By Abubakar Siddique
Sahib Khan, a political activist, is one of the organizers of a recent sit-in protest in Wana, a remote town near Pakistan's western border with Afghanistan.
Khan describes the weeklong demonstration that ended on January 12 as a "people's uprising" to show authorities that they will never accept a return to the violence and lawlessness that engulfed the region when it was allowed to fall under the control of various Pakistani Taliban factions.
Expectations are running high that the government, which has failed in its recent efforts to strike a lasting truce with Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban, will again rely on the weight of its military to counter the resurgent force it has been fighting since 2007.
But Khan and other protesters are hoping their efforts can stave off another round of devastation and secret dealings, and are demanding that Islamabad instead ensure the region's long-term security by strengthening the police and giving the local government more leeway to act.
In a sign that the effort did not fall on deaf ears, the sit-in ended with the government accepting the protesters' demands.
No Military Operations
Following Islamabad's secret negotiations last year with the hard-line insurgents, many TTP fighters who had sought refuge in neighboring Afghanistan for years returned to the region. Optimism that a peace deal could work out was crushed.
Mediation by the Afghan Taliban, which seized Kabul in August 2021 and was considered an ally of Islamabad, failed. Despite its close personal and ideological ties to the TTP, the Afghan Taliban failed to convince them to renounce violence. Thus, the past year saw a dramatic rise in attacks on security forces, kidnappings, assassinations, and extortion in places like Wana.
Residents accuse the government of reopening the door to the TTP and embarking on a failed policy of engagement and take the militants' presence as a dire reminder of life under their thumb.
Locals blame previous government moves for putting them in that position in the first place, saying Islamabad practically handed Wana to a Taliban faction courtesy of an agreement worked out to end fighting with the group in 2007.
As a result, they say, they were subjected to every imaginable atrocity at the hands of the militants, until they were pushed out by a local protest in 2018.
"We are concerned that violence here will increase to such a level that we will forget what we endured before," says Khan.
He was alluding to the mountainous region's recent troubled history that began in 2003 when violence erupted in Wana, today the administrative headquarters of the Lower South Waziristan district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.
Over the course of the next decade, the violence gradually extended to other parts of South Waziristan and the adjacent district of North Waziristan. Only in 2014, when the military finally succeeded in pushing the group out, did some sense of normalcy resume, but it came at a great cost. More than 1.5 million Waziristan residents were displaced as a result of the fighting, and thousands were killed when they were caught up in the cross-fire.
The sit-in in Wana is not the only "people's uprising" against a return to such a situation. Similar protests have taken place across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, where Pashtuns make up a majority of the region's estimated 35 million residents.
Since 2018, grassroots activists from the province have attempted to rewrite history by turning their homeland into a battleground for peace and civil rights instead of war. They have attempted to counter the narrative that Pashtuns are prone to join extremist organizations such as the TTP out of religious and tribal kinship, and instead blame underdevelopment, isolation, and Islamabad's security policies as the reason the predominantly Pashtun region came to be considered a breeding ground for jihadists.
These popular uprisings began in the northern alpine districts of Swat and Dir in the summer. The region's residents were terrorized by hundreds of TTP fighters who returned because of the secret deal with the Pakistani government.
In the following months, Islamabad's talks with the TTP stalled. But the group's fighters continued to pour into areas of northwest Pakistan.
Rather than drop their weapons, they quickly began attacking security forces, with the poorly trained and lightly armed police emerging as a favorite target. In addition to carrying out hundreds of fresh attacks, the militants have also been accused of extorting businesses, wealthy individuals, and politicians.
According to the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, a think tank in Islamabad, some 419 people were killed and another 732 injured in more than 260 terrorist attacks carried out by the TTP in 2022, a 25 percent increase over the previous year.
In many cases, TTP's attacks on local security forces in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province would be followed quickly by a people's uprising uniting members of various political parties, traders, and concerned residents.
For many Pashtuns, the sit-ins are seen as the only way to prevent the carnage of another large-scale fight between government forces and militants in the region. Pashtun leaders say they have paid a hefty price in Pakistan's war on terrorism.
Islamabad allied with Washington after the invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001 but failed to prevent the Afghan Taliban and its Al-Qaeda allies who carried out the attacks from carving out a sanctuary in Pakistan.
In 2003, Islamabad launched a series of massive military operations in what was then known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) -- which were merged into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2018 -- and eventually to the Swat district.
Over the next 11 years, more than 6 million Pashtuns were displaced. Pashtuns accounted for the lion's share of the more than 80,000 civilians and security forces Pakistani officials claim to have lost as a result of terrorist attacks and military offensives.
In the past, Islamabad's large-scale military operations adopted a scorched-earth approach using airpower, long-range artillery, tanks, and infantry maneuvers.
At the same time, according to Manzoor Pashteen, the leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) civil rights campaign, there is no justification for the TTP's violence.
"If they [the TTP] are fighting against infidels, then why are they killing our Islamic clerics?" he asked.
He says that to avoid the fallout from a renewed conflict in their homeland, Pashtuns are ready to "work very hard and make sacrifices for peace."
While the majority of Pashtuns do not want to see a return of the TTP, they also fear a heavy-handed approach, and many accuse the government of having ulterior motives.
Islamabad's Changing Outlook
The TTP's increasingly violent campaign appears to have put Islamabad in a hawkish mindset after months of talking about the prospect of peace. Discussions between civil and military leaders last week resulted in the government indicating it would soon undertake a military operation against the TTP.
The National Security Committee said that the threat of terrorism would "be dealt with the full force of the state" because "Pakistan's security is uncompromisable."
But Pashtun leaders are not convinced. Some accuse Islamabad of deliberately fomenting instability in their homeland to attract Western funding for counterterrorism operations, and others accuse the government of bowing to pressure by the Taliban in Afghanistan to allow TTP fighters to return.
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan recently revealed the thinking of his government, which ended with a no-confidence vote in April. He told a summit on terrorism in Islamabad on January 10 that he ultimately planned to bring back 5,000 TTP fighters and more than 35,000 of their family members from Afghanistan, where they have been sheltering since the military push in 2014.
He said the Taliban's seizure of power in Afghanistan in August 2021 provided Pakistan with a "golden opportunity" to reconcile with the TTP.
That opportunity fizzled when the TTP demanded that Islamabad hand over some eight districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that were formerly part of FATA.
Afrasiab Khattak, a former lawmaker, said Pashtuns in Pakistan had learned their lessons from their experiences over the past four decades.
He says that since the early 1980s, the various phases of the war in Afghanistan as well as in Pakistan's domestic war on terrorism left Pashtun society, economy, and way of life in ruins.
"They refuse to be used as cannon fodder," he said of the emerging grassroots efforts led by young leaders and activists, adding that they have realized that their calls for peace "present the most serious challenge to the Taliban and their Pakistani handlers." (SJ/RFE)