At the heart of South Asia’s never-ending wars, Islamic extremism, militancy and human suffering have been the Pashtuns, who are in a majority in Pakistan’s northern parts and most of Afghanistan. Since the 1980s, at least three generations of Pashtuns have paid a heavy price for the conflicts tearing their region apart. First, the Cold War rivalry between the former Soviet Union and the United States turned their territory into a war zone, and then the battle between the West and Islamists made them homeless, destitute and helpless.
Now a secular movement, led by young activist Manzoor Pashteen, has struck a chord with thousands of Pashtuns, who say “enough is enough.” The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (Movement for the Protection of Pashtuns, PTM) blames both the Pakistani military and Islamists for the destruction in their region.
Essentially an anti-war campaign, the PTM sprang up as a result of the killing of the 27-year-old Naqeebullah Masood, who was killed by police in the southern city of Karachi on January 20. The authorities claimed Masood had links with militants, a charge his family and civil society activists deny. Rights groups say that thousands of Pashtun youths have been murdered or abducted by security agencies in the past decades on unproven terrorism charges. State authorities use the pretext of war on terrorism to persecute Pashtuns, they say.
Over the years, Pashtuns have been branded as Islamists, or militants, due to the fact that the Taliban are also a Pashtun-dominated outfit, and because the radicalism in the country’s northern areas has spiked over the years as a result of decades-long wars.
PTM leader Pashteen doesn’t mince his words and has made it clear who he holds responsible for the Pashtun suffering: “We have to identify the place that destroyed us,” Pashteen said at a recent rally. “It is GHQ!” he said, referring to the Pakistani military headquarters in Rawalpindi.
In an interview with DW, Pashteen talks about the objectives of his movement, accusations that he is supported by Afghanistan, and decades-long “injustices” to Pashtuns whose region has been used as a “battlefield” by local and foreign powers.
Rights groups say thousands of Pashtun youths have been abducted by security agencies in the past decades
DW: What are the objectives of the PTM, and how are they different from the objectives of other Pashtun parties?
Manzoor Pashteen: Our objectives are clear. We demand that all “missing people” be released. If they have committed any crime, they should be tried in a court of law. Extrajudicial killings of Pasthuns must stop. A judicial commission should be formed to investigate these killings because we think they are pre-planned. Naqeeb Ullah Mehsud, a Pashtun youth who was killed by [senior police official in the southern city of Karachi] Rao Anwar, was falsely labeled as a Taliban militant.
We also demand that the authorities clear mines planted in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) during security operations, paramilitary forces stop harassing Pashtun families on the pretext of search operations and that people should not be humiliated at security check posts in the northwestern areas.
These are our demands. I think other Pashtun parties have not emphasized them.
How have Pakistani authorities responded to your demand of the release of “missing people”?
I have been told by intelligence agencies that I should give up this demand. But I have made it clear to them that even if they have killed all “missing persons,” they must let us know. They told me they would accept any other demand except releasing “missing people” and the issue of extrajudicial killings.
You said in a public rally in Peshawar city on Sunday that you would want a trial against Ehsanullah Eshan, the former spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, and Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s former military dictator [who ruled the country from 1999 to 2007]. Who would make that happen?
I am only talking about human rights abuses but some people in Pakistan have labeled me a “traitor” and “terrorist.” But Ehsanullah Ehsan is the biggest terrorist, and Musharraf is the real traitor who destroyed Pakistan’s democratic setup and committed many crimes, including the killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti, Former Chief Minister of Baluchistan province. Both Ehsan and Musharraf are responsible for the killings of innocent people. Ehsan did it through his terrorist organization and Musharraf committed genocide through unconstitutional military operations that caused destruction in our areas.
[Editor’s note: Ehsanullah Ehsan is in the custody of Pakistani authorities]
The issue of “missing persons” and extrajudicial killings is not restricted to FATA. Do you plan to work together with the affected families in other parts of the country to deal more effectively with the matter?
I would be glad to work with everyone. This is a national issue and we should work together to nip it in the bud for once and all.
You say the Pakistani military is responsible for the Pashtun suffering. What is the context of this accusation?
High-ranking Pakistani military officials have said on a number of occasions that they created the mujahideen (jihadists) and used Pashtuns to fight against the former Soviet Union. Since then, FATA has been used by the military as a safe haven and breeding ground for terrorists. Pashtuns have suffered immensely as a result of this.
Can the movement bring together Afghan and Pakistani Pashtuns against war?
Our movement is against the human rights violations of the Pashtuns. The movement is constitutional because none of our demands conflicts with the Pakistani constitution.
If Taliban safe havens are eliminated from Pakistan, particularly from FATA, and the Pakistani state discards the “good and bad Taliban” policy, the Pashtuns in Afghanistan will heave a sigh of relief.
Is the PTM facing threat from Pakistani authorities?
Some security officials told me I would be “declared” a “traitor” if I didn’t stop my activities. They did exactly the same. They are now running a propaganda campaign against me that I work for Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies. They have also threatened to arrest me on “anti-state activities” charges.
The truth is that they don’t have any evidence that I am backed by Afghanistan. I’m just fighting for the fundamental rights of the Pashtun people. I am not afraid because I have the public support. Pashtuns are just fed up with this war and kill-and-dump policy.
The United States and NATO are heavily involved in the Afghan conflict, which obviously has an impact on Pashtuns. What would be your demand from the US and other Western governments regarding your plight?
I urge the US and other Western countries to put an end to this bloody war in Afghanistan. War is not a solution, it is a problem. Peace can never be attained through war.
Do you think your movement will survive in the coming months? And do you plan to contest the 2018 general elections?
We won’t compromise and will continue to make demands. We won’t abandon this peaceful movement until we achieve our objectives.
Contesting election, however, is not my cup of tea and I am not a politician. Once our objectives are achieved, I will go home and don’t make any noise. We just want peace.
Manzoor Pashteen is the leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (Movement for the protection of Pashtuns, PTM).
The interview was conducted by Shah Meer Baloch. The interview was originally conducted over phone in Urdu and has been edited for clarity.