ISLAMABAD: The contacts between the army and the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) helped address some of the latter’s grievances, but the enthusiasm about the talks seems to be waning and there has been no development for weeks now.

The contacts between the two sides, according to a military official, began on PTM’s request when it was holding a sit-in near the National Press Club in the federal capital in connection with its ‘Justice for Naqeeb Mehsud’ campaign that called for arrest and trial of police officer Rao Anwar, who was accused of killing Naqeeb in a fake encounter and was then on the run. The protest over Naqeeb’s killing provided a fillip to the erstwhile Mehsud Tahaffuz Movement that later transformed into PTM.

A message was conveyed from those camped outside the press club that Manzoor Pashteen and his colleagues were their real representatives and that the sit-in would be ended following the meeting. After getting a positive response from the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), which was the contact point, PTM put together a 15-member delegation that included Pashteen and Muhsin Dawar. The group met ISPR Director General Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor on Feb 8.

The PTM delegation put forward a five-point charter of demands. They were calling for hanging of Rao Anwar; establishment of a judicial commission for looking into “extrajudicial killings” of Pakhtun; presenting the missing persons in courts and release of innocent people; lifting of curfew from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) or stopping of torture of locals, especially in Waziristan after violent incidents; and clearance of mines from Fata, particularly the Mehsud areas of Waziristan, according to a memorandum that was presented at the meeting by PTM that was shared with Dawn.

Military says it has suffered the most because of IEDs planted by Taliban

The meeting went well and further meetings of PTM leaders with General Officers Commanding (GOCs) of North and South Waziristan were fixed the same day through ISPR DG’s facilitation, the military official said. The meetings were later held on Feb 15 and 17. One major outcome of the Feb 15 meeting was the abolition of the Watan Card, which was initially introduced as an identification document for payment of compensation to Internally Displaced Persons and later used for identifying the returning IDPs.

Dawar, one of the PTM leaders who met GOC of North Waziristan, after the meeting told one of his friends: “Watan Cards issue was resolved the same evening. Many other issues were also discussed in detail, some have been sorted out and some might take some time; we are waiting for it.”

Consensus was reached on nearly a dozen issues during the meeting, which related to not imposing curfews, better treatment at check-posts, mechanism for dealing with missing persons, opening of the Ghulam Khan trade route with Afghanistan, ending restrictions on political gatherings, development projects in Shawal, restoration of communication links and opening of a bank branch, as per a brief showing the agreed points that was seen by this correspondent.

The number of posts was significantly reduced; like in Swat the number went down from 60 to seven.

The change in attitude of the personnel posted at checkpoints was hailed in the PTM’s internal messaging.

Fata Youth Jirga chairman Arshad Afridi, while talking to this reporter, said: “The army’s attitude towards local tribesman is positive and there is progress on the demands.”

He was also critical of PTM’s ‘Lar-o-Bar Yo Afghan’ slogan as a “utopian aspiration”. He believed it would hurt the Pakhtun cause.

Meanwhile, there has been progress in Naqeebullah Mehsud murder case, which was the key demand of the movement. The joint investigation team has held SP Anwar responsible and the trial has commenced.

One of Naqeeb’s cousins Noor Rehman, who had accompanied the PTM delegation to the meeting at ISPR, told Dawn that the slain man’s family was satisfied with the JIT report and had confidence in the process. “The JIT has vindicated our position,” he added.

Pashteen, meanwhile, met GOC of South Waziristan on Feb 17.

But later perceptions changed. A senior PTM member, who facilitated the contacts with the military but didn’t want to be identified, said higher-level interaction was needed. “A glass of drink offered at the checkpoint is not the answer to our grievances,” the member said.

Gradually the contacts started going cold and the PTM’s tone in public gatherings became harsher. Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa too last month went public with his views about the protests and said those were ‘engineered’ and the country was confronted with ‘hybrid war’ at the hands of its adversaries.

The two sides cite different reasons for the existing state of affairs. Interviews with people on both sides reveal that there were also missed signals and botched attempts to reach out by PTM.

The Army thinks PTM, instead of focusing on resolving the problems, was increasing its demands and there were elements of “uncertainty and unpredictability” in its approach. “PTM has drifted away from its original demands,” the military official regretted.

On the other hand, PTM is distrustful of the military. A senior PTM member said: “The situation is getting complicated.”

The member also expressed reservations about the jirga that met PTM to explore a way out of the impasse. The army is backing the jirga constituted by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Governor Iqbal Zafar Jhagra for reaching out to PTM. The jirga recently held the first round of talks with Pashteen and listened to his grievances. Pashteen after the meeting with tribal elders had sought time for consultations with his aides. He has, however, not reverted to the jirga.

Arshad Afridi said he has not heard about any further development in this regard. It was unclear if PTM was tentative in responding to the jirga because of their reservations about the jirga members or it was related to the impasse in their contacts with the military.

“We know how our adults were brought around in the past,” a distrustful PTM leader told Dawn over phone.

The sticking points, it has emerged from conversations with the two sides, are the 2 Ms — the leftover mines and the missing persons.

The Army categorically denies planting any mines in the region. A senior military officer says the army suffered the most because of the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) planted by the Taliban. “More than half of our casualties including the martyrdom of Maj Gen Sanaullah were caused by the IEDs,” he said.

Returning IDPs say around 20 people have been killed and another 78 have been maimed for life due to explosions caused by landmines or the leftover IEDs.

The officer said the process for clearing the area was under way and would take time. He recalled that the army chief had himself assured in a public appearance that “clearance of unexploded ordnance was already in process”.

The issue of missing persons is trickier. An army officer said that while PTM leaders have been intensely agitating the issue, it has still not submitted a list of the persons it has been looking for. He said PTM had been asked to submit the list.

The officer further said that some 3,500 terrorists were killed in the North Waziristan operation and a large number was also eliminated in South Waziristan. “Their bodies were retrieved by Taliban and buried. We don’t have their details,” he says and adds that thousands had fled to Afghanistan also.

While it may be difficult to settle the matter because of the complicated situation, the army has offered a mechanism for reviewing the cases of individuals held at the internment centres and Bannu jail.

The gulf between the army and the PTM leadership is widening. And it’s unclear how it will be bridged.

The PTM leaders said they needed “guarantees” that promises made with them would be fulfilled. An army officer, on the other hand, said PTM was drifting from its original demands.

Published in Dawn, May 4th, 2018