PESHAWAR (PAKISTAN) - Pakistan's powerful military, long accused by outsiders of backing Islamist militant groups, is facing an unexpected challenge -- a charismatic young Pashtun man who won't keep quiet.
Members of Pakistan's Pashtun minority are pushing back against alleged discrimination and military abuses
Fellow Pashtuns have rallied behind Manzoor Pashteen in a dramatic outpouring of frustration over accusations of discrimination and extrajudicial killings at the hands of men in uniform.
Hundreds of thousands of them have had to leave their homes near the border with Afghanistan in the last decade, fleeing fighting that erupted when the army began what the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM) says was a selective clampdown on the militants that took refuge there after the 2001 US-led ousting of the Taliban.
Echoing accusations by Washington and Kabul, PTM activists say the military continues to allow these extremists a safe haven from which to launch attacks in Afghanistan, while targeting insurgents that have turned their guns on Pakistan.
"This policy... it's very dangerous for us," Pashteen, the movement's 26-year-old leader, told AFP during a recent interview.
The strategy, he says, has upended traditional Pashtun tribal society, as civilians are harassed, killed or abducted by security forces and insurgents in the ensuing crossfire.
Pashteen's movement poses a unique challenge to the military's narrative about its war on militants, says analyst Michael Semple, because it has given a voice to previously marginal accounts.
"It remains one of the weak points of the double game approach -- real people live there and see what you're doing," said Semple, a professor at Queen’s University Belfast.
"This movement is spilling the beans."
At a rally on Sunday in Lahore, Pakistan's second-largest city, thousands came to chant the PTM slogan: "The uniforms are behind the terrorists".
It was a remarkable scene, with such accusations against the security establishment viewed as a dangerous red line that few have dared to cross.
The Lahore rally was held in defiance of local authorities, who had denied the PTM formal permission to stage the protest and detained some of its supporters.
- 'Good Taliban' -
For years, Pakistan has been accused by the US and others of using militants such as the Afghan Taliban as proxies, allowing them safe haven in the tribal areas.
Islamabad has repeatedly denied the claims.
It says it has carried out multiple operations in the region, and taken steps to harden the porous border, while pointing to the thousands killed by militants as evidence of Pakistan's sacrifices.
"No army can support terrorists against whom they have fought so relentlessly," Major General Asif Ghafoor, the military spokesman, told AFP.
But the allegations persist. In January, the White House suspended security assistance to Pakistan over the issue.
Despite a dramatic improvement in security in recent years, the tribal districts remain largely out of bounds to foreigners and journalists, making claims difficult to verify.
The PTM's Pashteen says at least 40 of his family members and friends have been killed in the chaos unleashed by the war since 2001. Another 30 have been abducted, he claims. Fellow activists tell of similar losses.
"You can call someone 'Good Taliban' but he's not good for us... he's killed us," Pashteen explained, referring to a euphemism for alleged Pakistan-backed insurgents that fight in Afghanistan.
- Tipping point -
Pashtuns hold a complicated place in Pakistan, where they number roughly 30 million, accounting for 15 percent of the population.
Lauded for their martial abilities since Alexander the Great, both militants and the military have turned to them for decades to fight their wars.
Both the Afghan and the Pakistani Taliban, two separate militant entities, are dominated by Pashtuns.
As a result, ordinary Pashtun civilians are often stereotyped as backward tribesmen in league with terrorists, harassed in cities, hassled by landlords and denied hotel rooms.
"We have fought for our own country. Then why has this been done to us?" asked PTM supporter Sher Bahadar Afridi.
In the beginning, Pashteen's aims were humble.
When he and a small group of friends started on the "Pashtun Long March" to Islamabad in January, they carried a list of just 150 names allegedly abducted by security forces, hoping to present it to authorities.
The demand was not new -- rights activists have been demanding an end to enforced disappearances for years in Pakistan.
But the murder of a Pashtun social media star in an alleged extrajudicial killing by the police in January proved to be a tipping point, with thousands rallying behind Pashteen leading to the PTM's creation.
"The biggest thing (the movement) achieved was removing that atmosphere of fear," explained analyst Rafiullah Kakar.
But their reception in the mainstream media has been muted.
A far-reaching media blackout has kept news and images of the rallies off TV screens nationwide.
Despite the pushback, PTM is demanding action -- including investigations into disappearances and extrajudicial killings and an end to what it says is undue harassment of Pashtuns at security checkpoints.
The military, meanwhile, has accused them of collusion with Pakistan's enemies.
"They are young and simple Pashtuns who are being exploited by inimical forces," said Ghafoor, the military spokesman.