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State Must Rethink Its Policy Towards PTM

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Farhatullah Babar discusses the genesis of PTM, its demands and how it has transformed the Pashtun youth to a force that clearly articulates its grievances and sufferings endured in the past.  

The clash between protesters and security forces in North Waziristan on Sunday has rung alarm bells and brought to the fore the genesis and demands of Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) – the 16-month old tribal youth movement. Wisdom and caution is needed in dealing with it to avoid driving a permanent wedge between the people of tribal districts and the state.

It is therefore important to look into the genesis of the Pashtun youth movement to strategize dealing with it.

The movement was born over a year ago, when a young man Naqeebullah Mehsud, was killed in what was officially claimed as an encounter with militants in Karachi. Blaming Mehsud as a hardened militant, the police claimed that he was killed in a raid on “a terrorist hideout” – a claim promptly rejected not only by his family but also by friends and others who knew Mehsud.

Mehsud’s pre-meditated murder would have gone unnoticed like hundreds of other such murders allegedly at the hands of security forces in the past, but nature and fate had some other plans. Strange indeed are the ways of the nature.

A young human rights activist Manzoor Pashteen belonging to Waziristan called for a march to Islamabad to demand justice for Mehsud. A most unusual reaction from a most unusual quarter it appeared – but there was little doubt that it was home-grown and genuine.

There were only a handful of people with him. However, on its way, the march was joined by many more. As they jelled and milled they discovered that a common thread of misery and misfortune bonded them. Everyone seemed driven by a common frustration of having seen nothing in life except militancy, war and mayhem. Mutedly they seemed to ask searching questions. They demanded justice not only for Mehsud but for all the youth in tribal areas.

Recalling it, Manzoor Pashteen in an article in the NYT on February 11 said, “Along with 20 friends, I set out on a protest march from Dera Ismail Khan to Islamabad. Word spread, and by the time we reached Islamabad, several thousand people had joined the protest. We called our movement the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, or the Pashtun Protection Movement”.

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Thus born in a bottomless pit of frustration, the PTM gained immense credibility and popularity when, through purely peaceful and means, its narrative on Mehsud’s killing proved correct. The movement’s other points also began to gain traction with people.

A people’s past determines their future also. The tribal youth had a haunting past and faced with an uncertain future.

When the world mounted a war on Afghanistan in 2001 General Musharraf partly because of US threat to be bombed into stone-age and partly for his own political survival too readily joined it. Terrorist Jehadi groups like the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan fleeing US bombings in Afghanistan moved into tribal areas, mostly Waziristan. And they quickly gained control of the areas through a combination of violence and intimidation and state’s deliberate or inadvertent indifference.

A grave mistake was made at that point knowingly or unknowingly. While the locals were unable to oust these groups, the state also looked the other way. In fact, we denied their existence on our soil. Some suspected that they were actually being harbored for some undisclosed strategic objectives. As a baffled world called the tribal areas as “petri dish of international terrorism”, we ignored the inferno.

As unemployed local youth were recruited for dollars and some local criminals also joined them these jehadis gained great strength. Local people recall that they could not even publicly mourn their kith and kin killed by the militants for fear of reprisals.

I recall a conversation sometime back with a wise local thought leader in South Waziristan. When asked what he thought, he said in a tone of soliloquy as if he didn’t want to be overheard پاس بنگنہ دہ او لاندے چاڑہ دہ  “Paas bangana da laande chaare da” (Drone in the sky and dagger on the ground) and hushed up. He was not alone in facing the dilemma: You will be slaughtered for speaking against militants and droned for speaking in favour. Damn you do, damn you don’t.

Everyone was confounded as the state didn’t respond, but no one dared speak. Suspicions that the state was exploiting the situation and sheltering the militants to advance some security objectives beyond borders grew.

These fears and suspicions were not totally unfounded. Islamabad had backed and bankrolled the Taliban in the mid-1990s on the faulty assumption that Taliban would help in pursuit of its objective to keep India at bay. Shaping Afghan politics and having a regime of its liking in Afghanistan has long been on the wish list of policy makers.

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Policies were made behind closed doors, mostly by the security establishment. Former Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz publicly stated on one occasion that Pakistan’s Afghan policy was not made in the Foreign Office.

Unsurprisingly, even after Taliban were formally disowned, some of their factions were recognized as Aman or Peace Committees. As Aman committees taxed locals, ran private prisons and appeared to perform some state functions even in the presence of thousands of troops, the state again looked the other way.

Manzoor summed it up in the article thus: “The government ignored us when these militants terrorized and murdered the residents. No journalists were allowed into the tribal areas while the military operations were going on”.

But that was not all. “When we soldiered on, they unleashed the Taliban. In July, four PTM protesters were killed and dozens injured after Taliban fighters fired at them. A military spokesman declared these Taliban fighters to be members of a peace committee and praised them for fighting terrorism and doing their part for ‘stabilization’, he wrote.

What are their demands? The PTM has been demanding an end to the bloodshed, end to enforced disappearances, open trial of hundreds in secret internment centres, and an end to humiliating body searches at checkpoints.

It has also been demanding de-mining of tribal areas. They question why action is not taken against former militants who have resurfaced and target kill their supporters. They call for setting up a Truth Commission for a closure.

The PTM has increasingly transformed the Pashtun youth into a force to clearly and forcefully articulate their grievances and the atrocities and sufferings endured by them in the past. The state must rethink its policies and actions and engage the youth in a constructive dialogue instead of pushing them with backs to the wall. The Sunday incident has made it imperative.

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