Pashtuns will not be pawns in Pakistan’s dangerous game with the TTP and Taliban
Recent protests in Swat and Waziristan highlight discontent with rising militancy and the Pakistan military
On 30 January, at least 101 people, most of them police officers, were massacred by a suicide bomber in a mosque in Peshawar during Friday prayers. The area where the blast occurred is supposedly a highly fortified part of the city, as it houses government buildings, intelligence and counterterrorism bureaus and the residence of the chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. There has been public outrage in response. Local police demanded a full and transparent investigation, adding that they were compelled to take to the streets in protest given the deteriorating law-and-order situation in the province. While the provincial police – which includes many Pashtuns in its ranks – has been targeted in the past, this marked one of the first times that police officers joined protests.
The Peshawar mosque blast is only the most recent instance of a wave of attacks in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and across Pakistan, highlighting the impact of increased militancy in the region. In 2022, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan carried out more than 260 attacks in the country – a 27-percent increase compared to the previous year – killing 419 people. This happened even as peace negotiations between the TTP and the Pakistan government were ongoing, with the Afghan Taliban acting as intermediaries.
The resurgence of violence at the hands of the TTP follows a pattern all too familiar to Pashtuns in general and the people of Swat and Waziristan in particular. Historically, after every truce or ceasefire negotiation, the TTP captures more control or the state cedes some more power to it. Before Pakistan began a major operation against the TTP in Swat in 2009, at least two ceasefire agreements had been signed, each of which saw subsequent regrouping and expansion of the group. The last truce, in 2009, resulted in the TTP expanding beyond Swat into the neighbouring districts of Dir, Shangla and Buner. The recent peace talks after the Taliban's capture of Kabul also unfolded in a similar fashion, where bomb blasts and militant activity continued unabated despite a ceasefire.
Provincial politicians have long been raising this issue. Mohsin Dawar, the leader of the National Democratic Movement and a member of Pakistan's National Assembly from North Waziristan, spoke about the re-grouping of the TTP in Waziristan, charging that they were consolidating with the acquiescence of the powers that be. The general consensus is that the state is playing a long-term game to deal with the TTP, at the cost of more Pashtun lives.
Linked to this, October 2022 saw an eruption of anger and protest in Swat. The crowds were chanting anti-war slogans which revealed their fears of being pushed back into war. The people of Swat were saying that any show of force would be publicly resisted. This was especially because, a few weeks before the protests, the TTP had been carrying out attacks, making residents recall a time the banned group once controlled Swat. The message was clear: the people wanted no more violence, either at the hands of militants or the Pakistan military. In Swat, when the Taliban controlled the area, arbitrary arrests and public beatings over supposed "anti-Sharia" activities, including shaving one's beard, were common. The killing, kidnapping and beheading of critics ensured a rule of fear. Other tactics included extortion and forced recruitment. Ultimately, Pashtuns hold the state responsible for failing to protect them from violence.
Pashtuns on the periphery
Pakistan has long viewed Pashtuns as expendable. This dates back to colonial-era policies, when the British empire used tribal Pashtuns and the region they lived in as a bulwark against the Russian empire and later the Soviet Union (a tactic known as "strategic depth"). Part of this strategy included the imposition of the Durand Line over Pashtun ancestral territory by the British. This legacy of conquest was continued by the post-colonial state of Pakistan, as the military and bureaucracy, both trained by the British, became the dominant force of nation-making and the state. Pashtuns have long seen their lands used for proxy warfare and were used as cannon fodder themselves, and recent events echo these patterns.
The long-term plan of the Pakistan state was that if and when the Afghan Taliban had a share in power, they would exert pressure on the TTP to give up arms and cease their terrorist activities in Pakistan. This was why Pakistan celebrated the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August 2021, with the prime minister, Imran Khan, declaring that Afghans had "broken the shackles of slavery."
But Pakistan's plan was always unlikely to come to fruition. First, the TTP have fought hand-in-hand with the Afghan Taliban against the US-led NATO forces and the national security forces of Afghanistan. The relationship was symbiotic. The TTP provided the Afghan Taliban sanctuary on Pakistan's side of the border, which was later reciprocated by the Afghan Taliban when the TTP faced skirmishes on the Pakistan side. It worked well for both of them.
To expect the Taliban government in Afghanistan to convince or force the TTP to give up arms at the behest of the Pakistan state was always a fantasy. The battle-hardened TTP would stop at nothing but a share of power, at least in the regions where they were the most active and strongest in numbers. The defensive public pronouncements by the current TTP chief calling on religious scholars to guide them if they have gone astray reveal their continued intention to impose Sharia law on the whole of the country. Expecting the Taliban to confront the TTP is also not feasible because of the presence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, which remains the single biggest security as well as ideological threat to the Taliban regime. Any conflict between the TTP and Afghan Taliban would benefit the Islamic State faction there as it would provide them with the opportunity to paint the Taliban government as a pawn of the Pakistan state. The TTP joining hands with the Islamic State is also not out of the question.
No longer pawns
Throughout the years, Pashtun people found themselves unwitting pawns caught amid the militancy, which started in the wake of the "war on terror" in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – formed of the merger of what was earlier the Northwest Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Pakistan's former leadership and army generals have admitted to using the Taliban and other militants as instruments of state policy. Imran Khan admitted that he had talked to the TTP of a plan to rehabilitate 5000 fighters along with their families who were pushed into Afghanistan after a 2014 military operation in Waziristan. Even after they were forced out of Waziristan, the TTP continued to carry out attacks in Pakistan while crossing the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The role of the Pakistan state in providing safe havens to factions of the Afghan Taliban, such as the Haqqani network, created space for the TTP to emerge as a threat in Pakistan.
In its operations, the Pakistan military viewed the entire population as a threat and the disciplinary measures meant to maintain security carried clear messages of control and subordination. This created the space for movements like the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement that highlighted the humiliation Pashtuns faced at checkpoints as well as the extra-judicial killings, disappearances and torture targeting their community. After continuous protests from 2018, the military finally reduced the intimidation of residents at checkpoints, while some checkpoints have been removed altogether. But the memory of these acts of violence is still fresh.
The rallying slogans for the recent wave of protests contained the same anti-war rhetoric articulated by the PTM during its formative streak. The protests are still ongoing sporadically in Swat, but in Waziristan – now the focal point of the TTP and operations against them – a sit-in protest was held demanding that the state stop rehabilitating militants in the area and protect the lives and businesses of local people.
There are those who dismiss these anxieties of the Pashtun community as mere panic, but memories of past violence have only become sharper given recent events. One can argue that there is relative peace in Swat compared to the worst years, from 2008 to 2013, when thousands perished. But Pashtuns have already learnt the heavy price of acquiescence and delayed reaction. This political consciousness to resist war and violence has become the defining cornerstone of Pashtuns' political reawakening.
Correction: An earlier version of this article carried an inaccurate opening image. The image has been replaced for accuracy. Himal Southasian regrets the error.