Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) has held rallies across Pakistan in support of Pashtun rights. The movement was born in response to the murder of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a young Pashtun falsely accused of being a terrorist by a rogue senior police officer in Karachi. PTM has received very little coverage in Pakistan's mainstream media but the extensive foreign media reporting on its leader Manzoor Pashteen has been effusive. Inside Pakistan, the PTM movement has been mainly a social media phenomenon. Foreign media appear to have relied on PTM's social media posts for their coverage. Pashteen's tweets have come under criticism for disseminating misleading images and disinformation about the actions of Pakistani military in FATA.
PTM Leader Manzoor Pashteen
Who is Manzoor Pashteen?
Manzoor Pashteen is from South Waziristan in Pakistan's federally administered tribal areas (FATA). Born in 1992, he saw a lot of violence and suffering in his home as the battle raged between the Taliban, particularly the TTP, and the Pakistan's security forces in the last decade.
Pashteen has been variously hailed as "Pashtun Che" and "Messiah" by his supporters while those opposing him have been denigrated as "pygmies". Among others, Pahteen's movement has received support from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani who is not on good terms with Pakistan. Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa has described the PTM movement as "engineered" without explicitly naming it.
Social Media Disinformation Campaign:
While pressing for redress of their genuine grievances, the PTM leaders their and supporters have attacked Pakistani soldiers as "terrorists in uniforms". Manzoor Pashteen has sent out misleading tweets and disinformation about Pakistan Army.
One of Pashteen's tweets had an image of destroyed homes that he falsely claimed was the result of Pakistan Army action in FATA. It was in fact an image from a 2011 Radio Free Europe story titled "Taliban Burn Villages in Northwestern Pakistan".
Pashteen tweeted out an old 1960s picture from Woodstock , New York. It showed American hippies sleeping in tents. He wrongly labeled them as internally displaced Pashtuns (IDPs) from FATA, Pakistan.
Another Pashteen tweet included the picture of an Afghan child who was killed by the Taliban in Helmand province. Pashteen incorrectly labeled him a Pakistani Pashtun child in FATA and falsely claimed the child was killed by the Pakistan Army.
Pashteen's account was suspended by Twitter for engaging in disinformation. It was only restored after he and his supporters made promises to correct their behavior and pleaded for restoration.
Violence in FATA:
Pashteen has seen hundreds of fellow Pashtuns in FATA killed and injured. Tens of thousands have been displaced amid multiple military operations to clear out the Taliban militants from the region.
There has been a marked decrease in violence as a result of Pakistan Army Operations Zarb e Azb and Radd ul Fasad to drive out militants from North and South Waziristan. Death toll from terrorism across Pakistan has declined from the peak of 11,704 in 2011 to 1,260 in 2017, according to South Asia Terrorism Portal. Over 22,000 civilians have lost their lives in terrorist attacks since the year 2001. In the same period, nearly 7,000 Pakistani security personnel have been killed in fighting the terrorists to bring peace to the country.
Pashtun Perpetrators and Victims:
It is true that many victims of terrorist violence in Pakistan have been Pashtuns. But data from South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) shows that Pashtuns alone have not suffered from terrorism.
All of Pakistan's ethnic groups and regions have paid a price. And most of the perpetrators of such violence have been Pashtuns. Pakistan Army has also used violence to stop this violence but it was inevitable to bring an end to an armed conflict that could not be peacefully resolved in spite of Pakistan's best efforts. Nearly 7000 Pakistani soldiers and policemen have died fighting the terrorists.
PTM Under Suspicion:
PTM"s detractors say the movement has been hijacked by those wishing to harm Pakistan. They point to the fact it went from pressing for redress of genuine Pashtun grievances to accusing the Pakistani soldiers of being "terrorists in uniform". In an interview with CNN, Pashteen asked "Who they are harboring in their cantonment zones, if not the Taliban?"
Pashteen's critics offer Pashteen's misleading tweets as evidence that he is being manipulated. This is not a surprise when seen in the context of the ongoing debate in the West about the use by hostile nations of the social media to promote divisions along ethnic, racial, sectarian lines.
American and British intelligence agencies claim that Russian intelligence has used social media to promote divisions and manipulate public opinion in the West. Like the US and the UK, Pakistan also has ethnic, sectarian and regional fault-lines that make it vulnerable to similar social media manipulation. It is very likely that intelligence agencies of countries hostile to Pakistan are exploiting these divisions for their own ends. Various pronouncements by India's current and former intelligence and security officials reinforce this suspicion.
It is important that the Pakistani politicians and the military as well as the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) leaders focus on finding a way forward rather than dissipate their energies in the ongoing blame game.
One of PTM's demands is the removal of Pakistan Army check posts in FATA. Such a move will create a power vacuum that will almost certainly be filled by the militants, resulting in the loss of hard-fought gains. What is needed is that the Pakistan military be replaced by an effective civilian administration and a police force in a well-planned transition. This requires that FATA be mainstreamed by either creating a new province or by merging it with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. It means ending the colonial-era Frontier Crime Regulation (FCR) that relies on collective punishment. It means extending Pakistan's constitution and laws to FATA region. There has been a lot of talk about it but little action so far. Progress on it seems unlikely until after the coming general elections in the country.
Pakistan Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) led by Manzoor Pashteen started with demands seeking redress of their genuine grievances. But it has come under scrutiny because of its use of misleading tweets and their rebroadcast by foreign media to spread disinformation. It is especially relevant given the current debate in the West about the use of social media by foreign hostile nations to promote divisions in societies. What is needed is for FATA to be mainstreamed with a civilian administration replacing the Pakistan Army in the region.
Here's a debate on PTM and Manzoor Pashteen: