top of page
THE VERTICAL

Swat Youth Vanguards

24 Feb 2024
Vol. 2 Issue 1
REPORTAGE

AUTHOR

AUTHOR

AUTHOR

Youth emerge in the vanguard of resistance as militant insurgencies haunt Pakistan again.

On August 2, 2022, Aftab Khan Yousafazai, a young software engineer from Khwazakhela, a village in Swat, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, returned home. For the young engineer, who grew up during possibly the bloodiest recent chapter of militancy-driven conflict in northwestern Pakistan, the return could not have come at a more inauspicious time. 


Yousafzai had been away studying software engineering in Abbottabad, another district in the mountainous North. Having finished his degree, he planned to spend leisure time with his family and friends while awaiting his results. The retreat proved to be short-lived, however. Less than a week after his arrival, on August 9, 2022, grainy videos of an injured police officer and other people in the captivity of Taliban in the mountains of Upper Swat surfaced on the internet. The videos triggered fear and panic in the region, as well as the rest of the country, where memories of a brutal insurgency in the scenic district were still fresh.


Having seen bloodshed as a child—the district descended into chaos under the Taliban’s reign of terror from 2007-2009—Yousafzai was no stranger to militancy. At its peak, the crisis displaced two million people from the district during a huge military operation to quash the insurgency. The resurgence of militants was unnerving for someone already traumatised by the horrors of Taliban rule.


His family and friends were equally distressed, exchanging feverish voice notes and messages with Yousafzai regarding the best course of action. Like many of his ethnic Pashtun peers, who had come of age in the wake of the War on Terror amidst a conflict that shattered—and continues to do so—lives and livelihoods in the border region of Pakistan, Yousafzai had latched for hope onto the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) in his varsity days. The PTM and its outspoken leader, Manzoor Ahmad Pashteen, represented the collective anguish of a population caught up between militant insurgencies, military operations, and their bloody aftermath. 


The young Pashteen took centre-stage in Pashtun nationalism and delivered a scathing critique of Pakistani state policies in the Northwest. He had an immediate, widespread appeal among the youth of the region whose sentiments found a vociferous advocate in him.  The Pakistani state came down hard on the PTM, and as a result, it became a common umbrella for all those who had had enough of the state’s oppressive tactics in the name of security. Yousafzai and his friends kept their distance from the movement despite vowing support for it to avoid arrests and controversies attached to the PTM. With the resurgent Taliban threatening peace in his valley once again, however, the time for indecision ended for him. The young men felt the need to demand an immediate response to such dire circumstances. It was in this state of mind that Yousafzai shared a Facebook post calling for the public to attend a protest in Kabul Chowk against the return of the Taliban. 


On August 12, 2022, locals turned up at the venue in decent numbers. A few days later, Yousafzai and his friends named their nascent movement Swat Ulusi Pasun or Swat Public Uprising.


“We want to have nothing to do with either the military or the militants. Only the masses are suffering in this war,” Yousafzai told me in an interview recently.


What started as sporadic militant attacks in the summer of 2022, soon surged into a pattern that suggested a second militant uprising in Swat, as the district witnessed kidnapping for ransoms, murders and roadside bomb attacks throughout September. Swat Ulusi Pasun’s largest gathering congregated on October 11, 2022, when thousands of people returned its call to protest in Nishat Chowk of Mingora, the largest city in Swat. Among those in attendance were the PTM chief Manzoor Ahmed Pashteen, as well as leaders of several mainstream political parties. 


Since then, the Swat Ulusi Pasun-inspired peaceful protests have been sweeping large parts of northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or the Pakistani Taliban, are carrying out attacks with renewed vigour. Motivated by the PTM’s peaceful opposition to militancy and military operations, large gatherings of tech-savvy youths have travelled across large swathes of territory in the province and its restive tribal belt. Wherever there is a major militant attack, youths take to the street in protest and, most of the time, pillory the military and its leadership for the resurgence of the Taliban with provocative slogans.


“No one could fight back a peaceful public resistance,” said Yousafzai.


Soon after their inception, these protests began to include individuals from institutions such as the police—they, too, were threatened by the Taliban’s activity. In January 2023, a massive suicide blast at the mosque inside the heavily-guarded compound of Peshawar Police Headquarters killed more than 80 and injured 250 others. This attack prompted members of the police force to protest as they, too, blamed the state for its failure to provide security to people. On February 1, several police personnel gathered outside the Peshawar Press Club to protest the militancy and even went to the extent of chanting slogans against the military for its alleged double dealings with the militants.


Such protests have happened in the wake of terrorist attacks in Swat, Lower Dir, Bajaur, Khyber, Waziristan, and Peshawar—districts in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province—where large numbers of residents took to the streets to raise their voices against growing incidents of militancy.


 

The rising tide of peaceful resistance in northwestern Pakistan is yet another chapter in the battle against terrorism in the region. In the initial phases of Taliban militancy, Pakistani authorities forced local elders to raise militias or lashkars to combat the onslaught of militancy in their villages and towns. 


One morning in October 2008, reporters in Peshawar were called to the Badaber police station in Peshawar city’s outskirts for an unusual press conference. We were made to sit inside the cramped building of the police station, waiting for the arrival of Abdul Malik, Mayor or Nazim of the Adezai Union Council. He was detained earlier in August on suspicions of having links with the Taliban after an attack on a police patrol in his village. Mr. Malik was to renounce his links with the Taliban in the press conference upon his release. The wait for Mr. Malik’s arrival took many hours as police personnel tried to reassure the anxious reporters that he was not in their custody and would be presented as soon as an intelligence agency handed him over to them.


It was only around noon when Mr. Malik was brought to the police station in an unmarked car. A bulky man with a salt and pepper beard, Mr Malik briefly chatted with reporters and denied having any links with the Taliban but did not open up about his detention. The press conference ended abruptly as Mr Malik left the building surrounded by police security.


A few weeks later, he set up the Adezai Aman Lashkar , or Adezai Peace Militia, to combat militancy in the area. Soon after, another lashkar was set up in Bazidkhel village by a local elder Muhammad Faheem, who was engaged in a deadly war in the Khyber agency—a tribal area bordering Afghanistan—with the militant outfit Lashkar-e-Islam. A similar pattern of arming the locals to fight militants was used across entire swathes of the tribal belt and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.


However, militants’ retribution against the lashkars was harsh. Abdul Malik was killed in a suicide attack in 2009, while bullet-riddled bodies of Mr. Faheem and some of his close associates were recovered from a vehicle in June 2012 in mysterious conditions.


The peace militias in other parts of the tribal belt and the rest of the province also did not fare well. Hundreds of tribal elders associated with these anti-Taliban militias were eliminated in ruthless, targeted killings, IEDs, and suicide attacks.


The severity of militant rage against lashkars could be gauged from the fact that barely a month after Yousafzai and his comrades set up the Swat Ulusi Pasun, on September 12, 2022, militants killed Idrees Khan in a remote-controlled bomb blast. He was the former head of a peace committee in Swat. On September 16, another former peace committee member was shot dead in Charbagh Tehsil.


This was the situation that gave rise to several avatars of Ulusi Pasuns or Public Rising. Youths like Yousafzai had not only witnessed the horrors of militancy but also seen the militants exacting brutal revenge on those who sided with the state. Besides the nonstop violence, however, they had also seen a massive public outpouring of support for PTM’s anti-war rhetoric across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This is what inspired them to pursue peaceful resistance.


 

Amidst the state’s crackdown against the PTM, arresting its workers and leaders, and the attendant media blackout of its protests, the emergence of Ulusi Pasuns have provided alternate platforms for people to raise their voices against Talibanization. They are PTM multiplied, local platforms for disgruntled youths—armed with mobile phones and using social media for mobilisation—to rally around their resistance to oppression at the hands of militants and the state.


For Yousafzai, this journey for public mobilisation has been full of twists and turns. Unlike most educated youths who try to land a government job soon after graduation, he found himself centre-stage in the biggest youth uprising against systematic violence in Pakistan.


Before sending that Facebook post calling for a protest against the Taliban in his native Swat, he had applied for two government jobs, expecting calls for interviews. This seemed unlikely now. One night in August, he was detained for several hours and released after a public outcry against his detention. Soon again, he was arrested a second time, spending 16 days behind bars on charges of disturbing public peace and bailed out by a local court.


Yousafzai recalls receiving threatening calls from the Taliban labelling him as a stooge of the Pakistani intelligence. “I argued with the caller on the phone saying the Ulasi Pasuns have nothing to do with intelligence and after all, we are only demanding a peaceful life, right to education and work for our children.”


Yousafzai is currently heading the Swat Ulusi Pasun and coordinates activities of similar volunteer organisations, which he has helped organise at the tehsil level. He coordinates these activities through WhatsApp groups, with an eye on the direction that Taliban militancy may take.


However, his political activities have also created ripples in his own family life. His father, currently in the United States, is not happy with Yousafzai’s political campaigning and wants him to give up his advocacy and return to a normal life. Despite opposition and pressure from his family to return to “normalcy,” Yousafzai remains steadfast in his commitment to finishing what he has started.

SHARE ARTICLE:
ALSO IN THIS ISSUE:
AUTHOR
Heading 5 Heading 5 Heading 5 Heading 5 
AUTHOR
Heading 5
Reportage
Swat
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa
Pakistan
Pashtun Tahafuz Movement
PTM
Manzoor Ahmad Pashteen
Pashtun Nationalism
Kabul Chowk
Swat Public Uprising
Swat Ulusi Pasun
Aftab Khan Yousafazai
Taliban
Militancy
Insurgency
Police Action
Community Building
Internet Platforms
Social Media
State Violence
Peaceful Resistance
State & Media

Add paragraph text. Click “Edit Text” to customize this theme across your site. You can update and reuse text themes.

Add paragraph text. Click “Edit Text” to customize this theme across your site. You can update and reuse text themes.

Add paragraph text. Click “Edit Text” to customize this theme across your site. You can update and reuse text themes.

Add paragraph text. Click “Edit Text” to customize this theme across your site. You can update and reuse text themes.

Heading 5
Heading 6
Heading 6
Heading 5
Heading 6
Heading 6
Heading 5
Heading 6
Heading 6
Heading 5
Heading 6
Heading 6
Heading 5
Heading 6
Heading 6

MORE LIKE THIS

bottom of page