The PTM protest in Peshawar on April 8, 2018

A new movement has sprung up in Pakistan's Pashtun-dominated northern areas. Its supporters, wary of their region being used as a battleground for years, have taken on both the Taliban and the nation's powerful military.

On May 15, it will be 30 years since the Soviet troops pulled out from Afghanistan, leaving the war-ravaged country to the mujaheddin (Islamic warriors). Thousands of people had died during the 1980s Afghan War, in which the mujaheddin were backed by the Pakistani military and the US. What followed the Soviet withdrawal was even more mayhem and bloodshed, with competing jihadist factions fighting for control over the capital Kabul.

The infighting ceased in 1996, when a group of Islamic students on both sides of the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border captured Kabul, allegedly with the help of Pakistani authorities. A deadly calm prevailed for some years, but massive human rights violations continued until 2001, when the US avenged 9/11 terrorist attacks by bombing Afghanistan and ousting the brutal Taliban regime.

For a brief period of time, Afghans had hoped their country would finally experience peace. But the ensuing civil war, which continues to date, has killed thousands more.

The battle for Afghanistan continues. The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, who Kabul and Washington say receive support from the Pakistani army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (IS) agency, control vast swathes of territory in the war-torn country. On the Pakistani side, the tribal areas along the Afghan border continue to suffer due to Islamist activities and the security forces' operations that caused deaths and displacements on a large scale.

At the heart of these never-ending wars, Islamic extremism, militancy and human suffering have been the Pashtuns, who are in a majority in Pakistan's northern parts and most of Afghanistan. Since the 1980s, at least three generations of Pashtuns have paid a heavy price for a conflict that was thrust on them from the outside. First, the Cold War rivalry between the former Soviet Union and the United States turned their territory into a war zone, and then the battle between the West and Islamists made them homeless, destitute and helpless.

Rights groups say thousands of Pashtun youths have been abducted by security agencies in the past decades

Now a secular movement, led by young activist Manzoor Pashteen, has struck a chord with thousands of Pashtuns, who say "enough is enough." The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (Movement for the Protection of Pashtuns, PTM) blames both the Pakistani military and Islamists for the destruction in their region.

Essentially an anti-war campaign, the PTM sprang up as a result of the killing of the 27-year-old Naqeebullah Masood, who was killed by police in the southern city of Karachi on January 20. The authorities claimed Masood had links with militants, a charge his family and civil society activists deny. Rights groups say that thousands of Pashtun youths have been murdered or abducted by security agencies in the past decades on unproven terrorism charges. State authorities use the pretext of war on terrorism to persecute Pashtuns, they say. Over the years, Pashtuns have been branded as Islamists, or militants, due to the fact that the Taliban are also a Pashtun-dominated outfit, and because the radicalism in the country's northern areas has spiked over the years as a result of decades-long wars.

PTM leader Pashteen doesn't mince his words and has made it clear who he holds responsible for the Pashtun suffering: "We have to identify the place that destroyed us," Pashteen said at a recent rally. "It is GHQ!" he said, referring to the Pakistani military headquarters in Rawalpindi.