There was created a ruckus by the government and the opposition members in the National Assembly’s session on Friday over the arrest and detention of MNAs Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir. Though elected independently, both parliamentarians are considered to be the representatives of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM). They have been arrested by the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) in the wake of an alleged armed attack on a security check-post by the PTM workers in North Waziristan last week, leaving 5 military personnel injured. Earlier, a number of First Information Reports (FIRs) were also registered against various PTM leaders, namely Ali Wazir and Gulalai Ismail, charging them with sedition and anti-state incitement. The contentious issue of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) in Pakistan has already attracted a lot of media attention, domestically and internationally, since DG ISPR Major General Asif Ghafoor hinted at coming down hard on the PTM leaders after accusing them of receiving funds from some anti-Pakistan intelligence agencies during a press conference in April this year.

The PTM has been portrayed by its proponents as an advocacy group in Pakistan aimed at protecting the rights of Pashtuns, the country’s second largest ethnic group. Initially, the PTM leaders came forward demanding justice for a young Pashtun boy Naqeeb Ullah Mehsud who was killed by the local police in Karachi in January last year. The agenda of the PTM, however, has visibly expanded beyond this single demand over a period of time. So, we have seen this rights movement being transformed into a typical sub nationalist movement in Pakistan. The PTM leaders have asked putting an end to the perceived racial profiling of Pashtuns in the country. They have also formally demanded the formation of a “truth and reconciliation commission” to probe into the extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances of Pashtun people. At present, they are demanding a complete withdrawal of the military personnel from the erstwhile tribal region.

The mainstream media in Pakistan is currently neither projecting the PTM leaders not covering their activities as part of a media censorship policy in the country. Social media, however, is being extensively used by the PTM leaders and supports to communicate their ideology and demands. At the same time, a section of foreign media has eagerly been projecting the PTM’s agenda and activities besides glorifying its leaders. Moreover, it is also reporting as if Pakistani military is harshly treating and ruthlessly killing the ethnic Pashtun people under the cover of countering terrorism in the country. And the PTM has also been equated with the Bengali separatist movement that led to the creation of Bangladesh following the bifurcation of Pakistan in 1971. There are also a large number of ‘progressive’ journalists, columnists, political and human rights activists in Pakistan who are best known for their hatred for the country’s army. They have a strong presence on social media. Such ‘anti-army brigade’ readily jumped on the PTM’s bandwagon giving a substantial impetus to this movement.

The entire political narrative of the PTM is currently centered on Pakistan Army. The bottom line of such narrative is that the army, as an institution, is persecuting the Pashtun population. Ironically, the PTM leaders have not been having any trouble with the Taliban and other miscreants. Similarly, they apparently have also no major problem with the civilian government. As a matter of fact, the socioeconomic uplift of the downtrodden and disturbed Pashtuns in the conflict-hit areas has never been a PTM’s priority. Therefore, it is believed that the real agenda of the PTM is defaming, disgracing, and discrediting the army rather than protecting the Pashtuns’ rights. And for this specific purpose, its leaders are selfishly exploiting the miseries, sufferings and deprivations of the affected and displaced Pashtuns in the conflict-hit areas. The anthem and slogans of the PTM just reinforce this perception. “Da Sang Azadi Da?” (Read: what kind of freedom is this?) is the punch-line of the PTM’s anthem. And “the ones responsible for terrorism are the ones in uniform” is its popular slogan. Such phraseology certainly has some anti-state and anti-army connotations.

Referring to the PTM in his speech at the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul last year, Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa maintained that a “hybrid war” had been imposed on Pakistan to internally weaken it. It is now a stated position of the army that some hostile anti-Pakistan elements in Afghanistan are covertly aiding and supporting the PTM. There was observed a close collaboration between Afghan government and PTM leaders when Afghan authorities insisted on delivering the dead body of Tahir Dawar, a senior Pakistani police officer who was abducted from Islamabad and killed in Afghanistan in November last year, to a local PTM leader rather than Pakistan’s officials.

Pakistan seriously needs to devise a comprehensive strategy to fight the so-called Fifth Generation War. It can certainly not fight this hybrid war with obsolete tools and conventional tactics. Such war is essentially a war of narratives where perceptions take precedence over reality. Therefore, there should have been evolved a counter-narrative to offset the PTM’s malicious anti-army propaganda in addition to taking legal actions against PTM leader for their anti-state activities. At present, Pakistan army’s media wing, the ISPR, is alone trying to dilute the PTM narrative. And due to some reasons, the mainstream media in the country has been barred from covering and discussing the activities of the PTM leaders. Consequently, a unilateral anti-army version was thoroughly propagated through social media and a large segment of the hostile foreign media which hardly misses any opportunity to malign Pakistan. The mainstream media in Pakistan is largely mature and responsible. It should have been allowed to expose the duplicity and trickery of the PTM leaders. At the same time, Pakistan should also have proactively propagated its viewpoint on this issue internationally.

It is quite unfortunate that the main opposition parties, including PPP and PML-N, are trying to become the PTM’s sympathizers as part of their anti-establishment political strategy. They should abandon such policy forthwith as it would only add to their political hardships besides eroding their popularity among Pakistanis. One may discuss and even criticize the perceived interference by the security establishment in the politics. But one should not disgrace the country’s army and dispute its role as an institution. There should certainly a distinction between the establishment and the army.

There is hardly any moral or legal justification for the PTM for claiming to be the voice of the Pashtun people. There are currently only two PTM representatives in the 342-seat National Assembly in Pakistan. Similarly, there is no representation of the PTM in the Provincial Assembly of KP province. The majority of the Pashtun population in KP voted in favour of the ruling PTI party in the last year’s General Elections. Therefore, none other than the PTI can claim to be the real representative party of the ethnic Pashtuns in KP. The PTM leaders are mere the self-proclaimed representatives of the Pashtuns, who have been trying making a storm in a teacup most of the time. It’s simply a case the tail wagging the dog.

Thousands of officers and jawans of Pakistan army have laid their lives to eliminate militancy and terrorism from the country. Regrettably, these sacrifices have been marred by the anti-army propaganda by the likes of the PTM leaders. Therefore, no one should be allowed to speared hatred and chaos in the country. The PTM leaders should be dealt with iron hand if they cross redlines. It is also advisable that they should become part of the solution by joining hands with the army and the government of Pakistan to develop and rebuild the conflict-hit Pashtun areas rather than prolonging their agony through their disruptive and divisive propaganda against the army.