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Imran Khan’s government capitulating meekly to the demands of violent extremist groups in Pakistan

Published : Nov 22, 2021 06:00 IST


TLP supporters during a protest in Lahore on October 22.

TLP supporters during a protest in Lahore on October 22.

At a Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) rally in Karachi on October 24.

At a Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) rally in Karachi on October 24.

Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Pakistan Army troops at a hilltop post on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in Khyber district in August. Before the Imran Khan government initiated “direct face-to-face talks” with the banned Pakistani Taliban, the Army had launched an offensive in North Waziristan, the group’s stronghold, forcing its fighters to flee into Afghanistan.

Pakistan Army troops at a hilltop post on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in Khyber district in August. Before the Imran Khan government initiated “direct face-to-face talks” with the banned Pakistani Taliban, the Army had launched an offensive in North Waziristan, the group’s stronghold, forcing its fighters to flee into Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s failed standoff with the Army over the appointment of the ISI chief and his giving in to the demands of extremist groups have highlighted the vulnerability of his increasingly unpopular government.

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS HAVE underlined the political vulnerabilities of the Pakistan government led by Imran Khan. The first was the open standoff between the government and the powerful Pakistani security establishment on the appointment of a new chief for the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. The Prime Minister, whose closeness and indebtedness to the Pakistani military is well known, suddenly decided to question Army chief Gen. Qamar Bajwa’s selection of a new ISI chief. The Army announced its nominee, Lt Gen. Nadeem Ahmad Anjum, for the post in mid October, apparently without keeping the Prime Minister’s Office in the loop.

Imran Khan, to the surprise of many, including senior members of his own party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), decided to assert himself on the issue, letting it be known that it was the prerogative of the Prime Minister to select the candidate for the post. Lt Gen. Faiz Hameed, the current chief of the ISI, played a key role in propelling Imran Khan to the Prime Minister’s Office. He is said to be the Prime Minister’s preferred candidate for the post of Army chief when Gen. Bajwa retires in 2022.

The Prime Minister had initially stated that he would decide on the appointment of the new ISI chief after interviewing three candidates put forward by the military. After a brief standoff with the military establishment, he caved in. Lt Gen. Anjum will now take office on November 20. The opposition believes that Imran Khan’s actions were motivated by self-interest and not by the intention to end the Army’s domination of the politics of the country. Imran Khan had made no effort to mobilise opposition parties to build a popular movement against the Army. At the same time, the opposition parties seemed keen to undermine his political standing and were not overly critical of Gen. Bajwa’s act of overriding his authority.

Also read: Pakistan's media crackdown leaves journalists vulnerable

On many previous occasions, when the civilian administration tried to interfere in the administrative affairs of the Army, the result was either an outright military coup or regime change orchestrated from military headquarters. Nawaz Sharif lost his prime ministership on two occasions because of his efforts to tame the Army leadership and bring it fully under political control. The first time, he was the victim of an outright coup. The second time, the Army and its intelligence wing undermined him politically by brazenly propping up Imran Khan and his party.

According to many Pakistani analysts and commentators, these days the Army is trying to distance itself from the increasingly unpopular PTI-led government

Another important development that has further diminished the image of the government is the deal it made with the “banned” Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party in early November. The TLP has gained support in rural areas, especially in Punjab, the country’s most populous province, by calling for the strict implementation of “blasphemy laws”. The laws are frequently used to target the Ahmadi sect and other minorities. Those accused of violating them can be sent to the gallows. The TLP has said that the sole punishment for blasphemy should be “decapitation”.

TLP’s support for Taseer’s assassin

The party came to prominence when it organised huge rallies in 2011 in support of Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of Salman Taseer, the then acting Governor of Punjab. Qadri was the policeman assigned to protect Taseer. Taseer’s crime in the eyes of the fundamentalists was his support for a Christian woman who had been jailed on alleged blasphemy charges.

The mobilisation capabilities of the party became evident after it paralysed Islamabad in 2018 when Nawaz Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League (N), was in power. According to reports in the Pakistani media, the Army facilitated the TLP’s massive sit-in in Islamabad at the time.

Also read: After deal with Pakistan government, Islamists halt march

The issue then was a minor change in the wording of the oath-taking ceremony for MPs, which describes the Prophet Muhammad as God’s final prophet. The government quickly reversed the changes, but the TLP had scented blood, confident that it could in future pressure other governments to do its bidding. The party also decided to contest elections after that and is now doing better than the established Islamic parties in the country like the Jamaat-i-Islami. The TLP draws it support from followers of the Barelvi school of Islam. The majority of the Sunni population in the country are adherents of this school. The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Pakistani Taliban, was earlier critical of the TLP but has now changed its stance and expressed its support for the TLP. After a confrontation between the TLP and the Pakistan government in April of this year, the TTP said: “We stand by those who sacrificed their lives for the honour of the Prophet.”

Demand for action against France

In September 2020, the French magazine Charlie Hebdo republished a controversial set of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. After a Chechen militant beheaded a teacher in France for showing one of these caricatures in a classroom in October 2020, protests erupted in many Muslim countries demanding action against the French government. The protests led by the TLP were one of the biggest in the Islamic world. Protesters cut off the motorway connecting Islamabad and Lahore, and six police personnel lost their lives in clashes with them. The protesters demanded that Pakistan boycott French goods and that the French Ambassador be expelled from the country.

Imran Khan had strongly condemned the republication of the offensive cartoons. At the same time, he warned that an open diplomatic rupture with France would be detrimental to national interests as around half of Pakistan’s exports were to the European Union. The protests ended when the government promised, among other things, to discuss the possible expulsion of the Ambassador in the National Assembly.

In April 2021, the TLP cadre, prone to violence, went on the rampage in Lahore because the issue had still not been debated in the Assembly. They succeeded in cutting off the Grand Trunk Road, the country’s busiest highway that connects many important cities. Punjab province was almost completely paralysed with supply lines choked and businesses shut down. Four police officers were killed this time and more than 114 officers wounded. Many of the protesters were armed. The government was forced to call in paramilitary forces to quell the protests.

Also read: New religious body in Pakistan draws ire from rights activists

The government proscribed the TLP, describing it as a “terrorist” organisation, and arrested Saad Hussain Rizvi, its leader, and other TLP leaders under the country’s tough anti-terrorism laws. The protests were only called off after the PTI government gave an assurance that the issue of expelling the French Ambassador would be put to the vote in the National Assembly and that the imprisoned TLP leaders would be granted an amnesty. The government signed an agreement with the TLP, but the details were kept secret from the opposition.

The government, however, consulted the opposition on the feasibility of putting the issue of the expulsion of the French Ambassador to vote in the parliament, which, in fact, began debating it before better political and diplomatic sense prevailed. The government did not put the issue to the vote, and the TLP leaders continued to be incarcerated. The consensus within the political parties and the powerful military establishment was that the issue should be put on the back burner. Even more galling for the TLP leadership was the fact that their top leader was in jail and the ban on the party remained. In the last week of October, the TLP took to the streets again, announcing a “long march” to the capital via Lahore and Rawalpindi in another attempt to make the government bow to its demands, which included the release of its imprisoned leaders, the lifting of the ban on the party and the expulsion of the French Ambassador to the country.

Prowess in organising protests

The TLP has shown its prowess in organising protests. This was the sixth time the party had ordered its followers to march on the capital.

Again, the PTI government, which had vowed to take a tough line against the TLP, capitulated meekly, unable to control the violent protesters who were hell-bent on marching on the country’s capital. Mufti Muneebur Rehman, an influential conservative cleric, brokered the latest deal between the government and the extremist Islamic grouping. While addressing a press conference flanked by some senior Ministers, including Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, the cleric said that the new agreement “was not a victory or defeat for any side”.

Talking to the media after the agreement was reached, Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed said that Saad Rizvi was still insistent on the closure of the French Embassy and that the issue should be put forward in the country’s parliament. Sheikh Rasheed said that the government had agreed to all the TLP demands except those pertaining to the closure of the French Embassy and the departure of the Ambassador. Just a few days before the agreement was signed, some senior government functionaries were alleging that the TLP was being secretly supported by India’s intelligence agencies.

Also read: Pakistan hit hard by rampant inflation

The government on its part agreed once again to release the jailed leadership of the TLP and lifted the ban on the party from participating in the coming elections. In the first week of November, an anti-terrorism court in Lahore granted bail to several prominent leaders of the party. The government said that all the details of the agreement would be revealed only at “an appropriate time”. The opposition parties have unitedly demanded details of the agreement from the government and expressed surprise at the fact that the services of an individual were used to broker a deal between the state and a banned organisation.

Around the same time, the Imran Khan government initiated “direct face-to-face talks” with the banned TTP in a bid to end the militancy of more than a decade and a half. After the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, the TTP has continued to stage attacks inside Pakistan. The Taliban leadership in Kabul has been trying to persuade the TTP to enter into talks with Islamabad since it came to power in August. Before the talks began, the Pakistan Army had launched an offensive in North Waziristan, the stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban, forcing their fighters to flee into Afghanistan.

Ceasefire with Pakistani Taliban

On November 8, the Pakistan government announced that it had agreed to a one-month ceasefire with the TTP. Fawad Chaudry, the Pakistan government spokesman, admitted that the Afghan Taliban had facilitated the agreement. He said that both sides had agreed on a “complete ceasefire”. Before the agreement was signed, government sources told the media that they were only contemplating the release of a few foot soldiers of the TTP, not the senior or mid-level commanders. Imran Khan had expressed the hope that they would surrender their arms in exchange for a general amnesty. The TTP had initially rejected the amnesty offer saying that their fight was for the introduction of Sharia rule in the country.

Many Pakistanis are unhappy with the government’s decision to negotiate with the TTP. The group has been responsible for horrific crimes, including attacks on schools and hospitals. Military bases have not been spared. Relatives of those killed in Taliban attacks have protested against the government’s move to grant amnesty to Taliban fighters. Opposition parties too have criticised the move, saying that they had not been consulted or informed about the secret negotiations.

Also read: Why Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban might be drifting apart

The Pakistan government has sought to justify its move by saying that if the United States could negotiate with the Afghan Taliban after two decades of war, Pakistan could also do so. Critics of the government’s move point out that the U.S. was an occupying power in Afghanistan and the Taliban was fighting to liberate the country. The Pakistani Taliban, on the other hand, they point out, has been fighting against the legitimate government of Pakistan and its terror campaigns, which have claimed the lives of thousands of innocent people, are acts of sedition.

The Pakistan People’s Party said the government’s move was akin to “sprinkling salt on the wounds of martyrs’ families” and questioned why the government did not take the National Assembly into its confidence “on such sensitive issues”.

Interestingly, the Pakistan government while willing to offer an olive branch to “terrorist” groupings, such as the TTP, responsible for widespread atrocities, treated with an iron fist a peaceful protest movement such as the Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement (PTM). The government has spurned the PTM’s repeated requests for talks. Senior Ministers have said that for talks to begin members of the PTM should follow a “Pakistan agenda” and not cast aspersions on the Pakistan Army.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Dec 03, 2021.)



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