Pakistani Pashtun Leader: Nationalism Is a ‘Reaction Against the Racist Policies of the State’

Manzoor Pashteen is a rising political star willing to speak out on taboo subjects.

ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
Manzoor Pashteen, the Pakistani tribal leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, takes part in an interview with Agence France-Presse in Islamabad on April 6, 2018.
Manzoor Pashteen, the Pakistani tribal leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, takes part in an interview with Agence France-Presse in Islamabad on April 6, 2018.
Manzoor Pashteen, the Pakistani tribal leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, takes part in an interview with Agence France-Presse in Islamabad on April 6, 2018. AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images

ISLAMABAD—Manzoor Pashteen has become one of the most popular figures in Pakistani politics that few outside the country have ever heard of. Yet enormous crowds attend rallies to hear him speak, and the traditional red-and-black Mazari hat he wears has become known as the “Pashteen hat.” People wear it to show their support for him.

Aged 27, Pashteen leads the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), formed eight years ago to press the demands of Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtuns for social and economic inclusion. Pashtuns represent up to 20 percent of Pakistan’s 220 million people and almost a third of the population of neighboring Afghanistan. The disputed border between the two countries straddles the traditional Pashtun tribal homelands.

Pashteen’s appeal lies in his willingness to speak out on taboo subjects—historic abuses and modern marginalization; disappearances and extrajudicial killings; securitization of the Pashtun tribal regions; lack of education and employment opportunities for Pashtun youth; and Pakistan’s status as a rentier state, available to the highest bidder, be it the United States during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the post-9/11 wars or a rising China.

ISLAMABAD—Manzoor Pashteen has become one of the most popular figures in Pakistani politics that few outside the country have ever heard of. Yet enormous crowds attend rallies to hear him speak, and the traditional red-and-black Mazari hat he wears has become known as the “Pashteen hat.” People wear it to show their support for him.

Aged 27, Pashteen leads the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), formed eight years ago to press the demands of Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtuns for social and economic inclusion. Pashtuns represent up to 20 percent of Pakistan’s 220 million people and almost a third of the population of neighboring Afghanistan. The disputed border between the two countries straddles the traditional Pashtun tribal homelands.

Pashteen’s appeal lies in his willingness to speak out on taboo subjects—historic abuses and modern marginalization; disappearances and extrajudicial killings; securitization of the Pashtun tribal regions; lack of education and employment opportunities for Pashtun youth; and Pakistan’s status as a rentier state, available to the highest bidder, be it the United States during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the post-9/11 wars or a rising China.

While Pashteen and the PTM call themselves “Pashtun nationalists,” their movement does not seek the overthrow of the Pakistani government nor the establishment of a separate Pashtun state. Rather, Pashteen says he wants to redress an imbalance in the allocation of state resources—to the Pashtun tribal belt, as well as to other communities that feel disenfranchised, such as the Baloch.

Pashteen says his demands for human rights, equality, development, and peace extend to all the people of Pakistan. Pashtuns and their territory have been used in other people’s wars for centuries, he says: as cannon fodder for British imperialist adventures and to fight the Soviet occupation and U.S.-led Western alliance in Afghanistan. Now their territory is used to fight the Pakistani Taliban, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Pashtuns either fight terrorism or are demonized and killed as terrorists, he says.

Since mid-February, Pashteen has been leading a sit-in in Karachi, demanding the release of another PTM leader, Ali Wazir, imprisoned for allegedly making speeches against the Pakistani state. Wazir is an independent member of parliament and was formally arrested and charged on Feb. 23, more than a year in prison without charge.

Pashteen spoke with Foreign Policy on Skype from Karachi about peace, rights, Army power, and the centrality of parliamentary independence to democracy. And he answered a question many people, supporters and detractors alike, have asked: How long can he survive?

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: How do you assess the current situation in Pakistan?

Manzoor Pashteen: Lawlessness is increasing day by day due to the involvement of the military in all the institutions of state. The Army controls the parliament, judiciary, media. They disappear and kill brave journalists who call for human rights. [The Committee to Protect Journalists says 63 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 1992.] They have their selected parliamentarians who do the military’s bidding. We do not have a formal martial law, but we have hyper-martial law: The Army controls everything.

FP: How are you currently spending your time?

MP: I am in Karachi. We came here for a sit-in in front of the Sindh Provincial Assembly to ask for the release of Ali Wazir, a parliamentarian from South Waziristan. He has been jailed for 15 months on fake charges. Now the situation is such that the head of the Army has said we will forgive him if he comes to us and asks our forgiveness. [Wazir] has refused.

This is not constitutional; it is a matter for the courts, but the courts consistently extend his detention. Now we are asking the Sindh state government to release him. Ali Wazir is the voice of democracy, he is the voice of the people. Democracy is for the people, by the people, of the people. If they really believe that, they will release him. If you cannot free a parliamentarian, then how can the parliament be free?

We will stay until we get Ali Wazir out of jail, to see him back in parliament raising his voice for the oppressed. 

FP: You grew up in South Waziristan, one of the poorest regions of Pakistan that has long been blighted by war, militancy, and terrorism. What inspired you to become an advocate for human rights and Pashtun rights?

MP: The experience of watching the Taliban and the military killing innocent people, destroying houses, destroying markets, displacing us from our own villages. The misery and the feeling we are the most wretched of people.

Here in the Afghan-Pashtun belt, there is nothing, only barbarism. The barbarian Pakistan Army and Taliban killed us, destroyed us. We have nothing to look forward to but the cries of the wives and mothers who have lost their loved ones in war or as missing persons.

The people are not educated, so they do not know about the courts, the laws, the institutions, the constitution. We have no institutions in our area. We have no modern education. Yet we have modern weapons, billions of dollars’ worth of weapons that came to fight the “war on terror.” But it was a war on Pashtuns. It is a game for them but a black era for us.

Pashtun youths always say we are not terrorists, we are the victims of terrorists. More than 70,000 people have been killed; more than 8,000 people are missing persons. So many here are maimed by land mines. Our struggle is for peace. But we are a rentier state, everybody’s proxies.

FP: Why was the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement established? By promoting Pashtun nationalism, are you not further entrenching divisions in Pakistan society?

MP: Nationalism is not an action, it is a reaction against the racist policies of the state. Throughout human history, it’s never minorities who start violence or racism. It is always the majorities. When we say “Pashtun,” they tell us it is divisive.

We have the same identity cards of the country. So why are the resources and facilities of the country not available to us? We are a nation with 60 million people, but our language is not recognized.

Our demands are for an end to extrajudicial killings. The return of all missing persons. If someone has done wrong, punish them according to the law; if he has not done wrong, let him be free. This is not racism, it is protection.

We believe in human rights not only for Pashtuns but for all the human beings of the world. We believe in the rights of women; as long as women are repressed, society will not be free. We want the participation of women in every field of life.

We have the ideology of humanity. They have the ideology of cruelty and barbarism. It is a fight between humanism and barbarism. Inshallah we will win, and until then our struggle will continue.

FP: What do you see as the main issues facing Pakistan today?

MP: The main issue is the powerful military. Across the world, countries have militaries. But here, the military has a country. In the world, states have intelligence agencies. But here, the intelligence agency has a country. In the 21st century, we are living a life that could be in the era when kings had all authority. Now, here in Pakistan, the head of the Army is like a king of the Middle Ages: He has the authority to decide everything.

FP: What are your party’s platform, policies, and demands?

MP: In a nutshell, PTM is a political, nonparliamentary, peaceful movement. Its policy is to unite the oppressed people, educate them that they have the same rights as other human beings have. An end to extrajudicial killings, an end to forced disappearances. Removal of land mines and bombs from the villages—and do not plant more. Do not make laws that crush the people. Do not use the resources of the country to build huge businesses that do not benefit the people.

We are demanding our basic human rights, right to life, right to expression, right to assemble, right to a say in the way the country is governed, the right to have a peaceful life.

FP: What is your view of what has happened in Afghanistan, in the past 20 years and the past six months? Is the rise to power in Afghanistan of the Taliban, which has been called a Pashtun nationalist movement, good for you and the PTM? For Pakistan? Or not?

MP: If extremists are coming to power, it is bad for the whole world, it is very bad for all humanity. It will give courage to all extremists that they can do what they wish. We Pashtuns here and the Afghans in Afghanistan are considering these things. It is part, again, of the international power play. Powerful countries were supporting the Taliban. The U.S. government stopped support for democracy in Afghanistan, and this made the fall of Kabul possible.

Now the Pakistan government is supporting the Afghan Taliban. The Afghan Taliban is supporting the TTP [Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan]. And the TTP is making trouble in the Pashtun belt. This is a very well-connected chain which is disturbing the peace. Already we are in a war situation. But the new Afghanistan will make things worse.

FP: Your convoy was recently attacked and one of your supporters shot. Who do you believe is behind this and other attacks on you?

MP: It was in broad daylight, and all the people know that it was the Pakistani security forces. It was the third time the Pakistani security forces have fired directly at me and my vehicle.

But we are not afraid. We are living our lives for many people. We will struggle against these policies. We will struggle for Pakistani people to make their lives better through unity.

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed  according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.
A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.

Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?

The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.

Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.
Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.

China’s Crisis of Confidence

What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.

Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different

This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.

China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War

Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.