A few days ago, the leadership of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), a Pakistani social movement that purportedly works for Pashtun human rights in the country, was arrested. However, the arrest comes at a time when the movement’s popularity across Pakistan is surging.
While the government in Pakistan accuses the movement’s leadership of taking up an anti-state agenda, PTM’s leadership and its supporters believe that they are being targeted because they belong to a particular ethnic group. Regardless of the reasons involved, the looming clash between the state and the group will have far-reaching implications for the country.
The movement, which became active in Pakistan a few years ago, has come a long way when it comes to questioning the state’s counterterrorism programs in the country’s tribal areas. However, lately, the PTM’s leadership has become vocal in naming and targeting institutions that they believe are hindering their movement.
While the government and security agencies are trying to contain the fallout of the situation, it appears that every time an arrest takes place, the movement emerges with more strength and the determination to organize further emerges. Arguably, the movement’s popularity in Pakistan and abroad only ascended when it came under the scrutiny of the state.
For instance, the social media coverage after the latest arrest of the group’s leaders points toward this trend. The issue has been trending on various social media platforms for days, something the Pakistani state feels wary of and attempts to avoid. Arguably, to counter the trend, a number of anti-PTM media trends have also cropped up over the last few days. Apparently, the conflict between the PTM and the Pakistani state has moved to the online space, where both sides are trying to come out as a winner.
However, the government in Pakistan is taking the movement’s resurgence very seriously. There is always potential for another such movement emerging from any other region of the country if the issue is not handled carefully. Threats in this regard exist in provinces like Balochistan and Sindh, where such movements have previously flourished.
Moreover, for Pakistan’s policymakers, there is always a chance of various states in the region trying to use the group’s ethnic grievances to bargain on other issues or build pressure on the central government more generally. For instance, support for the PTM’s leadership has poured in not only from Pakistan but also from other places such as Afghanistan.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in a statement said that he was “troubled by the arrest of Manzoor Pashteen and his colleagues.” Ghani’s statement triggered a massive response online, especially in terms of the volume of pro and anti-PTM content being published.
Ghani’s statement was not only condemned by Pakistan’s Foreign Office (FO), but also drew criticism from a number of other state intuitions. “We have noted with serious concern the recent tweets by President Ashraf Ghani, which are a clear interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs and hence, unwarranted. We believe that such statements are not helpful to the promotion of good neighborly relations between the two countries,” said Pakistan’s FO in a statement.
It’s unclear if Ghani’s statement was based on a genuine concern or was an attempt to gain support from the Pashtun community living on both sides of the Durand Line; nevertheless, Pakistan sees such a statement with utmost seriousness.
It’s important to note that the issue of the Durand Line, which Kabul has never recognized as their shared border, remains an unresolved conflict between Pakistan and Afghanistan and a movement emanating from Pakistan’s tribal areas adjoining Afghanistan will always remain an asset for Afghanistan.
Potentially, the government in Afghanistan could very well gain leverage at some level domestically by lending support to the PTM. However, if any such politics is at play, this does not bode well for either the Afghan peace process or any efforts to bridge the existing trust deficit between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The PTM’s leadership needs to understand that the movement’s credibility comes under scrutiny when the former becomes embroiled in the existing regional geopolitical wars. The government in Pakistan needs realize the implications of shutting down a group as this can lead to wider consequences.
With both sides refusing to budge, a conflict is becoming a real possibility.