The PTM ‘Problem’: Any Miscalculation Could Result Into Immediate Chaos
In the immediate post-independence period, Pakistan faced immense challenges related to state formation and, in this respect, the country’s northwestern region, i.e. FATA, proved a herculean task in terms of integration into newly formed nation-state. Indeed, the pro-Bacha Khan Pashtuns and their supporters in neighbouring Afghanistan did not approve of the idea of a state being governed by the non-Pashtuns, i.e. Mohajirs and Punjabis. The Pashtuns, overall, have constructed a peculiar sense of history, ethnic and racial identity and they take pride in their being ‘ancient’, if not superior, to many other identities, especially the Punjabis.
I still recall my years at the Quaid-i-Azam University, which hosted students from all major ethnicities, where the Pashtuns, Sindhis and even Seraikis proudly not only distinguished themselves from each other but also indulged in ethno-racial discourse to prove themselves superior to the Punjabis whom they viewed as an antagonistic force, due to the Punjabis’ so-called domination of the state.
My question is, were it Punjabis who founded the state in 1947? Were Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan Punjabis? Was the first coup maker, General Ayub Khan (Hindko), a Punjabi? Were C-in-C Gul Hasan, General Beg, Kakar and Pervez Musharraf Punjabis? Even Zia-ul-Haq was a migrant (Punjabi). Are the Bhuttos and the Sharifs Punjabis? Haven’t the Pashtuns always enjoyed top positions within the army? Didn’t the Pashtuns, especially the Afghan refugees, settle in the Punjab and excel in various businesses, including transportation? And what about the millions of poor Punjabis dying in hunger and poverty every day in small villages and urban slums of Punjab? With minor exceptions, I did not get logical answers but ethnically charged rhetorical assertions embedded in the politics of desocialisation.
Afghanistan was the only state in Pakistan’s neighbourhood that did not recognise Pakistan as an independent and sovereign state. Essentially, Pakistan’s relations with Kabul remained strained throughout the 70 years of existence. The Afghan jihad of the 1980s and the post-Cold War geopolitics further widened the chasm. Though the Taliban government (1996-2001) was tactically recognised by Pakistan – and was embraced in letter and spirit by most of the Pashtuns – the country failed to fully control the group in the wake of the tragic attacks of September 2001. Since then, Pakistan and Afghanistan have been constantly engaged in a confrontational disourse where the latter is getting closer to India, which is Pakistan’s archrival.
In the context of the Global War on Terror (GWOT), Pakistan, as a weaker state vis-à-vis the powerful USA, tactically reversed its policy on the Taliban whose breakaway factions assumed Pakistan to be an enemy that needed to be targeted with (suicide) terrorism. Thus, since 2003, more than 30,000 civilians and security personnel have lost their lives in terrorist attacks. Here, one may sympathise with the view that Pakistan should not have participated in the GWOT and that such a policy might have prevented the mentioned loss.
But what’s the guarantee that the US and the NATO forces wouldn’t have attacked Pakistan in such a scenario? Moreover, one must not forget that Pakistan has been weary of Afghanistan since 1947. To keep the latter at bay, Pakistan enhanced its military capability and also gave support to the pro-Pakistan Taliban in Afghanistan.
Nonetheless, being pressured by the US, Pakistan, though reluctantly, took military measures in the FATA and Swat valley. Consequently, the local Pashtun community faced mass displacement. There is no denying the fact that the government failed to manage their rehabilitation. Also, the state failed to preempt the unintended consequences of such a large-scale displacement. It is in this context that the modern anti-Punjab narrative took root in the hearts of the Pashtun youths. Indeed, in plain language, the emergent Pashtun (formerly Mahsud) Tahafuz Movement (PTM), through its aggressive social media campaign, bracketed the state with the Punjabis. For instance, the derogatory remarks for the army were also imperceptibly directed at the Punjabis.
The PTM, since 2018, has been agitating for the ‘rights’ of the aggrieved Pashtuns. The Movement’s major demands include an end to the military check-posts in the Pashtun tribal areas, release of the (Pashtun) ‘missing persons’, arrest and trial of Rao Anwar, objective investigation into the kidnaping and murder of SP Tahir Dawar, and the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Before the 2018 general election, the PTM staged a sit-in in the federal capital to urge the civil-military leadership to pay heed to its charter of demands. Since Nawaz Sharif was also voicing similar concerns regarding ‘miltablishment’ at that time, PTM failed to get the national limelight.
Indeed, it wasn’t taken seriously and the security establishment provided an enabling electoral environment for the Movement’s key leaders such as Mohisn Dawar and Ali Wazir to find their way to the National Assembly. The state authorities might have believed that by doing so, the PTM would be gradually tamed down and some, if not all, of its demands will be fulfilled in due course of time.
Post-election, however, the PTM continued with its maximalist approach, whereas the government and the permanent state institutions tried to deal with them with a minimalist mindset. Consequently, it led to further misgivings, mistrust and mismanagement on both sides. The PTM has always been aggressive in its media campaign and strategic outreach. Indeed, it publicly called for (extra) regional support. This might have seemed practical to the PTM supporters, but it was taken as an extremely anti-state measure within the state institutions. Subsequently, the other day, the DG ISPR in a press conference gave sort of an ultimatum to the PTM to mend its ways; otherwise its ‘time is up’.
But resorting to military action will most likely aggravate the situation further. To avoid a potential civil war, it seems prudent on the part of the state to seek a social solution to its PTM ‘problem’. The former needs to engage with local social structures to reconcile with the mainstream Pashtun political leadership.
Moreover, there is a need to consult the Pashtun nationalist parties, such as the ANP, to find ways out of this deadlock. In addition, Pashtun non-political elite in KP, Karachi and elsewhere should be engaged meaningfully. Importantly, non-Pashtun ethnicities, such as the Punjabis, need to step forward in order to devise a mechanism to have a social dialogue with the Pashtuns. The entire process is time consuming and, any attempt at finding a short cut, might result into more chaos.
Last but not the least, both the PTM and the state need to find a ‘middle’ path whereas the former needs to abstain from its use of hostile speech against the latter; and, the latter needs to establish a cordial communication mechanism with the PTM leadership in order to gradually win over its confidence so as to seek consensual solution to its demands.
Any miscalculation on the part of the PTM or the state, may result into chaos, with the threat of a civil war looming, in which the winner will be the one with more resources, better skills, sophisticated technology and the socio-moral support of the populace. The regional data suggests that the nation-state, being an organised and strong entity, has generally prevailed in such cases.
The author is political and military analyst with a PhD from Heidelberg and Postdoc from Berkeley. He is also DAAD and Fulbright fellow. He tweets @ejazbhatty