The Failure of Nonviolence in Afghanistan

Nonviolent Pashtun activists have always struggled to bring about lasting political change in the face of government oppression, military occupation and Islamic extremism

The Failure of Nonviolence in Afghanistan
Supporters of Manzoor Pashteen, chief of the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM), shout slogans during a protest against his detention in Quetta on January 28, 2020 / Banaras Khan / AFP via Getty Images

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Shortly after the Taliban took control of Kabul and reestablished their Islamic Emirate, I found myself talking to the leader of another kind of rebellion that has challenged the political order in this part of the world.

Manzoor Pashteen is head of PTM, a nonviolent human rights movement based in Pakistan. Just 27 years old, he has shown himself capable of rallying tens of thousands of supporters to his cause, yet few people outside the region have heard of him, and his influence may have already reached its peak without achieving lasting political change. The stark contrast between his methods and results, and those of militant groups like the Taliban, is worth considering in more detail.

The acronym PTM stands for Pashtun Tahafuz Movement — Pashtun Defense Movement — and Pashteen’s main focus is the plight of ethnic Pashtuns living in Pakistan. But his campaigning has also captured the imaginations of many people here in Afghanistan. That is why I went to meet him in Islamabad last November.

The U.S.-led “War on Terror” led to immense suffering on both sides of the border, with fighting between government forces and insurgents killing and uprooting countless numbers of civilians. In the end, however, Pashteen’s cry of peaceful resistance was drowned out by the more persuasive tones of the Taliban’s call for jihad and the spectacle of the Islamists’ astonishing victory over the Americans.

This failure to achieve lasting political change through nonviolent civil disobedience is nothing new in Afghanistan. There is a long, rarely told, history of pacifist activism here, but it has not forced governments of any kind to reconsider their often brutal policies. It is something I have thought about a lot since meeting Pashteen, and I believe it is worth looking at the issue in a little more depth now.

In addressing this subject, much of my attention will be on Pashtuns, but I am not dismissing the efforts of Afghans — or, indeed Pakistanis — from other ethnic groups who have tried to bring about peace and justice through activism. In recent times we have all suffered and sacrificed more than we can bear. I am writing about Pashtuns for the simple reason that they are Pashteen’s focus and I am one of them, for good and ill.

I have wondered about the potential of pacifism to ignite political change in my homeland for almost as long as I can remember. As a bookish teenager living in Kabul in the wake of the Soviet occupation and the mujahedeen’s civil war, I was interested in the idea that nonviolent activism might be the key to helping us build a better society.

As I have grown older, I have had to accept that this dream has never come close to being realized — at least not in my lifetime. The only periods of peace I have known have been under Taliban rule, first in the late 1990s and second, now. In this case, I use the term “peace” to refer to physical security, not economic security or political and cultural freedom.

One of the men I admired most in my teenage years was Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a Pashtun born in British India in the late 19th century who dedicated his long life — he died in 1988 just short of age 98 — to nonviolent resistance. A friend and contemporary of Gandhi’s, Khan made his name campaigning against colonial rule. He also wanted the Pashtun border areas that lie in what is now Pakistan to be incorporated into Afghanistan. It was the British, remember, who split the frontier in 1893 — severing communities with an arbitrary line on a map that is still a source of friction between the two countries today.

Only later did I realize Khan’s mistakes. He is now buried in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, and no one talks about him much anymore. His legacy is certainly not taught in our history books. The main reason for this is that he has come to be regarded as an apologist for communist atrocities here in the late 1970s and 1980s. While the Soviets and their Afghan allies conducted a vicious war that killed hundreds of thousands of people, Khan let himself be co-opted by politicians in Kabul who espoused the cause of “Pashtunistan.” Willfully or not, he ended up betraying the very men and women he had spent his life trying to protect.

In many ways, that war changed everything — and not just for Khan. In the face of a Soviet onslaught that saw no distinction between civilians and insurgents, effective peaceful resistance was impossible. Afghans needed to fight if they wanted to live. We know by now that the U.S. and its allies — Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and others — favored the most extreme Islamist insurgent groups among the mujahedeen.

As the war against the Soviets dragged on, there was no longer any room for moderation. Our traditional ways of life began to erode, the delicate balance we enjoyed between religion and nationhood tipping too far in one direction. Ethnic differences also started to widen, cleaved open for the political and financial interests of warlords whom many Afghans now sadly venerate as heroes.

As a Pashtun, I must admit that our poetry and literature has always romanticized warriors; our culture promotes misguided notions of honor and revenge. But I must also point out that it encourages solidarity and brotherhood, and democracy is engrained deeply within us, albeit not the kind that the U.S. tried to impose through force after 9/11.

Pashtuns, then, are not inherently barbaric or primitive. Rather, we have been made to act that way. As in so many societies across the world, it now pays to be violent in Afghanistan and in the Pakistan border areas. That is not just the fault of the people who live in these places; a large share of the blame must lie with the governments that have used and abused us, and imposed war on our land. Theirs is the original sin.

Like others, I too have noticed the discrepancy between the Western media’s coverage of the war in Ukraine and the way our war was covered. While ordinary Ukrainians are lauded for taking up arms to fight an invasion by a foreign army, Afghans who made a similar choice, often for similar reasons, were reviled. So, for that matter, were Iraqis.

Nonviolent resistance in a place like Afghanistan can carry much the same risks of death or detention as armed resistance. But history suggests it is also more likely to fail. This brings me back to the man I mentioned at the start of my letter, Manzoor Pashteen. When I met him in Islamabad last fall, I found him to be excellent company. A warm and polite host, with a poetic turn of phrase, he was surprisingly short and with a frail physique. Yet he spoke with confidence about his life, his activism and his concerns for Pashtuns on both sides of the border.

Pashteen was born and raised in Serwakai, South Waziristan. In the first decade of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, there were few more dangerous places to live. The Pakistani and Afghan iterations of the Taliban used the area as a staging post for attacks on both sides of the border. In response, the Pakistan army carried out indiscriminate military operations. “In a day it was ordinary to get news about the beheading of a man by the Taliban or the burning of a family by a bomb. I was raised in war, as a victim of war,” Pashteen told me. It was these memories that inspired his activism.

Pashteen studied veterinary medicine and got married before co-founding the PTM. He rose to prominence in 2018 when he led a march of some 200 miles, from Dera Ismail Khan to Islamabad, to raise awareness of the human rights abuses suffered by Pashtuns. Thousands of supporters joined him along the way, before they all staged a sit-in demonstration in the heart of Pakistan’s capital. Pashteen’s goal was to hold the Pakistan government accountable for the civilian casualties, extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests that were taking place among the country’s Pashtun communities. Other PTM protests occurred in the months that followed, including in the border areas of Bajaur, Quetta, Swat and Bannu, and cities far away from the frontier like Lahore and Karachi. Officials responded with offers of dialogue, and talks took place, but nothing really changed.

At various times in the years since, Pashteen has been arrested and detained by the Pakistan government, as have several other PTM activists. On Feb. 2, 2019, one leading PTM member, Arman Loni, died after participating in a protest in Balochistan. His family claimed he was beaten to death by police.

Inspired by the PTM, in 2018 a smaller group of Afghan activists calling themselves the People’s Peace Movement mobilized on their side of the border. They marched from Helmand in the south of the country to Mazar-e Sharif in the north, demanding a cease-fire between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Their protests continued into 2019, often at immense risk. That December more than two dozen activists were kidnaped in the western province of Farah. Since then, of course, the Taliban have won, their victory a reward for their armed struggle. Meanwhile, civil society activists who protest against their rule have been beaten and detained in Kabul.

Pashteen has never been to Afghanistan, but when I met him last fall he spoke of his concern at the situation here, warning that it was ripe for a new “proxy war” between global powers. He told me that he often reads the work of the U.S. writer James Baldwin and is also an admirer of the 1966 Italian-Algerian film “The Battle of Algiers.” As our second — and last — meeting came to an end, it was getting late and he walked me to a main road. A shopkeeper recognized Pashteen, hugged him tightly and insisted we had a drink. Then we pressed on into the night.

Pashteen was wearing the red and black hat that has become synonymous with his activism and he took it off as we continued our stroll, saying that no one would recognize him without it. He was right. As we kept walking he told me that A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, used to live nearby. It seemed like an appropriate point on which to bring our conversation to a close.

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