Is Pakistan's war-ravaged northwestern region turning against the military?

Pakistan's military has accused a Pashtun civil rights movement of destabilizing the country at Afghanistan's behest. Rights groups say that the movement is being targeted for opposing military policy in Pashtun lands.

A new movement has sprung up in Pakistan's Pashtun-dominated northwestern areas. Its supporters, who are wary after decades of their region being used as a battleground, have taken on both jihadis and Pakistan's powerful military.

The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) has gained considerable strength in the past two years, drawing tens of thousands of people to its protest rallies. Its supporters are critical of the war on terror, which they say has ravaged Pashtun areas in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Last week, Major General Asif Ghafoor, a spokesman for the Pakistani military, accused the PTM leadership of working against the country. He alleged that the PTM is receiving money from Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies.

"Their time is up for the way they are playing into the hands of others," Ghafoor warned the PTM leadership in a press conference on April 29.

On Sunday, a police report was filed against PTM official and parliament member Ali Wazir and 11 other PTM activists for allegedly chanting slogans against the Pakistani state and the country's security forces.

"Speakers were inciting people against the army and attempted to undermine the country's security," the report said, adding that further investigations were underway.

Read more: A movement of millennials in Pakistan is dubbed the Pashtun Spring

Asif Ghafoor said that many of the PTM demands have already been met

Pashtun anger

The PTM demands an end to extra-judicial killings and arbitrary detentions of Pashtuns in the name of war on terror. It has struck a chord with thousands of Pashtuns. Supporters of the movement blame both the Pakistani military and Islamists for the destruction in their region

As the battle for Afghanistan continues, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, who Kabul and Washington say receive support from the Pakistani army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, control vast swathes of territory in the war-torn country.

On the Pakistani side, the tribal areas along the Afghan border continue to suffer due to Islamist activities and the security forces' operations that caused deaths and displacements on a large scale.

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Speaking to DW, Manzoor Pashteen, the 26-year-old PTM founder, said the military's allegations against the PTM are "baseless and false."

"They want to put pressure on us so that we relinquish our demands," said Pashteen. "We are ready to negotiate with the state."

Pashteen said that he wants to take legal action against Pakistani general Ghafoor's accusations and "fight our case through constitutional means."

Read more: Malala's father: 'Pakistan's security policies need a paradigm shift'

The military generals, however, believe that the PTM is insensitive to the Pakistani army's "sacrifices" in the war against terror and militant groups.

"General Ghafoor's words and tone indicate a hardening line towards a few PTM leaders, after efforts by the state to undercut the group by restricting its public activities and forbidding media coverage of its protests," Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, told DW.

"The military's stance amplifies what has been a rather confused state policy towards the PTM. The army's harsh words have often been accompanied by more conciliatory language, including some softer language from Pakistan's army chief after Ghafoor's press conference," Kugelman added.

Militant Haqqani Network - a brief history

Remnants of the Afghan war against Soviets

The Haqqani Network was formed by Jalaluddin Haqqani, who fought against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In 1995, the Haqqani Network allied with the Taliban and the two groups captured the Afghan capital Kabul in 1996. In 2012, the US designated the group a terrorist organization. On September 4, 2018, the Taliban announced that Jalaluddin passed away after a long illness.

Madrassa Jamia (AP)

Militant Haqqani Network - a brief history

An Islamist ideologue

Jalaluddin Haqqani was born in 1939 in the Afghan province Paktia. He studied at Darul Uloom Haqqania, which was founded in 1947 by the father of one of Pakistan's most prominent religious leaders, Maulana Sami ul Haq. Darul Uloom Haqqania is known for its alleged ties with the Taliban and other extremist groups.

Militant Haqqani Network - a brief history

Jalaluddin Haqqani as Taliban minister

Jalaluddin was made minister for Afghan tribal affairs under the Taliban rule. He remained in the post until the US toppled the Taliban regime in 2001. After the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, Jalaluddin was considered the most influential militant figure in Afghanistan. Jalaluddin also had close links with the former al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden.

Militant Haqqani Network - a brief history

Where is the Haqqani Network based?

Security experts say the command center of the group is based in Miranshah city of Pakistan's North Waziristan region along the Afghan border. US and Afghan officials claim the Haqqani Network is backed by the Pakistani military, a charge denied by Pakistani authorities. Washington says the group's fighters launch attacks on foreign and local troops and civilians inside Afghanistan.

Militant Haqqani Network - a brief history

The Haqqani heir

It is believed that Jalaluddin Haqqani died in 2015, but his group denied those reports at the time. The network is now headed by Sirajuddin Haqqani, Jalaluddin's son. Sirajuddin is also the deputy chief of the Taliban.

Superteaser NO FLASH Pakistan Terror Jalaluddin Hakkani (picture-alliance/dpa)

Militant Haqqani Network - a brief history

Who is Sirajuddin Haqqani?

Although there isn't much credible information available about Sirajuddin Haqqani, security experts say he spent his childhood in the Pakistani city of Miranshah. He studied at Darul Uloom Haqqania, situated in Peshawar's suburbs. Sirajuddin is believed to be an expert on military affairs. Some analysts say Sirajuddin's views are more hard line than his father's.

Militant Haqqani Network - a brief history

Anas Haqqani's death sentence

One of Jalaluddin's sons is Anas Haqqani, whose mother hailed from the United Arab Emirates. He is currently in the custody of the Afghan government and is facing the death penalty. The Haqqani Network has warned Kabul of dire consequences if Afghan authorities hang Anas Haqqani.

Militant Haqqani Network - a brief history

How big is the Haqqani Network?

Research institutes and Afghan affairs experts say the group has between three and ten thousand fighters. The network allegedly receives most of its funding from the Gulf countries. The Haqqani Network is also involved in kidnappings and extortion through which it funds its operations.

Militant Haqqani Network - a brief history

Ties with other militant groups

The Haqqanis have close relations with other regional and international terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Taiba and Central Asian Islamist groups. Jalauddin Haqqani was not only close to bin Laden, but also had ties with al Qaeda's current chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.

United Pashtuns?

The Afghan government, which usually refrains from commenting on Pakistan's domestic politics, has praised Pashteen's campaign in the past. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani shared several tweets about the "Pashtun march" in February 2018, hoping that it would succeed in "uprooting and eradicating terrorism from the region."

The Pashtun issue has been a sensitive one for Pakistan since the South Asian country gained independence from British rule in 1947. With a large Pashtun population in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, the idea of an independent Pashtun-majority homeland baffled Pakistan right from the beginning. Some scholars say Pakistani authorities favored Islamization of the region to rein in the "Pashtunistan" movement, led by liberal and secular politicians and activists.

Read more: Why Pakistan associates terrorism with Pashtuns and Afghans

The PTM could be viewed by Islamabad as another such effort to unite Pashtuns from both sides of the border, although the group hasn't said anything about it.

"Can the PTM unite Pashtuns across the Durand Line [Afghan-Pakistan border established by the British]? I think it is already doing it. Rallies have been staged in the Afghan city of Kandahar — the birthplace of the Taliban — Jalalabad city, and in Kabul in support of the PTM. Common Afghans are raising slogans of peace," Saleem Shah, an Islamabad-based researcher and activist, told DW.

But does the Afghan government's praise for the PTM mean that it is also funding the movement?

"The Afghans are only morally supporting the PTM because they know what the Pakistani military is doing in Pashtun-dominated areas. But the Afghan government does not provide any kind of financial support to the movement," Ghafoor Liwal, Afghanistan's former acting minister for borders and tribal affairs, told DW.

The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) has drawn tens of thousands of people to its protest rallies

Zabi Sadat, a lecturer in Kabul, is of the view that Pakistani officials are trying to divert the attention from war atrocities by slamming peace movements like the PTM.

But some analysts say that Afghanistan's direct or indirect support to the PTM could be harmful for the movement.

"What Kabul is doing could backfire because Islamabad will use it as an excuse for its support for the Taliban," Yunas Fakur, a Kabul-based analyst, told DW.

Read more: Pakistan to build fence along disputed Afghan border

Army's 'sacrifices'

Despite its difference with the PTM leadership, the Pakistani military spokesperson said Monday that the state is trying to address the PTM's demands.

Asif Ghafoor said that many of their demands have already been met, including the clearing of landmines in the tribal areas. Some 101 soldiers lost their lives during the clearance operations, he said.

Supporters of the army say that the PTM leadership is not cooperating with the authorities and only want to make a fuss.

"The PTM is trying to defame Pakistan's military. Pahsteen actually does not want peace in the region — peace that the army has restored after much sacrifice," Akbar Ali, a resident of northwestern Kurram district, told DW.

Additional reporting by Masood Saifullah.

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Global 3000 | 30.03.2019

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