A mountainous area, the restive Pakistani region on the border with Afghanistan formerly called the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) has long been seen as a launching pad into Afghanistan for Islamist insurgents.
Since the 1980s, Pashtuns, who form the majority population, have paid a heavy price for the conflicts tearing their region apart. First, the Cold War rivalry between the former Soviet Union and the United States turned their territory into a war zone, and after 2001 came the battle between the United States and its allies against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Thousands of Afghan and Pakistani Pashtuns cross the Durand Line, the 2,430-kilometre long boundary between the two countries established by the British during their colonial rule.
The Afghan government does not recognize the Durand Line as the official border, nor do ethnic Pashtuns who live on both sides of the border and share historical, cultural and family ties.
In May 2018, the districts in the FATA were merged into the northwest Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, ending 150 years of draconian colonial-era governance. Now there is hope that bringing these areas into a new political process will promote stability.
However, the tribal region, home to six million people, has always been ruled by tribal law, with councils of tribal elders holding the real political power. Whether elected representatives can merge democratic governance with traditional social mores remains to be seen.
The Pashtun cultural code of Pashtunwali, with its various tenets and structures, especially the Jirga (Pashtun tribal council) and Lashkar (tribal militia), are where real power continues to reside.
The 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.
Estimates from academics, local authorities and activists put the number of civilians, militants and security forces killed at well over 50,000 since 2002.
Coverage of the movement is censored in Pakistan. Newspapers and TV outlets are not allowed to report on the rallies the movement holds or to air its demands.
On May 26, 2019, an armed confrontation in the North Waziristan region between Pakistani troops and PTM supporters left at least 13 people dead and 25 others wounded, including five soldiers. The protest was led by two PTM members, Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir from North and South Waziristan respectively, elected to Pakistan’s national parliament in the July 25, 2018 general election.
On May 1, Sardar Muhammed Arif Wazir, another PTM activist, was assassinated in a drive-by shooting in South Waziristan.
A cousin of Ali Wazir, he was targeted after his release from a Pakistani prison. He had been arrested on April 17 on charges of delivering an “anti-Pakistan speech” during a visit to Afghanistan.
Dawar claimed that “Arif Wazir was murdered by ‘good terrorists.’ Our struggle against their masters will continue.” The term refers to the pro-government armed groups known as “peace committees” supported by the government.
Major General Asif Ghafoor, a Pakistani military spokesperson, has accused the PTM leadership of working against the country. He alleged that the PTM is receiving money from Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies.
“We are not anti-Pakistan; we are only anti-terrorism,” responded PTM leader Manzoor Pashteen, who was arrested in January. “We are against oppression in all its forms, be it perpetrated by ‘good or bad Taliban’ or by the Pakistani military's intelligence agencies.”
He contends that the movement “is against the human rights violations of the Pashtuns.” He added that “none of our demands conflicts with the Pakistani constitution.”
Still, the idea of an independent Pashtun-majority homeland in the northwest worried Pakistan right from the beginning. The state believes ethnic cleavages threaten Pakistan’s unifying glue of an Islamic identity.
Some experts contend Pakistani authorities favored Islamization of the region to rein in the “Pashtunistan” movement, led by liberal and secular politicians and activists, and now by the PTM.