Uptick in violence across Balochistan and merged districts of KP (former FATA) has led to the martyrdom of at least 100 soldiers over the past month. The BLA and TTP proxy groups have increased their attacks by a factor of five.
Notwithstanding the sacrifices, drawing on the narrative of PTM, "Pakistan Army is (allegedly) responsible for the violence and terrorism" in these ethnically segregated areas. The storytelling and listening to stories of the systematic narrative by the PTM has unfortunately ensured a growing groundswell of ill-will against the Army.
That the PTM platform is now hijacked and weaponised in greater geopolitical battles against the state of Pakistan and its security institutions was on full display recently. For instance, "Afghan government for the first time sponsored a powerful public show in South Waziristan through PTM", LEAs believe. They contend that "there is no question about members of Afghan security establishment supporting and financing the PTM".
The rally under the PTM was to show solidarity with the Kabul regime, not with Pakistan which is losing three soldiers a day on average at the hands of Afghan proxies. The participants blamed the Army not only for the terror surge in Pakistan but also deteriorating situation in Afghanistan brainwashing masses.
CPEC has also been targeted by the PTM. Its leaders have openly demanded that China stop working on the CPEC – a baseline project for Pakistan’s potential heft in geo-economics. The PTM as a de facto propaganda offshoot for the Afghan government serves two objectives, a) indirectly legitimizes the TTP/BLA terrorism and, b) sustains the Indian narrative against the state of Pakistan.
In the meantime, the PTM got support from strange quarters. The Pashtun elements within PPP leveraged the platform against the Army. The PMLN’s top leadership facing trial used the forum to blackmail the establishment. Foreign-sponsored NGOs, including types of abortion and gay rights advocacy groups, joined the PTM, as they could not, otherwise, promote their agenda for various reasons.
Here is another irony. With no love lost for Pashtun welfare, the left-leaning and liberal bunch (that was angry at state policies of the past) backed the group, instead of moderating the PTM’s extremist inclinations, methods, narrative, ideological tendencies and buy-in of other forces and regional countries.
While the PTM's Patron-in-Chief, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani quickly tweeted for the PTM, the Kabul regime has leveraged PTM successfully against Islamabad to plant rhetoric of pan-Afghanism among Pashtun minds (i.e. the PTM also calls itself Afghan first and promotes the narrative of Kabul government on claiming the geography of Pakistan – implicit under the slogan "Upper and Lower parts are united Afghan nation). Whereas God sent a gift to India in the form of PTM for manipulating deepening fault-lines of the state — a policy it has been pursuing long.
Putting in perspective, the PTM has been meted out a soft treatment by the state from the days of its inception. First, its narrative of blaming the Army for wild allegations such as false flag operation, i.e. APS attack in Peshawar, and bringing in terrorism to FATA was left uncontested. Second, no counter-narrative was offered to check dreamers of irredentist claims of greater Afghanistan within the movement.
Still, the state allowed the PTM to informally participate in the elections without being registered as a political group; the Army did not indulge in rigging in FATA contrary to the claims of the opposition, letting the two MNAs from the PTM make it to the parliament in 2018 elections.
Unlike any other group, the government for long tolerated the PTM who has brought out to life two dead ideologies: the one which romanticism Afghanistan at the cost of Pakistani territory of KP and Balochistan’s Pashtun belt; and the other envisions Pashtun exclusionary/regressive political chauvinism bordering racism.
Ironically, no state worth its salt can absorb abuse (name-calling) of its Army leadership, a systematic attempt to cause a wedge between the forces and the people.
However, the attitude here has remained causal at best towards the PTM’s strategy, e.g. to deepen ethnic fault-line (i.e. eulogizing “centrifugal” mindset, metaphor, poetry and music) and to channelise the anger of victims of FATA into something big.
The official narrative, “PTM is our children”, mantra provided legitimacy to a platform paradoxically used as a ruse by an array of various actors. In addition to India, Kabul, ethnic dissent politicos, left-leaning civil society, anti-Pakistan Afghan diaspora, the propaganda media like VOA, BBC, Dewa etc and their websites also whip security forces under organised agenda of “subversion”, as per the manuals of 5th generation warfare. For example, organised use of social media in cyber psycho-ops has never been seen before suggesting sophisticated capability, only intelligence agencies can have to put together.
Worse, after much blood-letting of our martyred soldiers on every kilometre of former FATA, a new threat perception was ignored despite the region being a “cooling off area” after dismantling the HQs of international terrorists. Soon after clearing operations, the PTM started serving as a magnet. Many PTM public meetings were attended by the foot soldiers of the TTP who could easily mix with locals.
Amidst this, the platform also offered opportunities for hostile agencies to recruit moles, hook up with vested interest groups among NGOs and foreign embassies. Such an interest was generated that many Pashto-speaking diplomats were deployed to interact and coordinate with the PTM.
Yet, the entire state and the political government of Imran Khan was in favour of dialogue with the PTM. Even so, Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa hosted the PTM leaders Manzoor Pashteen and Mohsin Dawar. However, after many botched attempts, they realised the futility of the exercise. It dawned on them that a local group was already taken over by ambitions of competing agendas. The leaders, aspiring leaders and their backers never agreed on what they wanted in these negotiations. They continued with blatant attacks against security institutions, particularly in the areas where the “hardening phase post-operations” was underway. In other words, no other group enjoyed such unrestrained freedom than the PTM to malign and bash security institutions.
As part of half-hearted measures, the government only showed some muscle by registering FIRs and police action if the PTM workers occupy roads/streets and interrupt the normal life of people like the TLP. It mildly discouraged abuse; attempted to amend anti-army narrative; occasionally checked the platform being used as a vehicle by hostile agencies to corner forces and undermine the morale of forces fighting terrorism; and last but not the least, made some attempts to prevent social and economic grievances turning into full-blown rebellious sentiments of the minority youth.
Attempts were also made to help stop melting away benefits of various anti-terror operations including the goodwill capital. The success of this strategy was limited insofar as preventing more lethal but organised manoeuvers of the PTM. The fringe group extrapolated merged districts of KP’s situation with that of Indian-occupied Kashmir. When the entire country was marking the 5th of February as a day of solidarity with the Kashmiris, the PTM turned it into a so-called Pashtun solidarity day.
Leniency towards the evolving new irredentist movement of PTM has the following implications: Organised grievance-fed narrative can end up in massive discontent. It can potentially turn passive militancy into active militancy by unemployed brainwashed hard line young generations of Waziristan’s former warring tribesmen spreading from erstwhile FATA to Karachi.
The PTM-inspired use of extreme language is pitching impressionable Pashtun youth against the state — way beyond the ambit of freedom of speech. A parallel example was the TLP which invited the wrath of security institutions when it called for mutiny within their rank. All of the above or most of it is being done under the garb of projecting legitimate demand dubbed as protection of "human rights" of Pashtuns.
The narrative of PTM as fighting for a Pashtun cause is a myth. Along with Afghan politicians, the PTM’s two MNAs advocated for drone bombardment of North Waziristan. The US fired 500 missiles in which almost 3,000 civilians were killed. Whereas, Nato and the Afghan security forces kill hundreds of civilians every day in Afghanistan but the PTM never condemns them.
Pashtuns are part and parcel of the Pakistani state and its mainstream society from parliament, government and army to the bureaucracy. The recently passed out nearly 40 percent cadets from the Kakul Academy belonged to the Pashtun community, for instance.
But, the PTM is cleverly weaponising the scars left by Pakistan's war on terrorism, injecting enemy narrative into the minds of the ethnic population. It continues to enable India, Afghanistan to use the extreme left as a bargaining chip for targeting the Pakistan Army and driving a wedge between the people and the security forces. Such a dynamic makes it near to impossible to meaningfully defeat the violent proxies (like TTP and BLA) providing a cover of victimhood.
The bottom line is the PTM is a challenge to the state: its policy must change gear from patronage to containment of the group.
In the age of dark propaganda and the battle of narratives, the state has lost the upper hand. If TLP, a right-wing extremist group, can be banned, why not a left-wing extremist platform, i.e. PTM cannot be disbanded? Let them be offered two choices such as radical moderation or outright ban. The strategic importance of containing the PTM, thus averting subversion and potentially irredentism, cannot be overstressed.
Jan Achakzai is a geopolitical analyst, a politician from Balochistan and an ex-adviser to the Balochistan Government on media and strategic communication. He remained associated with BBC World Service. He is also Chairman of the Institute of New Horizons (INH) & Balochistan. He tweets @Jan_Achakzai
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