FILE - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a press conference at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 15, 2018.
FILE - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a press conference at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 15, 2018.

ISLAMABAD - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s denouncement Thursday of the arrest of a group of ethnic Pashtun activists in neighboring Pakistan has triggered a harsh response from Islamabad, reigniting bilateral political tensions.

The unusual reaction by Ghani came two days after authorities in the Pakistani capital arrested about two dozen members of a non-violent group, known as the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) or Pashtun Protection Movement. The detainees were protesting against the death of one of their leaders in an alleged police crackdown.

“The Afghan government has serious concerns about the violence perpetrated against peaceful protesters and civil activists in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan,” Ghani said in a series of tweets. Ghani named the two Pakistani border provinces with predominantly Pashtun populations and where the PTM has its support base.

PTM leaders repeatedly have alleged in recent months that authorities are suppressing their activists elsewhere in Pakistan to deter them from raising their voice against “injustices” facing the country’s Pashtuns. Authorities deny the charges.

Members and supporters of the Pashtun Protection M
Members and supporters of the Pashtun Protection Movement hold pictures of missing family members during a rally in Karachi, Pakistan, May 13, 2018.

“We believe it is the moral responsibility of every government to support civil activities that take a stand against the terrorism and extremism that plagues and threatens our region and collective security,” said Ghani, who himself is a Pashtun. Several cities in Afghanistan, where Pashtuns are in the majority, also have been the scenes of rallies in support of PTM.

Pakistan claims ‘gross interference’

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi swiftly took to Twitter, though, to reject Ghani’s comments. “Such irresponsible statements are only gross interference. Afghan leadership needs to focus on long-standing serious grievances of the Afghan people,” Qureshi insisted.  

The Pakistani group says its senior member, Arman Loni, was participating in a protest in the Lorali town of Baluchistan when police attacked and beat him to death in a bid to disperse the rally.

For their part, provincial authorities maintain the 35-year-old university teacher died of a heart attack during clashes between protesters and riot police. The government has promised a swift inquiry, but PTM activists and leaders of opposition political parties are demanding an independent probe.

FILE - Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qur
FILE - Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi talks with media representatives in Multan, Pakistan, Dec. 22, 2018.

Afghanistan and Pakistan regularly accuse each other of supporting and harboring militant groups carrying out terrorist attacks on their respective terrorizes. The allegations are at the center of mutual tensions and mistrust.

The latest war of words comes as Pakistan has been facilitating renewed U.S.-led efforts to seek a political settlement with the Taliban to end the Afghan conflict. The insurgent leadership is allegedly sheltering in the neighboring country with the help of Pakistani security agencies — charges Islamabad rejects.

PTM is considered anti-military because of its belief that Pakistan's military has used the fight against terrorism to carry out human rights abuses against Pashtuns in restive tribal areas and other parts of the country. The group has been demanding an end to extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances, particularly of Pashtuns.

The military has been carrying out anti-militancy operations in those areas along the Afghan border, particularly in the northern Waziristan district, the birthplace of PTM.  

Pakistani army officials flew a group of reporters to the Waziristan area last week to showcase an improved security situation and ongoing reconstruction projects in an area previously was condemned as the epicenter for international terrorism.