The state’s dilemma

October 31, 2021

As the Pakistani state is once again trying to defuse the TLP threat, the question to ask is: will the same cycle be repeated for ‘political expediency’?

Photo by Rahat Dar
Photo by Rahat Dar

Pakistan’s handling of or dealing with militants and extremists has always been poor and only led to more extremism and loss of innocent lives. No wonder our society, for all practical purposes, is a ‘hostage’ to this narrative. The state has surrendered repeatedly before two outlawed organisations of different nature.

The developments over the last few days clearly showed the confusion within the government over the handling of the threat from the outlawed Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). No less than Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad negotiated with TLP leader Saad Rizvi and agreed to all his demands minus one: expelling the French ambassador in Pakistan. This means that he has accepted the demand to lift the ban on the TLP, withdraw cases against its workers and release Rizvi and hundreds of his activists.

On Wednesday, the government took a u-turn and decided to deal with the TLP as an outlawed and militant outfit after the group announced it was resuming its long march to Islamabad. In a related development, the government also decided to hand over the security of the Punjab to the Rangers for 60 days in a bid a deal with the possible fallout.

The Punjab government now sees the whole situation as representative of a ‘nexus between the TLP and India.’ Only last week its stance was quite different.

One still can’t say with certainty whether the government will surrender and concede to the TLP yet again in case the situation goes from bad to worse. Interestingly, the opposition parties’ reactions have been contrary to the position they took against the TLP during their tenure. The Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (Fazl) wanted to take advantage of the situation and landed its support behind Saad Rizvi.

This represents the dilemma of the state when it comes to tackling extremist groups. Prior to the rise of the latest TLP factor, Prime Minister Imran Khan had surprised many with a statement. He had revealed that after the Taliban took over in Afghanistan, his government had negotiated with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), accused of killing and targetting Pakistan’s security personnel and innocent people including the massacre of children and teachers of the Army Public School in Peshawar.

The presence of these two groups seems to have directly or indirectly benefited Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) in the last two general elections. In 2013, the TTP targetted the PPP, the ANP and the MQM during the elections, killing some of their leaders and workers and making it difficult for them to run their campaigns.

In the 2018 general elections the TLP emerged as a powerful party with electoral support. Though the TLP’s candidates won only two provincial assembly seats in Karachi, its candidates got sufficient votes in both the Punjab and Sindh to dent the PML-N and PPP.

Perhaps, Imran Khan and his core team had this in mind when they first decided to appease the TLP, a group the government itself had banned after its dharna a year ago.

Since the PML-N has continued to be a potent political threat and rival to the PTI in the Punjab in particular, the government initially saw political advantage in the ‘grand compromise’.

For Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad, a veteran politician and the sitting interior minister, it’s a double dilemma. He belongs to ‘Rawalpindi’ and is always considered close to the ‘boys’. The very city actually gave birth and currency to the TLP.

Last week, he appeared somewhat mellow while announcing an agreement with the TLP because the same Sheikh Rasheed a few months ago had categorically stated that there would be no compromise with the TLP. He has even said that they would not be allowed to stage a dharna as theirs was a banned organisation.

One still can’t say with certainty whether the government will surrender and concede to the TLP yet again in case the situation goes from bad to worse. Interestingly, the opposition parties’ reaction was contrary to the position they took against the TLP during their tenure

Unlike the TLP, the TTP has wreaked havoc in Pakistan particularly after the military operation in Swat, Malakand, and South Waziristan during the PPP government from 2008 to 2013 and more importantly after the operation in North Waziristan during PML-N government in 2013 amid opposition from Imran Khan who consistently said that the solution to militancy was negotiation and not a military operation.

However, he somehow changed his stance after the APS attack and joined the All Parties Conference (APC) and supported the army and the National Action Plan.

Although the state went all-out against the TTP, hundreds of its militants took refuge in Afghanistan, many of whom may return now and could even get safe passage depending on the possible ‘deal’. These include militants allegedly responsible for the APS attack, attacks on army convoys, and targetted attacks on personnel and officers besides ‘revenge’ attacks against liberal and secular parties like the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Awami National Party (ANP). What bigger loss could PPP have faced than losing Benazir Bhutto, its leader and a former prime minister in a terrorist attack?

The ANP too lost many frontline leaders including Bashir Ahmad Bilour as they continued to criticise the TTP and opposing its militant politics. The MQM in Karachi also faced similar problems in 2013 elections in particular.

These are just two examples of how the state, time and again, mishandled militant groups. As a result, Pakistan became a ‘safe haven’ for all kinds of extremists, some with the blessings of power that be, for political reasons, without realising the far-reaching consequences.

Such flaws in policies over the years have changed the political dynamics of Pakistan. As a result the narrative of ‘non-state’ actors today is far stronger than that of the state itself.

Pakistan never voted for religious parties or brought them into power. One of the prominent leaders of Jamaat-i-Islami, once told me, “We know that it’s not easy for us to come into power but it’s a matter of satisfaction that our narrative and politics have flourished”.

Pakistan did not learn from the first suicide attack in 1994 or ’95 at the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad when the than prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, handed over a few hundred militants of Akhwan-ul-Muslameen who were among the thousands of foreign jihadis who had joined the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union but never went back to their native country.

The TLP emerged after the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, the police guard of Salmaan Taseer, the Punjab governor, who confessed to and convicted of killing him. It was for the first time since the days of Maulana Noorani and Maulana Abdus Sattar Niazi that the Barelvis found a party of their own with electoral support as well as muscle. Many believe that they were used by the powers that be in 2018 elections against PML-N in the Punjab. Their presence in Karachi deprived the MQM of the Memon vote and surprised PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto in Lyari.

The MQM and the TLP, however, are somewhat different phenomena than jihadi or sectarian outfits. The rise of Muhajir politics emerged more strongly before the MQM in the ’70s when Jamaat-i-Islami, and Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan, were the dominant political realities in urban Sindh. The Sindhi Language Bill resulted in ethnic conflict that got sharpened during General Zia ul Haq’s Martial Law and gave rise to a new leadership of mohajirs at the Karachi University Campus in 1978, when All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organisation (APMSO) was formed. It later become the Mohajir Qaumi Movement in 1986. This led to a new militant factor in politics.

In 1992, the then army chief, General Asif Nawaz, decided to launch a military operation against the MQM’s militants. However, the relevant quarters still picked ‘good’ militants and formed a rival faction, the MQM (Haqiqi).

General Pervez Musharraf gave a new lease of life to the MQM and the Haqiqi group was not allowed to operate. This cycle continued till 2013, when finally, the army and political leadership decided not only to completely clean-up but also indirectly controlled the MQM. They were also cut to size in the 2018 elections.

The JUP, led by the late Maulana Shah Ahmad Noorni, had been supported by the Barelvi school of thought. It lost its political space after the death of Maulana Noorani. Many of his followers then joined the Sunni Tehreek, which like the MQM allegedly developed a militant agenda. This was done to counter the MQM and resulted in clashes and target killings.

While all is ‘still well’ in the civil-military relationship after the belated announcement of the appointment of Corp Commander, Karachi, Lt General Nadeem Anjum as DG, ISI replacing Lt General Faiz Hameed, who will take over charge as Corp Commander Peshawar in the third week of November, both have decided to deal with the TLP as outlawed groups, there is also a possibility of a ‘change of heart’ towards the TTP. This is due to the resentment within and outside, over PM’s earlier position of holding negotiations with the TTP through the Afghan Taliban.

Interesting times lie ahead. One wonders where the politics of Pakistan is heading. The TLP factor which in the past went in favour of Imran Khan and the PTI could now go against them. A point to think about is: if the TLP is prevented from contesting the next election who will its voters support in the Punjab and in Karachi?

The writer is a columnist and analyst of GEO, The News and Jang

Twitter:   @MazharAbbasGEO

The state’s dilemma