Pakistan is locked in a game of chicken between the state and the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (Pashtun Protection Movement or PTM) — a classic game-theory scenario. It is unfortunate that the state has got itself entangled in this situation with a section of its own people. What is more unfortunate is that the state’s response so far has been contradictory to what any strategist would adopt in such a setup. By invoking a “foreign funded conspiracy” label on PTM, the state has brought the otherwise local rights movement under the national security discourse, not only elevating it to the national and global stage but also in the process securitizing the movement itself by framing it as an existential threat to Pakistan.
With the two now set on the collision course, it does not matter who is funding the car — the fact is that both have citizens of Pakistan as passengers. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t – no scenario of this game can ever work in favor of the state. The only way out for the state is to let the civilian leadership take control of the policy, to de-escalate and exit the game that it has naively drawn itself into. One way to do that is to end this clash of narratives and instead embrace what the state otherwise sees as a threat from its parochial security lens. The state is big enough to absorb the diversity without collapsing on its knees. And why shouldn’t it?
Pakistan has been in a state of war for over 17 years and there is not an individual that has not been affected by it. But let’s call a spade a spade: The war has taken the greatest toll on the tribal regions and Pashtuns living there, for whom the war goes back to 1970s. For a long time the ruling elite in Pakistan has treated the voices of people in the tribal area and elsewhere with sheer neglect and shoved them under the rug. Much of this was because the affected Pashtuns did not have true representation and were far from the comfort of Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad. To some extent Imran Khan, with his anti-war and anti-drone stance, did become the voice of this lot but as Khan grew in politics, his concerns became more diverse and national, leaving the local Pashtun connection diluted because of high politics. Jamiat Ulema-e Islam (JUI), Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), and the Awami National Party (ANP) have all been in politics too long to capture the youth bulge that has been brewing in the tribal region. This vacuum allowed PTM to get traction; it became the voice of dissent and the unrepresented, and for all the right reasons. Not even the security establishment denies that PTM has genuine grievances, and in the beginning appeared serious to allay these concerns. The problem, however, is the toxic turn of narratives that snowballed into a standoff where both the state and PTM have taken strong positions.
For the state, the anti-Pakistan Army slogans, and racial overtones of PTM are a deep reminder of the past that causes panic. They see it as old tactics, and now part of the fifth generation warfare being funded from across the border. They do have a point. With a quick look into the social media trends on PTM, one can observe a significantly large presence of Afghan officials, and foreign trolls, pushing through this racial and anti-army agenda. Especially with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and former Afghan intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh endorsing PTM, it sends the security establishment in overdrive, not realizing that this is the very trap it must avoid. The state sees PTM as contradictory in its stance, maintaining the mantra of nonviolence while continuing its treasonous discourse calling for a mutiny in the armed forces. Military strategists that have dealt with such scenarios before therefore start to conceive of PTM as a foreign-funded movement that wears the façade of nonviolence now to get enough traction to pursue violent means eventually.
The core problem here is that if you are a military strategist, you are vulnerable to make assessments in these deeply securitized terms. This is exactly why it is so important to have the civilian government and civilian strategists formulate the state policy on such issues to avoid turning basic human rights and justice issues into national security ones. Not every nail needs hammering.
For PTM, its conundrum is that it cannot be heard unless it takes up an offensive narrative. How do marginalized people get state attention when for decades the state has continued to ignore their grievances? These racial tactics and anti-Pakistan army slogans thus become a necessity to bring the state to the negotiating table. The state strategists need to see the anti-state rhetoric for what it really is: a cry to be heard, not treason. By continuing to label such voices as treasonous, the state is essentially reinforcing the very anti-state discourse that it seeks to reject. However, as necessary as it may be for PTM, such anti-state and racially charged discourse is also counterproductive in terms of alienating the populace.
For PTM or any other social movement, the key is to recognize at what point to stop, reflect, and transform the narrative. PTM has the state’s attention; however, there appear to be forces that are pushing it into a collision course with the state. In such a case PTM may lose support and risk delegitimizing itself. Social movements in their growth period are delicate and risk collapsing due to competing internal agendas. Unless the aim is to collide with the state to justify racial and ethno-based nationalism, it is about time for PTM to make a bargain. As for the state, it must have the civilian government make the call on this to desecuritize the issue and instead of alienating its own people embrace their very grievances. It may just save the state from a head-on collision with its own people.
Hussain Nadim is Director of the South Asia Study Group at the University of Sydney.