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A SPARK IN PAKISTAN

Can this 23-year-old activist, armed only with a microphone and social media accounts, change a dangerous country?
Manzoor Pashteen addressing thousands of protestors in Lahore, above a picture of Naqibullah Mehsud

Naqibullah Mehsud was on his way to social media stardom. The 27-year-old, originally from Waziristan in Pakistan’s tribal region, lived in the distant southern megacity of Karachi and worked in a shop. An aspiring model, he posted photos of himself on his Facebook page, modelling new clothes, hairstyles and beard trims. By December 2017, he had over 14,000 followers. On 3rd January, plainclothes policemen walked into a restaurant and took Naqibullah away. Ten days later, he was dead. Police released a statement saying that he was killed during a raid on a “terrorist hideout,” and had links to Islamic State and the Pakistani Taliban. They said he died in an “encounter,” or shootout. In South Asia, this is often a euphemism for an extrajudicial execution.

The family denied militant links and it has subsequently emerged that Naqibullah was probably killed due to a case of mistaken identity. In the rundown area where he lived, Sohrab Goth, people from his tribe staged a sit-in. On social media, #Justicefor- Naqib trended, with people sharing pictures of him modelling, dancing and singing—activities that are anathema to the Taliban. As the pressure mounted, the police superintendent for the district, Rao Anwar, was suspended.

Naqibullah was of Pashtun ethnicity, from Waziristan’s Mehsud tribe. Divided by the Durand Line, Pashtuns live in Pakistan—where they are the second largest ethnic group—and Afghanistan, where they are the largest. But particularly since 9/11 and the emergence of the Pakistani Taliban, whose leadership also comes from the Mehsud tribe, they have been seen as a suspect community. The US-led invasion of Afghanistan, which Pakistan supported, led to the relocation of militant infrastructure and a large number of fighters over the border. Subsequent Pakistani military action against militant groups in the tribal areas was seen by some tribesmen as an attempt at subjugation, and, along with the influx of extremist ideology, this perceived grievance led to the formation of the Pakistani Taliban. One of the things that made it distinct from the Afghan Taliban was its explicit targeting of the Pakistani state.

Terror has ravaged Pakistan ever since: according to official figures, 49,000 Pakistanis died due to terrorism and related military incursions between 2001 and 2013—a death toll greater than 9/11, every year. Much of the violence was concentrated in the predominantly Pashtun northwest. For prolonged periods over the last 17 years, this region experienced more than one terror attack per week, to the extent that suicide bombs lost their shock value and militant groups expanded their atrocities. Over a million people relocated around the country to escape the violence.

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In Prospect's November issue: Paul Collier explains how major cities in the UK will always be in the shadow of London unless capitalism is overhauled and suggests ways that we might be able to improve the situation in those communities that capitalism has left behind. Meanwhile, Steve Bloomfield asks what is going at the Foreign Office. The once great institution that was a symbol of Britain’s global power now seems to be lost and unable to explains its role. Also, Samira Shackle explores a Pakistani protest movement that is unnerving the country’s military. Elsewhere in the issue: Dahlia Lithwick suggests that the Supreme Court will struggle to retain its authority now that Brett Kavanaugh is on the bench. Philip Ball argues that DNA doesn’t define destiny as he reviews a new book by Robert Plomin. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Simon Heffer debate political correctness.