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Pak Army Turns Guns on Pashtuns

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Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa met the Chief of People's Liberation Army Chaina Han Weiguo in Beijing (File)

The Pashtun protest movement, which many see as similar to that of the bloody campaign of Bengali-speaking Pakistanis which led to the break up of East Pakistan in 1971, was triggered by the killing of an aspiring model from South Waziristan, Naqeebullah Mehsud last February….writes Dr Sakariya Kareem

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Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa met the Chief of People’s Liberation Army Chaina Han Weiguo in Beijing (File)

Pakistan Army has turned its guns on one of the most loyal of all its citizens, Pashtuns, to brow beat a proud and brave community that has filled the army’s rank and file since independence. For long, the army has been taking on its own citizens for various reasons. First it was the Baloch for standing up to the Generals and demanding their share in prosperity and resources. The Baloch have since been hounded out like wild animals by their own military forces.

Then the Ahmadis and Shias bore the brunt of the muzzle with the army systematically punishing these communities for raising a banner of protest and refusing to kowtow to the military diktat. The Sindhis came into the crosshair when they launched a fierce but short lived campaign for independence because they felt they were getting a bad deal from the Pakistani rulers.

Now is the turn of the Pashtuns to face the gun. The Pashtuns have been fiercely loyal to the Pakistani state, contributing in large numbers the rank and file of the armed forces. They have allied with the army in helping the Taliban and other proxy groups to find a sanctuary in their home in the tribal areas and the erstwhile North West Frontier Province (now renamed as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa).

The problem came when the Generals decided to hoodwink their own people in the name of “war on terror.” It was a double deceit. The Generals wanted to extract their pound of flesh from the US in pretending to go after the terrorist groups. They wanted to, on the other hand, project that they were safeguarding the interests of the people in general. To keep up the façade, they launched a brutal and unnecessary military blitzkrieg on the Pashtun land, driving thousands to flee from their home. Women, children and old men fled to big cities to live with their relatives and in makeshift camps.

People dance on the beat of drum during a ceremony to mark Pashtun Cultural Day in southwest Pakistan’s Quetta (File)

Towns were razed and market places done to dust as the General claimed “victory” over “terrorists.” The real terrorists, the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, al Qaeda and all their allies and associates, however, remained unscathed. The people of the Pashtun land had to bear all the brunt of the military brutality and their only fault was their fierce loyalty.

As the feeling of injustice and anger rose among the masses, the young Pashtuns took to the streets, organised a long march to Islamabad which scared the establishment and now have organised themselves into a formidable group demanding justice for their people. This has not gone down well with the Generals who are extremely touchy about any one challenging their authority, or authoritarian rule.

Pashtun activists began to `disappear` or go `missing`, a dreaded set of terms in Pakistan which means these people have been abducted by the security forces, kept in illegal detention and tortured. As the `missing` Pashtuns increased, so did anger and frustration among the community.

When the Pashtuns threatened to take out protest marches in Waziristan, the Generals issued open threats to the community.  Major General Asif Ghafoor, the spokesman of Pakistan Army, declared publicly that “their time is up“.

The Pashtuns were the last ones to heed to this warning and went on a protest march in the troubled region of Waziristan. In response, the army opened fire at the protesters, killing eight of them and sparking a wave of protests in Pashtun-dominated areas in Pakistan. In Wana, protesters shouted slogans against the army: Who is behind this terrorism? Behind it is the uniform. His thuggery? Behind it is the uniform.”

The Pashtun protest movement, which many see as similar to that of the bloody campaign of Bengali-speaking Pakistanis which led to the break up of East Pakistan in 1971, was triggered by the killing of an aspiring model from South Waziristan, Naqeebullah Mehsud last February. Since then the movement took rapid strides as the Pakistan Army came down heavily on the protesters. Every incident of suppression, be it abduction or threat, spurred the movement. Today, Pashtuns are angry at the army for the brutalities heaped on the community for demanding fair justice from the state.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has warned the incident was likely to “escalate tensions“ between the Pashtuns and the security forces, “ leading to a permanent wedge between the people of tribal districts and the state.“  The Generals should do well to heed the warning. Their threat could boomerang on them.