethno-linguistic regions that make up Pakistan today. The ideologues of Pakistani nationalism exalt the historical memory of Akbar and Aurangzeb as the symbols of a lost Islamic grandeur in South Asia. By contrast, for the Baluchis, Sindhis and Pashtuns, the Moghuls are remembered primarily as the symbols of past oppression. Pashtunistan movement was the most organized, comparatively antique, and largely homogeneous in ethnicity and aspirations in the infantile years of Pakistan. However, the most important factor of the movement that irritated the Muslim League was that it had umbilical linkages with Indian National Congress due to its charismatic leader Abdul Ghaffar Khan, popularly known as ‘Frontier Gandhi’. Ghaffar Khan founded the Khudai Khidmatgar (servants of God) movement, designated by Britishers as ‘Red Shirt’ movement, in 1929[2]. It was a Pashtun social reformist movement with four major themes: Intense pashtun nationalism, reform of the pashtun society, staunch belief in Non-Violence and upholding Islam. In 1931 it allied with All India National Congress and increasingly became influenced by the nationalist socialist programme advocated by INC.[3] Due to its superb organizational structure and mass following, it won both the provincial elections held in 1937 and 1946. In effect, it became the only Muslim majority province where Muslim league lost in 1946 elections. During the events of partition the British government decided to hold a referendum to determine if the N.W.F.P wanted to join India or Pakistan. The Khudai Khidmatgars boycotted the referendum objecting there the referendum was not needed because they had already won the elections by clear majority and the referendum had no option for independent Pashtunistan or acceding to Afghanistan.

The Pakistan Army has viewed the Indian linkages to Pashtuns with trepidation and hyphenation of Indo-Pashtun relations with Pakistan has marred the process of greater cooperation and participative economic growth even between Afghanistan and India. The Indian influence in Pashtun belt was a force to reckon which did wane much due to the radicalization of the Pashtun ethnoscape and India’s stand during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. India’s recognition of the pro-Kremlin regime sullied its image within Pashtuns and reduced the political maneuvre space once the Soviets withdrew and the strategic setback was further exacerbated by arrival of Taliban on the scene which has caught the fancy of Pashtuns and provided the ISI the much needed traction in the tribal areas. However the Pakistan Army’s effort to distinguish between good and bad terror along with heavy handed approach to the Pashtun tribes aligned with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Jamat-ul-Ahrar (JuA) in FATA like Mehsuds, in North Waziristan, the land of the Ahmedzai Wazir and the Daur tribes is also home to the Haqqani group of the Afghan Taliban. Another important grouping is a Wahhabi orthodox group called the Tehreek-eNifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (the Movement for the Imposition of the Prophet Mohammad’s Traditions), known as the TNSM with its base in Malakand. This has left the Pashtuns alienated and at loggerheads with the Deep State. PTM owes its origins to the Mehsud Tahafuz Movement (MTM) which in 2014[4] demanded clearance of land mines from Mehsud Areas in Waziristan. The metamorphosis of MTM to PTM was precipitated by the murder of Naqeebullah Mehsud, an aspiring model by Karachi Police in a fake encounter[5]. Incidentally Imran Khan while in opposition prior to his ascent to power had supported the PTM[6] but true to his title of Mr U Turn[7] has redacted his support to them and called them anti-national. If he were unshackled by the military, it would not be Imran Khan’s instinct to repress the movement. Nonetheless, it is an issue on which Khan chooses to remain silent to preserve his position as prime minister, for which the military serves as the ultimate guarantor. PTM has meanwhile announced its support for the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) campaign to dislodge the incumbent government. The PTM leader and member National Assembly (MNA) Mohsin Dawar who is member of the national legislature from North Waziristan of former Tribal area attended the united opposition meeting where the PDM was constituted under Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman.

The media in Pakistan has been directed to deny any screen or air time to PTM activists by DGISPR and faced with such a black out, PTM has taken to social media as fish to water. On twitter hashtags like #pashtungenocidebypakstate and #MissingPersonsOnThisEid have sought to energize international and local opinion against the atrocities being suffered by the Pashtun tribes in Pakistan. Manzoor Pashteen the leader of PTM has been arrested and released in regular monotony; he has been accused of “hate speech” and sedition among other offences. The latter carries a possible life sentence. Pashteen, a charismatic former veterinary student shot to prominence two years ago, has become the face of the PTM, in a country where few openly challenge the military. The unique thing about the PTM is that perhaps for the first time in Pakistan a peaceful movement has challenged the holiest of holies; the army  for enforcing rights under the constitution. Not surprisingly, the PTM has across-the-board acceptability since most Pashtuns, especially the youth who were born and grew up during the war on terror, have personal experiences of war and devastation. Perhaps, the most important impact of the PTM is its success in demolishing the atmosphere of fear in KPK that had forced people to bear atrocities silently. The movement has given a platform and a voice to the suffering people who had been at the receiving end of terrorist violence and state oppression. According to Pashteen, activism has created awareness that the Pashtuns were mere pawns in a war that was fought for the benefit and interests of others in which there was collusion between the military and the militants.

According to authorities and independent research groups, violence on Western Borders of Pakistan since 2002 has forced more than five million people in Pakistan’s north-west to leave their homes to seek refuge either in government-run refugee camps or rented houses in peaceful areas. There are no official figures of the total death toll of this war but estimates from academics, local authorities and activists put the number of civilians, militants and security forces killed at well over 50,000. Many see the PTM as breaking new ground in the political landscape of a country where proxy wars have disenfranchised large populations not only in tribal areas and the north-west, but also in Balochistan and other parts of the country. Conventional wisdom in and about Pakistan Army has been that the dominant Punjabis had coopted the Pashtuns as a junior partner to rule the roost. Historically, the bulk of the army was drawn from Punjab (about 71-75%), Pushtoon (15-21%), Mohajir and Sindhis (3-5%) and Baluch (about 0.3%).[8] Thus, whether it was the army, the paramilitary or the bureaucracy, the Punjabi-Pashtun partnership was lording over the smaller ethnic groups like the Baloches and Sindhis. However, PTM protests during the past year have seen the first cracks in such a narrative. Punjabi insensitivity towards sub-nationalism resulted in the military’s propensity of interpreting the lack of consensus to accept a singular and centralized national identity or state narrative as disloyalty and treason. Pakistan Punjab has always stayed quarantined from the calamitous effect of terrorism until the arrival of Pashtun refugees from FATA and KPK who have been ghettoized in large metros like Lahore. Every time an atrocity is committed by Pakistan Army in the Wild West, a consequent terrorist attack in Punjab by the Pashtun in Punjabi heartland further drives a chasm between the Pashtuns and Punjabis which would eventually impact the cohesion of Pakistan Armed Forces.

This protest movement shows no signs of receding: PTM activists say they have “nothing more to lose” and will continue to protest. Pakistan’s military has always guarded itself against accountability, and in recent months, Pakistan’s civil-military scales have tipped further in favor of the military. The real question is: How far will the Pakistan Army go to repress this movement? The cause for concern is the potential for the confrontation to turn violent and effects it would generate on the PDM that wants to cash on this military intervention of Pakistan’s fragile democracy. Beyond the Pakistani state’s repression and the potential for violence, the PTM’s allegations have direct relevance for Afghan peace process and international security interests. Because if true, the movement’s claims that the army is in cahoots with the Pakistani Taliban would continue to put Pakistan’s sincerity in fighting terrorism both within its borders and beyond into doubt. Such sincerity is something that the Pakistani army has repeatedly asserted in recent years. It suggests that the army will continue to support the Afghan Taliban, too, once the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan. All this should be of direct concern to the international comity as USA seeks to negotiate with the Taliban and leave areas along the Durand Line both in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the machinations of ISI and the Deep State.


[1]  Khatwani, Mukesh & Abbasi, Ishrat. (2018). An Overview of Major Military Operations in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan.pg11.

[2] Lester Kurtz, The Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) Movement: Badshah Khan and the Northwest Frontier in British India (1933-1937), accessed on 21 Dec 2020.

[3]  Tahir Amin, Ethno-National movements of Pakistan, (Islamabad: Institute of Policy Studies, 1988), 67-68

[4] accessed on 22 Dec 2020.

[5] accessed on 23 Dec 2020.

[6] accessed on 21 Dec 2020.

[7] accessed on 12 Dec 2020.

[8]Ayesha Siddiqa, Pakistan Military – Ethnic Balance in the Armed Forces and Problems of Federalism, FORUM OF FEDERATIONS In collaboration with the Center for Civic Education –Pakistan and with support from the Republic of Germany, pg 11.