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Domination of Pakistan by Radical Islamists

P.K. Upadhyay was a Consultant with Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses for its Pakistan Project.
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  • June 14, 2013

    The Pakistani Radical Islamists (RIs) seem to have been the actual winners in the recently concluded Pakistan elections. The RIs, comprising the Pashtuns belonging to the Tehriq-e-Taliban Pakistan, their Punjabi and Pakistan based Kashmiri cohorts belonging to a big chunk of the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and the Jamaat-ud Daw’ah, almost the entire Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the Jaish-e-Mohammad and a number of other radical Islamic militant groups, swear allegiance to Deobandi/Wahabi/Salafi schools of Islam. They also identify with Al-Qaida’s radical Islamic philosophy of a global Islamic order through jihad. A recent illustration by Pakistani cartoonist, Sabir Nazar, on, succinctly sums up the ascendancy of the RIs in Pakistan’s current political discourse. The cartoon, while portraying “Old Pakistan” shows a Taliban gunman putting his AK-47 on the head of a Pakistani politician of ANP/PPP variety, who is standing somewhat bewildered but firm. The ‘New Pakistan’ is portrayed by the same Taliban with a grin on his face and his gun slung on the shoulder, as a politician, looking like Imran Khan, kneels down at his feet

    Civil and military structures side lined by the Radical Islamists:

    Between the years 2001 and 2012, the Pakistani RIs had effectively impeded the capability of the civilian organs of the state to take them on and effectively deal with them. They had also significantly eroded the Pakistan Army’s will and commitment to challenge and leash them, since the launching of Army’s operations in Swat in 2010.1 A Pakistani Army under the burden of its own Islamism and contradictions always had a confused approach to dealing with the RIs. 2 It wanted to put them down for their disruptive capabilities yet, it also had a nagging acceptance of their jihadist agenda due to Deobandi/Salafi orientation of a very large segment of its own rank and file, its jihadist approach to warfare and self-created perceptions of perpetual hostility with India. The RIs, particularly the Taliban, were also its tools to gain a ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan. 3

    Even while commencing anti-militancy operations against the RIs in 2001 under US pressure, the Pakistan Army was always on the look-out for ways to extricate itself from that conflict. Initially it went after the foreign Al-Qaida cadres, leaving out the Pashtun RIs. 4 Then it fell on to such other strategy as using its non-Punjabi Shiite troops from the Balti dominated Northern Light Infantry (NLI). 5 However, as the operations against RIs expanded, more and more Punjabi Sunni troops were sucked into operations against Taliban, particularly as the Pashtun troops had to be kept out of it due to doubts about their reaction after some earlier large scale surrenders to the Islamist Pashtun groups. As a result, the Punjabi casualties began to mount.

    Pakistan Army had not bargained for a prolonged and intense internal security campaign for which it was ill prepared and which was directed against ‘assets’ whom it had painstakingly nurtured until the other day as part of its jihadist agenda and strategies. And when the RIs began to make inroads in Punjab, particularly the South Punjab from where a large number of Army recruits came, it began to look frantically for means to disentangle itself from that conflict. 6 Behind the scene deals with RIs became the favoured strategy. The contours of these deals generally followed the line: Don’t attack us, return our soldiers captured by you unharmed and we will not attack you and pay you handsomely. Through its reluctance to further expand the conflict with the RIs to newer areas like South Waziristan, Karachi, South Punjab, etc. the Pakistan Army even began to tacitly acknowledge that it had basically no problems with IR’s religious agenda and it could, live with it7 , provided in the ‘shariatised’ state of Pakistan its privileges and positions remained undisturbed.

    The assassination of Major General Ameer Faisal Alvi, the former Commander of the famed SSG (Special Service Group) in broad daylight in Islamabad in the recent past underlined the extent to which the army had changed its attitude towards RIs. Alvi was killed by well trained gunmen, who pumped 9mm bullets into him in a clinical manner after meticulously ambushing his car and not by ramming a VIED into his vehicle, or blowing him up by a suicide bomber, or in a land-mine explosion that have been the hallmark of IR attacks. This assassination took place soon after Alvi had written to General Kayani telling him about the deals some of his senior Corps Commanders were striking with the RIs, instead of going after them with zeal and determination. There was not even a whisper from Kayani or the GHQ on either Alvi’s complaint or his assassination. 8

    Subjugation of the political process:

    After having forced the Army to a ‘tacit accommodation’ for the moment, the RIs moved to the next phase of their campaign that sought to subvert and dominate the polity of the country. The Taliban’s determination to demolish western democracy based political system has repeatedly been declared loud and clear by terming it as ‘un-Islamic’. 9 In December 2012, TTP attacked an ANP rally in Peshawar and issued public warnings to attack secular parties. 10 As the electoral process for Pakistan’s 2013 elections got under way, RIs’ challenges became even shriller. In mid-April, the Taliban Shura met and decided to selectively target “those secular political parties, which were part of the previous coalition involved in the operation in Swat, FATA and other areas of Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa”. 11 This clearly meant that the PPP, ANP and the MQM who resisted the RIs, had to be sidelined through terror. The statement further clearly prescribed the preference for the voters by declaring that it was “neither in favour of …nor against” the PML-N, PTI, JUI (F) and the JI, presumably due to their pro-Islamist stance and close links with the Pakistani RIs. Pamphlets were issued by TTP and its allies in FATA, KP and Karachi, warning the citizens not to vote in the upcoming elections. 12 The threat to derail Pakistani democracy was repeated on the eve of second anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s killing. 13 A number of attacks on secularist parties in Karachi and elsewhere in Pakistan accompanied these statements.

    Army a mute bystander:

    As the self-professed guardian of the Pakistani state, one expected the Pakistan Army to come out forcefully to counter RIs’ threat to the democratic exercise of holding elections and publically declare its resolve to protect the entire electoral process by extending security cover to all political parties and their electoral activities. Instead, in a strange coincidence, Kayani almost simultaneously with the RIs spoke of Pakistani Army’s commitment “to the basis for creation of Pakistan”. He asserted, “Pakistan was created in the name of Islam and Islam can never be taken out of Pakistan. Islam should always remain a unifying force…Pakistan Army would keep on doing its best towards common dream for a truly Islamic Republic of Pakistan.” 14 To RIs threat of hijacking the electoral process, he merely mouthed the platitude (in another statement) that “The armed forces would utilize all resources to ensure that the polls are held in a fair and transparent manner.” Perhaps, he was limiting the Army’s role to only ensuring ‘peaceful’ polling and protecting the entire electoral process was not on his agenda. He significantly went on to add, “Like every Pakistani, the Army is also doing its bit to strengthen democracy…There is no place for looting and personal gains in a democracy and only honest (people) can end the game between democracy and dictatorship”. 15

    Disruption of campaigning by secularist parties:

    This attitude of the Army clearly sealed the fate of anti-radical forces in Pakistani elections. There were numerous attacks on ANP leaders and workers in Karachi and KP. PPP leaders and cadres were forced to keep a low profile, with the Chairman of the party, Bilawal Bhutto staying away from direct campaigning and not coming out to directly address any public meeting, even the one to mark the death anniversary of his maternal grandfather Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, held at his grave at Garhi Khuda Baksh in Larkana. The MQM resisted the RIs in its strongholds in Karachi by replying fire with fire. However, outside Karachi its cadres were also forced to maintain a low profile. A look at the media pictures and the video footage of the election campaigning makes it very clear that in Punjab and KP it were the favoured pro-Islamist parties that could stage large scale political rallies in the traditional manner of electioneering and PPP and others were reduced to holding small street corner meetings and door-to-door campaigning that too almost furtively. Wherever workers of ‘secularist’ parties tried to be active, they were promptly targeted by the RIs. Former Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani’s son was attacked and kidnapped virtually from his door steps. He and his brother also lost their Provincial Assembly elections by a huge margin in an area which the senior Gilani had pampered during his premiership. Same was the case with practically all PPP and ANP candidates in Punjab and KP where the RIs’ writ seems to have run supreme. Even in Balochistan the impact of the RIs is clear from the fact that pro-Islamist PkMAP, PML-N and JUI (F) bagged a majority of seats, pushing the Baloch nationalists to the side lines and totally wiping out the PPP. The sweeping of elections by PML-N and the PTI was a foregone conclusion in Punjab and KP also. The question remained who would head the results tally and if the RIs would be forced to engineer a pro-Islamist coalition government after elections. The results ensured that the IR would not have to be bothered.

    RIs ensure electoral supremacy of favoured parties:

    Thus in the post election Pakistan it is the RIs who have their clients in power in Islamabad and in the provincial capitals in Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta. The PML-N, PTI and JUI (F) would almost invariably follow pro-Islamist policies because of their personal convictions and conveniences. But, should they begin to waver, the RIs’ warning to them is boldly on the wall. In its pre-election warning the TTP had, while immediately targeting the PPP, ANP, and the MQM, also stated, “We are neither in favour of the PTI, JI, JUI-F and PML-N nor against them.. We are against the secular and democratic system, which is against the ideology of Islam, but we are not expecting any good from the other (i.e. these) parties either, who are the supporters of the same system, but why they are not (being) targeted is our own prerogative to decide.” 16 The desire to be on the right side of the RIs, particularly the TTP was clearly visible in the PML-N, the PTI and JUI (F), as soon as the lections were over.

    The call for ‘peace’ and ‘negotiations’ with TTP:

    The successful pro-RI political parties, the PML (N), JUI (F), the PTI and the JI did not loose any time to began clamouring for moves to initiate ‘peace’ with the Taliban. The TTP, on its part, has been airing its conditions for a ceasefire from time to time. In November 2012, its top leader Hakimullah Mehsud spoke of a “ceasefire” though without renouncing the armed struggle or trusting the Pakistan Army, if the Pakistani government agreed to implement the Shariat (Islamic Law), broke all ties with the United States, stopped interfering with Taliban operations against the government in Kabul, and agreed to refocus on a war of “revenge” against India. 17 Repeating these conditions a short while later, TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan also called the Pakistan government to re-write its laws and constitution in accordance with the shariat. 18 Recently in February 2013, the Taliban repeated this call with a twist by suggesting that Maulana Fazal-ur Rehman of the JUI (F), Nawaz Sharif of the PML-N and Munawwar Hassan of JI should be the interlocutors and the guarantors of any deal between the TTP and the government! This appeal was made in the name of pan-Islamic unity in the wake of French intervention in Mali with tacit US backing. 19

    Nawaz Sharif, who had been on record for having advised the PPP government to seriously take up the TTP offer for ‘talks’, 20 in his very first statement after the elections repeated his stand for peace parleys with the TTP in accordance with their earlier announcement. “All options should be tried and guns are not solutions to all problems”, he said. 21 Soon enough Pak media reports indicated a plan by PML-N and the JUI (F) to engage TTP through a “Grand Peace Jirgah” that had been mooted in an all party conference hosted by JUI (F) in February. 22 There appeared to be a competition between PML-N and the PTI in proving themselves to be a bigger loyalist to the TTP than the other. PTI was conspicuously stayed away from PML (N)-JUI (F) plan. Instead, it joined up with Maulana Fazl-ur Rehman’s rival, Maulana Sami-ul Haq to approach the TTP for ‘peace’. 23 Maulana Sami-ul Haq, the leader of his faction of the JUI, known as JUI (S), and the president of the Muttahida Deeni Mahaz, is considered by many as the ‘Father’ of the Taliban and is closely associated with their alma mater the Dar-ul Uloom Haqqania at Akhora Khattak in KP. Even the JI is more favourably inclined to this initiative and is also keen to join the PTI led coalition in KP. The party had indicated its interest in having the Education Ministry in the provincial government by announcing that it did not intend to ‘radicalise’ school text-books. 24

    However, the initial rush of adrenal among the new victors of the elections for a quick-fix deal with the TTP seems to have quietened down somewhat. Maulana Fazal-ur Rehman announced his unwillingness to broker peace with the Taliban anymore, because of “disinterest shown by the establishment, there is no opportunity or atmosphere for negotiations”. The “establishment” was identified as the Army by JUI (F)’s spokesman. He felt that any reconciliation with Taliban was impossible if coercive measures continued to be taken. 25 It is quite clear that after having gained clear ascendency in Pakistan, the RIs are neither willing to tone down their Islamic agenda, nor allowing their de facto control over large areas of FATA, KP and northern Baluchistan to be diluted. The Army, on its part, is not willing to coexist with the RIs without the latter giving up their weapons and once again agreeing to become a pliable tool in the hands of the former.

    Nawaz Sharif’s pro-Islamist track record:

    During his earlier stints as Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif had openly betrayed an Islamist agenda and had been more than willing to go along with Islamic militancy. In his first stint as PM, he appointed Lt. Gen. Javed Nassr, a staunch pan-Islamist as the ISI Chief. Under Nassr, the ISI started to recruit Dawood Ibrahim and his gang and planned the Mumbai serial blasts of 1993; arranged various Europe based pan-Islamic organisations manned by Pak origin persons to route aid to Bosnian Muslims and himself arranged to airlift a substantial amount of weapons to them from Pakistan which effectively retarded EU’s attempts to keep Bosnia united; and aided Uighur rebellion in China’s Xinjiang province. Pakistan’s clandestine proliferation of nuclear technology also started during Nawaz Sharif’s first innings as PM. In his second innings, apart form Kargil (about which his loud protestations of innocence have to be taken with a lot of salt in view of Pakistani academics’/journalists’ assertions of his complicity), Nawaz Sharif has also to be remembered for his 1998 efforts to shariatise Pakistan through the legislative process in the form of Fifteenth Amendment to the Pakistani Constitution to ordain: “The Federal Government [shall be] under an obligation to take steps to enforce the Shariat, to establish salat, to administer zakat, to promote amr bil ma’roof and nahi anil munkar (to prescribe what is right and to forbid what is wrong), to eradicate corruption at all levels and to provide substantial socio-economic justice, in accordance with the principles of Islam, as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah.” 26 The move fell through, as Nawaz Sharif could not ensure the passage of this legislation in the Senate where he did not have majority. If he had succeeded, he would have pushed Pakistan deeper into Islamization mould then even General Zia-ul Haq had done.

    Links between PML (N) government in Punjab and the RIs:

    Even in the post 2008 elections, Nawaz’s PML and the IR factions, particularly the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) had a tacit understanding to accommodate each other and, according to Pakistani columnist Ayesha Siddiqa, not to hurt the Sharif family in return for freeing of SSP leaders and accommodating its cadres into government jobs. Many academics and journalists have also pointed out that the Punjab government made budgetary allocations to Jamaat-ud Daw’ah and a number of its front institutions during this period. 27 In the recent elections, the PML-N gave tickets to various personalities belonging to religious outfits who had been accused of and even tried for terrorism related offences, to contest National and Provincial Assembly seats. These include, Chaudhary Abid Raza Gujjar of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sardar Ebaad Dogr, Maulana Ilyas Chinoti and Maulana Hafiz Abdul Kareem of SSP. Some other radicalists, who successfully contested as independents, have also joined PML-N after the elections. According to Pakistani journalist Mohammad Shehzad, given the TTP’s uncompromising stand against ‘un-Islamic’ Pakistani constitution and democracy, “The state may not be able to make a compromise on any of these points”. 28

    The future portends and the implications for India:

    The assertions of the new Pakistan government of Nawaz Sharif to de-radicalise the society by engaging the RIs in a dialogue and accommodation with them in reality means, to many observers, a meek surrender to Islamic radicalism of Deobandi variety. Now that they are in the driving seat, the RIs are not likely to push their agenda of shariatisation of Pakistan immediately. For the present, their focus could be on Afghanistan where they can take on a withdrawing NATO and a weak Karzai government and without being perturbed by the fear of being stabbed in the back by a Pakistani government, willing to succumb to the US pressures, or a weakened Pakistan Army which may not have the capability to manipulate players in Afghanistan again, just as it had done during Taliban control. However, once they have achieved their goals in Afghanistan, or even ensured their supremacy and complete control in Pashtun areas of the country, the Taliban and their Pakistani RIs associates are likely to revert back to complete their unfinished Islamic agenda in Pakistan.

    There are many pitfalls for all the key sides in the current Pakistani political scene. The killing of TTP’s second-in-command Wali-ur Rehman in a drone attack on May 29, 2013 in Miranshah in FATA is one such pitfall which can upset calculations of all. Expectedly, the TTP has announced suspension of all ‘peace’ talks following the killing of Wali-ur Rehman and vowed revenge. It has also blamed the Pakistani government and the Army for secretly cooperating with the Americans for the drone strikes. Its ‘revenge’ can not directly target the US, but it can come by attacking the Pak Army and other ‘secret’ anti-Taliban elements in Pakistan. The latter could also include some selected persons from the incoming PML (N) political dispensation, who could be targeted as a warning. The PTI has already upped the ante by asking the incoming government to have the drone strikes stopped either through negotiations with the Americans or through force. If the TTP also take this refrain and as a price for their continuing support to Nawaz Sharif demand countering of the drone strikes by Pakistan military, it would force Sharif government to start on the wrong foot. The Taliban can add weight to their demand also by once again disrupting NATO/US cargo movement to and from Afghanistan, thereby, adding to the US problems in Afghanistan.

    The post-election ‘new Pakistan’ has some significant implications for India. How much can India trust Nawaz Sharif’s peaceful overtures, given his past track record and his current equations with Pakistani RIs? How much reliance can India lay in Nawaz Sharif’s capability, or intent, to reign in the Islamic militants, as far as their trans-national agenda, particularly in Afghanistan and Kashmir, are concerned? For the moment it would appear that Nawaz Sharif does not have leverage over the RIs in Pakistan and he may be forced to go along with them, if for nothing then just to buy internal peace and stability for his regime. The RIs could in the meanwhile accelerate their sectarian agenda and increase pressures against Shias and the Barelvis, with Hindu and Christian minorities already having been reduced to nothing in Pakistan.

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    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.