By Afrasiab Khattak
It may sound strange to some people that the boldest & sharpest opposition to the unannounced hybrid martial law imposed on the country in the last few years has originated from a comparatively backward area, without a long history of formal & structured political activities. These are the seven districts and six frontier regions of the former Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) that have been recently merged in Pakhtunkhwa Province. But it doesn’t look that strange if one keeps an eye on a few facts about the history of the area. British India had kept this long mountainous strip populated by tribal Pashtuns on the Durand Line to be an “excluded area” where only the executive branch of the colonial state had the monopoly of power. It was also called “ no man’s land”. For seven decades Pakistan maintained the complete colonial status quo in the area. FATA was turned into a launching pad for “ Jihad” in Afghanistan. Religious seminaries & militant infrastructure were brought into the area on a large scale. Taliban & Al-Qaeda were allowed to enter the area from Afghanistan after 9/11 for establishing their bases and regrouping to start a new war in Afghanistan. Afghan Taliban & Al-Qaida gradually turned the area into one of the largest terrorist centers in the world. Their main bases were in Waziristan which saw the fiercest violence. Haqqani Network mainly operated from Mir Ali and Miran Shah in North Waziristan. The area remained a no go area and a black hole.
“As the response to Arif Wazir’s murder has demonstrated any further killing will further strengthen and popularize PTM. There’s no military solution to the political problem.”
Pakistan Army entered the area on a large scale for the first time in 2002 and established many new military garrisons. The military did launch operations to contain the militants by using F-16s, tanks, and long-range heavy guns. However militant sanctuaries remained. The Pashtun population of the area faced death, destruction and displacement due to this armed conflict that continued for more than a decade. Thousands of tribal elders were killed by terrorists. The family of Ali Wazir and Arif Wazir lost 17 members of their extended family. Thousands of other innocents were killed in operations as the “ collateral damage”. More than three million were displaced and had to live in IDP camps for long years facing marginalization, discrimination, and racial profiling. The largest military operation named ‘ Zarb-e-Azb’ was launched in 2014 in Tochi Vally North Waziristan and also in some other parts of former FATA in the wake of the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.
Ultimately the cumulative impact of the long-sufferings of the area produced a powerful local political uprising led by the young and educated Pashtuns of the area in early 2017. The grassroots organic & non-violent people’s resistance movement called itself the Pashtun Tahafuz ( Protection) Movement ( PTM). The PTM’s rise coincided with the expanded role of the establishment as it became more involved in politics post-2014. The establishment considered the harsh criticism of its role by PTM as an affront at a time when it has tamed most of the mainstream political parties. Initially, the establishment gave the impression that it was prepared to engage with Manzoor Pashteen, the charismatic leader of PTM and other prominent activists like Ali Wazir, Mohsin Dawar, and Abdullah Nangial for discussing their problems. PTM formally expressed willingness for political dialogue. But the use of tribal jirga by the government for reducing the popular Pashtun political movement to a local tribal dispute showed the non-seriousness of these efforts. The promulgation of the Ordinance of Action in Aid of Civil Power and expanding the draconian law from former FATA & PATA to the whole province of Pakhtunkhwa in August 2019 closed the door for any political solution as democracy was curbed. The PTM was dubbed to be an anti-state organization and Pakistani media was told to completely blackout its activities and it complied.
But when PTM refused to budge from its non-violent but clear narrative of resistance against militarisation, militancy, and oppression, a decision was taken at the beginning of 2019 to crush the nascent movement by force. Arman Luni, a college teacher and senior cadre of PTM was killed by brutal action of police during a peaceful demonstration on February 2, 2019, in Qila Saifullah Balochistan. The police officer accused of his murder hasn’t been prosecuted. After that dozens of senior PTM leaders and activists were arrested, tortured, and put in prison for months before they were granted bail by the courts as they were arrested on flimsy charges.
It was followed by the Khar Kamar massacre where a peaceful gathering was fired upon. Fourteen people were killed and 26 injured. Members of Parliament Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar who were present were arrested and accused of attacking the military checkpoint. In the last week of January 2020, Manzoor Pashteen the leader of the PTM was also arrested on flimsy grounds but was consequently released by the court on bail after some time.
But the murder of Arif Wazir, a well known PTM leader and a scion of a known political family of South Waziristan heralds a new stage of confrontation between the new Pashtun leadership and the establishment.
There were accusations that Arif was killed by the “ good Taliban,” a group of militants who have had peace deals with the government, have diminished influence, and do not attack the state. The government has yet to condemn or comment on the murder. The media was instructed to blackout the news of Arif’s murder and the mammoth gathering for his funeral in Wana. Some social media handles professing to be protectors of the establishment gloated over Arif’s death and demonize him as an “ anti-state traitor”.
Large scale killings in the past have produced the people’s resistance, PTM. As the response to Arif Wazir’s murder has demonstrated any further killing will further strengthen and popularize PTM. There’s no military solution to the political problem.
The writer is former Chairperson of Senate’s Committee on Human Rights, and a member of the Board at Voicepk.net. He can be found on Twitter @a_siab