The Pakistani Military’s Worst Nightmare Is Coming True
A human rights movement from Waziristan is finally bringing the country together to challenge the brass.
For decades, Pakistan’s powerful military has been in control of the country’s politics whether directly, as during several decades of military dictatorships, or indirectly, as during attempts by civilian leaders to reassert their authority in the 1970s, 1990s, and after 2008.
In their efforts to wrest control from the military, plenty of Pakistani politicians have been defeated and dismissed from office. So dire was their record that, at times, challenging the brass seemed like a fight not worth picking.
But all that may be changing at last.
Manzoor Pashteen, a 26-year-old man from an impoverished tribal background, is rapidly becoming a symbol of resistance in a place where dissent is usually silenced as anti-state, anti-Islam, or a result of nefarious foreign influence.
Pashteen’s Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), or Pashtun Protection Movement, came to prominence in early 2018 in Waziristan, a remote outpost along Pakistan’s rugged border with Afghanistan. Although the grievances PTM tapped into—discrimination against tribal people, violence by the Taliban, and military presence in the area—were long-standing, the trigger for the group’s recent explosion was the extrajudicial killing of an aspiring model and artist from Waziristan in the city of Karachi in January 2018.
Despite a media blackout—the major news channels have refrained from covering PTM gatherings or running interviews with its leadership, allegedly because of bullying and arrests by the intelligence agencies—Pashteen’s protest is gaining ground. In February 2018, the PTM staged a sit-in in Islamabad, which was followed by more protests against the military in all major Pakistani cities. In February this year, for example, hundreds of young men and women marched in Lahore, the country’s second-largest city, to demand freedom of expression, respect for the country’s constitution, and civil rights. The name of their rally—Shehri Tahafuz March, or Citizen Protection March—was an homage to PTM. And in April, tens of thousands of people demonstrated under the PTM banner in the North Waziristan city of Miran Shah.
At these rallies, a popular slogan is “Ye jo dehshat gardi hai, es ke peche wardi hai,” or “the uniform is behind all the terrorism.”
But can such marches really change anything?
Over the decades, the majority of civilians and politicians have shied away from raising questions about what they may privately acknowledge is the military’s encroachment on civilian politics. The same goes for Prime Minister Imran Khan, who won office in 2018, and is believed to be backed by the military establishment. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the leader of the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party, called Khan the “selected prime minister” during an inaugural speech in the National Assembly. Since then, the word “selected” has been repeatedly used by opposition politicians to criticize the military establishment for backing Khan. They may have their own reasons for discrediting Khan, but other observers have noted his closeness to the military as well.
Thanks to social media and the momentum generated by PTM activists, however, more and more Pakistanis have started criticize the military’s involvement in politics, including by questioning the army’s corporate interests and its outsized budget and by censuring the institution directly online. Although the military can silence conventional media, it has few tools to restrict individual activity on social media. Even arrests and harassment of social media activists have so far failed to suppress dissent.
Social media has also helped PTM spread its message nationwide. Waziristan had previously existed in a virtual information black hole thanks to regular media blackouts during the days of anti-Taliban operations. But with social media, news can get in—and out. That a protest movement has spread from the area to other cities is a rarity for a district that often feels completely disconnected—physically and culturally—from other parts of the country.
It is also unusual that a movement originally created to support ethnic Pashtuns has found support across communal lines. In early February, for example, Ammar Ali Jan, a college teacher and PTM supporter, was picked up by law enforcement agencies from his house in Lahore in the middle of night on charges of supporting the PTM. In response, dozens of Punjab-based activists launched a social media campaign for his release. A few days after his release, Jan explained his ordeal in an op-ed. He clarified that he is not an ethnic Pashtun but has supported the PTM in its broader struggle against human rights violations.
Facing widespread protest, the Pakistani military has resorted to its old playbook and condemned the PTM and other emerging movements as “fifth-generation warfare”—that is, hybrid warfare against the state. Meanwhile, the military has also linked Pashteen and others to foreign governments and intelligence agencies. Addressing a news conference on April 29, Pakistani military spokesman Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor accused the PTM leadership of getting money from Indian and Afghan intelligence. “But tell us how much money did you get from the NDS [Afghan National Directorate of Security] to run your campaign?” he asked. “How much money did RAW [India’s Research and Analysis Wing] give you for the first dharna [sit-in] in Islamabad?”
In a bid to counter the PTM, state security agencies have swamped social media, Twitter in particular, with their own posts. Twitter accounts of ambiguous origins attack journalists and social media activists who criticize the military or the government. In turn, Facebook has removed more than 100 accounts, pages, and groups linked to the Pakistani military’s public relations arm.
So far, pressure has failed to silence dissent. Arrests, online harassment, and threats are now openly debated in social media forums, which encourages the brave to speak out. Questioning the military’s use of extremist proxies, relations with India, violence in Kashmir, defense and military expenditures, constitutional supremacy, and even alleged human rights abuses in Baluchistan province is no longer as taboo as it used to be. In fact, Pakistanis are now promoting hashtags to highlight such issues.
And that is the worst nightmare of Pakistan’s policymakers. Although Khan still enjoys support from many Pakistani civilians, his continued silence about the security agencies’ alleged human rights violations and harassment of peaceful demonstrators will likely dent his popularity in the longer run. He is already seen as the military’s man in Islamabad—and that position is getting less and less comfortable to occupy.