Naqibullah Mehsud was on his way to social media stardom. The 27-year-old, originally from Waziristan in Pakistan’s tribal region, lived in the distant southern megacity of Karachi and worked in a shop. An aspiring model, he posted photos of himself on his Facebook page, modelling new clothes, hairstyles and beard trims. By December 2017, he had over 14,000 followers.
On 3rd January, plainclothes policemen walked into a restaurant and took Naqibullah away. Ten days later, he was dead. Police released a statement saying that he was killed during a raid on a “terrorist hideout,” and had links to Islamic State and the Pakistani Taliban. They said he died in an “encounter,” or shootout. In South Asia, this is often a euphemism for an extrajudicial execution.
The family denied militant links and it has subsequently emerged that Naqibullah was probably killed due to a case of mistaken identity. In the rundown area where he lived, Sohrab Goth, people from his tribe staged a sit-in. On social media, #JusticeforNaqib trended, with people sharing pictures of him modelling, dancing and singing—activities that are anathema to the Taliban. As the pressure mounted, the police superintendent for the district, Rao Anwar, was suspended.
Naqibullah was of Pashtun ethnicity, from Waziristan’s Mehsud tribe. Divided by the Durand Line, Pashtuns live in Pakistan—where they are the second largest ethnic group—and Afghanistan, where they are the largest. But particularly since 9/11 and the emergence of the Pakistani Taliban, whose leadership also comes from the Mehsud tribe, they have been seen as a suspect community. The US-led invasion of Afghanistan, which Pakistan supported, led to the relocation of militant infrastructure and a large number of fighters over the border.
Subsequent Pakistani military action against militant groups in the tribal areas was seen by some tribesmen as an attempt at subjugation, and, along with the influx of extremist ideology, this perceived grievance led to the formation of the Pakistani Taliban. One of the things that made it distinct from the Afghan Taliban was its explicit targeting of the Pakistani state.
Terror has ravaged Pakistan ever since: according to official figures, 49,000 Pakistanis died due to terrorism and related military incursions between 2001 and 2013—a death toll greater than 9/11, every year. Much of the violence was concentrated in the predominantly Pashtun northwest. For prolonged periods over the last 17 years, this region experienced more than one terror attack per week, to the extent that suicide bombs lost their shock value and militant groups expanded their atrocities. Over a million people relocated around the country to escape the violence.
In a particularly horrific incident in December 2014, the Taliban entered a school in Peshawar and slaughtered more than 150 people, mostly children. That year, a bloody army-led crackdown against terror groups began, with deep incursions in the tribal areas, and sweeping urban operations across the -country. In its first year, police killed over 800 people in Karachi alone. Many were Pashtun; most did not make headlines. But the killing of Naqibullah—who did not conform to the stereotype of an uncouth, conservative tribesman—has proved to be a tipping point.
As the reaction to Naqibullah’s death built earlier this year, Pakistan was gearing up for a general election that would, in July, put the populist Imran Khan in power. The cricket-star-turned-politician pledged to end corruption in 90 days and create 10m jobs in five years. But behind the scenes, the military was seeking to cement its traditional control over public life.
The military has ruled Pakistan directly for almost half its history, and is the ultimate powerbroker even during civilian rule. There have been elections, but until 2013 there had never been a peaceful transition between one party’s rule and another’s. Civilian leaders operate in a constant state of negotiation with uniformed power. Often, human rights activists must too.
As the anger gathered pace, another young man from Waziristan watched carefully. Manzoor Pashteen was, like Naqibullah, from the Mehsud tribe. He was 23, educated and confident. Since 2014, he and some friends had run a small protest group called the Mehsud Protection Movement, which campaigned against human rights abuses. Trying to get attention for these issues was usually a losing battle: people were too afraid to publicly criticise the military.
But this felt different. Pashteen was in touch with Naqibullah’s relatives, and had used his own social media following to draw attention to the case. The young men spotted an opportunity, and organised a protest march from Dera Ismail Khan, a city in northern Pakistan, all the way to the capital, Islamabad. “I said to my friends, if there is anyone willing to die for his homeland and for the sake of humanity, then please join me,” Pashteen told me. “Twenty-two came and said they were ready to be killed. We decided to go to every city and tell people the story of extrajudicial killings, of missing persons.”
In late January, the protesters set off, met by crowds everywhere they stopped. Seeing the support from people outside the Mehsud tribe, the group broadened their aims and renamed themselves the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM). They gathered at the Islamabad press club in early February. At first they didn’t get much attention. But soon, numbers swelled. A shipping container became a stage with a sound system. Pashteen and others made speeches extremely critical of the security establishment. People chanted slogans like: “The real terrorists are the ones in uniform.” For 10 days, this incendiary protest grew.
“We were expecting maybe 80 people,” said Pashteen. “But thousands joined. The first time I looked out at that huge crowd, I wept.” People travelled for miles, many bearing photographs of missing loved ones and demanding information. Some got up on the shipping container and shared their stories. Pashteen, a charismatic speaker, issued a set of demands. Among them were justice for Naqibullah, a full investigation of police killings of alleged terrorism suspects, an end to military curfews in the tribal areas, and for thousands of missing persons believed to be held by the military to be brought before the courts.
Within months, several major political parties and politicians expressed their support for the PTM’s demands—including Imran Khan. He seemed to provide some hope. Though born and raised in Punjab in the east, Khan is of Pashtun ethnicity, and his party, the populist Pakistan Movement for Justice, is popular in northwestern Pakistan. In April, two months before the election, he promised to ask the army chief to ease security checks and clear landmines.
In Pakistan, violence is the background music to life. But these protesters were peaceful, relying on the power of stories and collective action. Could the PTM be the movement that finally changes Pakistan?
Between militants and the military
Manzoor Pashteen was born in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), which, along with the adjacent province Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) is the main home of Pakistan’s Pashtuns. Under the British Raj, Fata served as a highly-militarised buffer zone against Afghanistan, and continued in a similar fashion after 1947. Until this year, when Fata was formally integrated into KPK, the tribal areas were ruled by the central government via draconian laws which among other things, gave the government permission to bulldoze houses. KPK and Fata are hugely affected by unrest over the border in Afghanistan.
Pashteen’s father, a school-teacher, did not always earn enough to feed his eight children. From 2004 onwards, as the Pakistani military led operations in Fata as part of the war on terror, the family was displaced four times (returning each time once it was safe). This was not uncommon: in 2014, the UN estimated that one million people in the region had been displaced, often fleeing for faraway cities like Karachi. Pashteen’s family remained within the tribal areas. Their house was basic, but they felt most comfortable among the close social ties of the village, where everyone knew everyone. Pashteen’s parents ensured that the children focused on their studies as war raged around them. He describes himself as a “bookworm” and says that he spent much of his childhood alone, reading.
I spent several weeks this summer in Karachi trying to speak to Pashteen. The young people who run the PTM were responsive and usually available online, but practical realities interrupted. Pashteen was constantly on the move, in a frenetic series of pre-election rallies and meetings, making a face-to-face meeting unviable. We arranged to speak on Skype when I returned to London; suddenly, Pashteen and a close associate who I’d been in contact with disappeared, not coming online on WhatsApp or Skype for a fortnight. Another member explained that sometimes they travel to parts of Pakistan affected by phone and internet blackouts—including South Waziristan, where Pashteen’s family lives. Additionally, security threats mean they sometimes go to ground. I finally caught Pashteen on the phone while he was in KPK’s provincial capital, Peshawar. It was late at night in Pakistan, but he talked for several hours, with friends passing in and out of the room.
When Pashteen describes his gradual politicisation, he does not point to a single incident, but a web of injustices and deaths. The classmate slaughtered by the military along with four members of his family, and the shock of seeing them described in the media as terrorists. The old woman from the village who died during the stress of displacement. The neighbours who were forced to watch as soldiers beat their epileptic son to death. The growing rollcall of childhood friends who disappeared without trace. Returning home after another displacement to find the village ransacked and covered in landmines. After each of these incidents, the young Pashteen began to ask questions. “My friends and family warned me to keep quiet,” he says. “They said that I must be mentally unstable and that I would be killed.”
Both the Afghan Taliban and its offshoot in Pakistan are largely made up of Pashtuns. This, added to a continued stereotype of the Pashtuns as violent warriors (rooted in British -colonial literature) has led to a situation where all Pashtuns are viewed as potential militants. Yet Pashtuns have suffered an enormous death toll from both terrorism and militarisation.
In 2009, a fresh Pakistani military operation in the tribal areas began. Though it expressly targeted militant hideouts, civilians experienced it as collective punishment, trapped between militants and the military. Given the security establishment’s well-known policy of supporting terror groups that serve its foreign policy aims in India, Kashmir, or Afghanistan, many see militants and military as intimately connected. But talking about this publicly was off-limits. “Everyone in our area was terrorised. We knew that to raise your voice against the Pakistani state meant suicide,” says Pashteen.
Although Pashto is Pashteen’s first language, he is also fluent in Urdu (Pakistan’s lingua franca) and, more unusually for someone from Fata, in English. He is softly spoken, his strident words about injustice delivered with quiet precision.
In 2011, he began studying for a degree in veterinary medicine and got involved in student politics. As extrajudicial killings, airstrikes by the Pakistani military and enforced disappearances ramped up in the tribal areas, he called a series of protests. Many students were too afraid to attend, and Pashteen drew the attention of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), who called to warn him off. “Getting a call from the ISI was like hearing directly from the death angel,” he says. “I was worried at first. But then I decided that now I am a target, so I should not stop.”
In 2014, Pashteen and a small group of friends launched their protest movement. These activists had all come of age post-9/11 and had never known anything other than heightened security measures, curfews, arbitrary policing, displacement, and an existential threat from terrorist groups. They were young and digitally-savvy. They used WhatsApp and Facebook to organise and circumvent official scrutiny. Sometimes, during the military operation in Fata, the authorities imposed internet blackouts. When this happened, they would travel to Peshawar, the nearest major city, once a week to upload videos. “Whenever Pashtun youth talk about our activism, we say one thing: thank you Mark Zuckerberg!” says Pashteen.
In late 2017, a few months before Naqibullah’s death, Pashteen and his father were both detained by the security forces. Pashteen was beaten and told that his campaigning on human rights abuses was damaging military morale. “I said, ‘you are building your morale by killing innocent children and then calling us terrorists,’” says Pashteen. Outside, a social media storm gathered, calling for his release. The military let him go.
A fight without fighting
The PTM’s first protest in Islamabad in February was not only attended by people from the tribal areas, but Pashtuns from around the country. Many had shared experiences of humiliation at checkpoints, arbitrary arrest, or losing relatives in terror attacks, and the protest crystallised a national movement.
Sanna Ejaz, an activist and journalist based in Peshawar, came on board during this protest. Her job as a television anchor meant she had an online following, and long before the Islamabad sit-in had been in contact with Pashteen and others, sometimes helping them publicise rallies. Ejaz is unguarded and funny, quick to see the humour in even the bleakest of situations. She was an experienced political organiser, but something changed for her in Islamabad. “I decided, I have to be a part of this movement,” she told me. Ejaz was particularly attracted by the space given to women. “It is considered taboo in Pashtun society if you are a woman and you are louder than a man,” she says. Nonetheless, she got up on the stage and spoke about the war crimes suffered by women in the tribal areas—the rapes, the sexual harassment, the economic deprivation of wives whose husbands had disappeared. Rather than being scolded for raising shameful topics, she was applauded.
After Islamabad, a series of other rallies followed: in the major cities of Quetta, Peshawar, Lahore, and Karachi, as well as a host of smaller towns. Leaders stressed that the PTM was not a separatist movement, and framed their four key demands in the language of the Pakistani -constitution and international human rights agreements. First, a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate extrajudicial killings including Naqibullah’s; second, that enforced disappearances end, and missing people be brought before a court of law; third, an end to collective punishment of people in the tribal areas; and fourth, the removal of landmines.
As the protests gathered pace, sweeping the country from north to south, the military establishment kicked into action, putting bureaucratic obstacles in place, threatening activists, and briefing that the movement was “engineered” by hostile foreign powers. An almost total mainstream media blackout was imposed. Columnists at Pakistan’s major newspapers complained of censorship. The News, Pakistan’s biggest English-language daily, removed a piece about PTM from its website and subsequently refused to publish columns by top writers Mosharraf Zaidi and Babar Sattar. In his censored column, which he posted on Twitter, Sattar said that although Pashteen’s activism was rooted in his Pashtun identity “the questions he is asking are relevant for all of us,” and concerned the “coercive relationship between a citizen and the Pakistani state.”
Sattar’s words demonstrate why the response has been so aggressive. “Their list of demands goes to the heart of what the Pakistani state is,” says Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the author of The Pashtun Question. “They want the most powerful institution in Pakistan, the military, to be accountable.”
The timing of the protests heightened the sensitivity: July’s general election was fast approaching. In this election, the military was clearly backing Imran Khan, with censorship extending not just to the PTM but to coverage of his main rival, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. In April, over 50 prominent journalists signed a petition protesting curbs on free expression.
On 22nd April, the PTM gathered in Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab. A group of PTM leaders were arrested and briefly detained, but the rally went ahead. Human rights activists and poets took to the stage, including Tahera Jalib, daughter of deceased revolutionary poet Habib Jalib. She read out “Dastoor,” the famous poem her father had written in protest against Pakistan’s first military dictatorship: “For centuries you have all stolen our peace of mind / But your power over us is coming to an end.”
The next rally took place on 29th April in Swat, a beautiful mountainous region in KPK briefly taken over by the Taliban in 2009. People travelled from around the province to attend. Many were stopped at checkpoints, sometimes held up for hours. Pashteen, already in Swat, followed these developments on social media. He made an announcement on Facebook and Twitter that rather than trying to pass hostile checkpoints, people should stop where they were and watch the rally on Facebook Live. “Don’t fight with anyone,” he said. “They want to make us violent, so we must become peaceful.”
A big day was approaching: the PTM’s rally in Karachi, back in Naqibullah’s area of Sohrab Goth. In the days leading up to the rally on 12th May, numerous PTM activists were arrested. When Pashteen reached Islamabad’s airport to fly to Karachi, he was told that his ticket had been cancelled and was not allowed to board the plane. Undeterred, he and his colleagues drove for five hours to Lahore and bought another plane ticket. Once again, it was cancelled. The activists decided to drive the 1,200km to Karachi.
On the way, Pashteen was stopped and searched 23 times. “They were beating my friends, and creating problems at every step,” Pashteen says. He tweeted and live-streamed his progress on Facebook to thousands of people. Each time, the police let him go. At the rally in Karachi, a huge crowd had gathered. “What kind of freedom is this?” they chanted. Television anchor Ejaz was among those to speak on stage. “We demand that security officials themselves bring Manzoor Pashteen here before our rally ends,” she declared. As the sun set, protesters lit up their phones and waved them in the air, a sea of lights. Pashteen reached Karachi hours after his scheduled arrival time and addressed the crowd. He reiterated the PTM’s key demands. “If they kill us now, we’ll die with our heads held high,” he said.
The deep state strikes back
As the PTM became a national movement, life transformed for the activists at the centre of it. Pashteen is constantly on the move, and is acutely conscious of the threats that have been made against his parents and seven siblings. At the moment, he thinks they are protected by the fact that everyone in their area supports the PTM, but the anxiety remains. He returns home to visit only occasionally. His parents do not have mobile phones or a television. But every evening they listen to Voice of America’s Pashto radio station, which covers the PTM when local media outlets do not. “If there is no report about me then they know: Manzoor did not die today, he is still alive,” says Pashteen.
In April, as Ejaz helped to organise protests around Pakistan, she was sacked from her job at a television station in Peshawar. Her bosses said she was banned from ever working for the company again. When she argued, she was told “it’s an order, we are helpless.” Plainclothes intelligence agents came to her house. Threatening phone calls were made to her and male family members. They asked her brother: “what kind of Pashtun are you that you can’t control your sister?”
Social media has been the crucial organising tool for the PTM, so it is only natural that the security establishment should seek to use it to hit back. Ejaz has been subject to a vicious misogynistic campaign of online harassment. Crudely Photoshopped memes showing Ejaz’s and Pashteen’s faces superimposed onto copulating dogs began to circulate. A video denouncing Ejaz as a traitor appeared on Facebook. Photos of her going about her daily business in Peshawar were shared on pro-military pages, with her face circled in red, like a target.
Many of the memes reflect a common narrative: that the PTM are funded by the Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies. Pashteen has also been accused of being funded by “the Jewish lobby” and by America. “This all comes from the state agencies,” says Ejaz. “But we are not afraid. I know that we are asking for constitutional rights.”
If voting changed anything...
Although the PTM has mobilised large numbers of people in a short space of time, they have secured few concrete changes. In the early days of the protests, civilian politicians made sympathetic noises, but there has been no substantive response to the movement’s demands—only silence and censorship. Rao Anwar, the police officer briefly suspended over Naqibullah’s death and who is said to have personally carried out over 400 extrajudicial executions, has been released on bail and is likely to return to work soon. Officials have ignored complaints about missing persons. “As long as the Pakistani state doesn’t change its orientation, the Pashtuns will continue to be victims of harsh state policies,” says Siddique, the journalist.
Despite his early support for the PTM, as prime minister Imran Khan has remained silent. He is unlikely to make substantive changes, given a slim parliamentary majority and a close relationship with the military. The recent election marked Pakistan’s second peaceful democratic transition, but military power still lurks in the background. The crackdown on a non-violent civil rights movement—directed not just at the PTM but also at the media, NGOs and human rights advocates—confirms that real democratic participation is often unwelcome. In a recent press conference, a military spokesman criticised the foreign media for covering the PTM, which he described as “anti-state, anti-Pakistan, anti-army, anti-forces.”
The PTM is a nascent movement; its overarching future direction is unclear. Their immediate plan is to continue to hold rallies, raise awareness and attempt to hold power to account peacefully. But some members are beginning to consider their personal safety as the harassment ramps up. “I don’t want to die, because I have a lot to do,” says Ejaz. She pauses. “If I do die, at least they can tell people that there were men, but there were women too, who stood up to the strongest state agencies and asked for their rights.”
In September, arrest warrants were issued for five PTM activists, including Pashteen, saying they had held a rally without the proper permission. The same week, a television advert in Punjab showed Pashteen’s face as a voiceover warned against terrorism and sectarian violence. (The ad was quickly withdrawn after an online backlash.) In statements to the press, core committee members began to talk vaguely about changing their approach.
“We are non-violent, we are simply raising our voices and crying for justice, but the state is violent,” Pashteen told me. “To the extent that we continue to have hope that the state will stop killing our people, we will be non-violent and we will not be separatist.
“But when we lose this hope, we will think again.”