PESHAWAR – Pakistan’s political establishment is flirting with Islamist extremist groups – signing deals and making concessions – as it tries to tap into their strong electoral support.
The rapprochement extends to the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a banned terror organization active along the Afghan-Pakistan border that has upped the intensity of its attacks since the Taliban seized power in Kabul.
Media reports say officials in Islamabad are seeking some sort of ceasefire with the group, which in recent weeks has inflicted significant damage on the Pakistan army and its facilities.
The extremist TTP aims to overthrow Pakistan’s government and establish an Islamic Emirate, similar to the one recently created in Afghanistan.
To be sure, Pakistan has a history of accommodating terror groups. This continues despite being on the international Financial Action Task Force “grey list” of countries that are uncooperative in efforts against money laundering and terrorism financing.
Media reports claim that Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government has reached a tentative understanding with the TTP through face-to-face dialogue in the Khost province of Afghanistan.
A month-long ceasefire has been agreed upon in which the government is obliged to release about two dozen TTP foot soldiers. Separate media reports said Pakistan was testing the waters while being cautious.
However, analysts differ on the motivation for the talks.
Jan Achakzai, a former adviser to Pakistan’s Balochistan government, told Asia Times that government engagement with the TTP is just a strategy to divide the group and check on its eagerness to reconcile. He did not think the state was negotiating with the TTP in a genuine sense.
He said the TTP is a tactical but not strategic threat insofar as military fatalities were concerned. The outcome of talks would not change the strategic calculus of the state in terms of developments in Afghanistan, relations with China and strategy towards India, Achakzai said.
Neither would the talks affect the Pakistan military’s growing involvement in the country’s political, economic and religious spheres.
“Yes, the TTP has nuisance value but it is not a threat to Pakistan’s hinterland. Whether they reconciled, wholly or partially, or stay out, it is not going to be a game-changer,” he said.
Another example of the Pakistan government’s willingness to accommodate extremists came after the militant Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) mobilized workers in Punjab to stage a sit-in in Islamabad in October.
TLP has a history of exploiting deeply emotional issues such as blasphemy and the finality of Prophethood. The latter is an especially touchy subject in Pakistan, where law proposes capital punishment for anyone who says there can be a prophet after the prophet Mohammad.
This law is mostly misused to punish opponents. Most people in Pakistan vote for candidates backed by religious groups supporting the finality issue.
At the sit-in, TLP agitated against the arrest of its leader Saad Hussain Rizvi. Militants also protested against what they said was government backtracking on the expulsion of the French ambassador in a row over President Emmanuel Macron’s defense of free speech over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad.
The weeks-long unrest saw several police officers killed, private properties worth billions of rupees damaged, and roads blocked. Mobs wreaked havoc on the streets of the densely populated province.
An agreement was reached recently with the TLP but its contents have not been made public. However, hurried steps taken by the Punjab administration showed that they had signed from a position of weakness by capitulating to all of the far-right Islamist outfit’s demands.
Authorities agreed to free more than 2,000 jailed activists, including the group’s chief, on top of lifting a ban on the group that will allow it to contest forthcoming elections. They also guaranteed to unfreeze the group’s assets and bank accounts under a deal believed to have been finalized by the military’s leadership.
The agreement with the TLP is the third since 2015. The TLP came to prominence under the former firebrand preacher Khadam Hussain Rizvi during a protest campaign for the release of a police guard who assassinated the Punjab governor in 2011 for demanding the reformation of the blasphemy law.
The TLP is part of the ultra-conservative Barelvi group, a Sunni Muslim revivalist movement with more than 200 million followers in South Asia and parts of Europe. The TLP has in six years established unrivaled street power and a huge electoral base by exploiting issues such as blasphemy and the finality of prophethood.
During the 2018 elections, the TLP secured 2.2 million votes and became the fifth largest party in Pakistan. TLP does not have an armed militant wing but it has taken the Barelvi discourse to the mainstream of Pakistani politics.
In 2017, TLP staged a sit-in at Islamabad on amendments in the election oath. This oath is a declaration by candidates that they believe in the finality of Prophet Mohammad in terms of the Election Act, 2017.
The violent mob, which had laid siege to the federal capital for several weeks, dispersed after a military-forced agreement was signed, meeting all the demands of the Barelvi clerics.
The agreement culminated in the resignation of law minister Zahid Hamid. It reintroduced the electoral declaration and released all TLP activists along with an assurance that no case would be registered against the TLP leaders and workers after the end of the sit-in.
Former interior minister Ahsan Iqbal, Rizvi and Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed signed the accord. Rizvi died in November 2020; his son Saad Hussain Rizvi succeeded him.
In November last year, the group came out to the street again to demand the expulsion of the French ambassador in retaliation for the caricatures of Prophet Mohammad published by a French satirical magazine.
The demonstrations were intensified when France stood to defend their right to freedom of thought. Macron added fuel to the fire when he defended French secularism in the wake of the killing of a teacher accused of showing the cartoons during a class discussion.
The religious group called off its protest following an agreement with the government through Minister for Religious Affairs Pir Noorul Haq Qadri, former interior minister Ijaz Shah and a representative of the district administration.
The government agreed to take the matter of expulsion of the French ambassador to the parliament within three months and during this period would not appoint its ambassador to France.
The government arrested Saad Hussain Rizvi in early April, hours after Rizvi criticized the government for backtracking on the agreement. His demand for the expulsion of the French ambassador had brought thousands of his supporters to the streets across the country.
The arrest sparked a violent protest and the angry TLP went on a rampage, killing police officers, torching and disrupting traffic. As the protest turned violent, the authorities banned the TLP and designated it a terrorist group.
Former adviser Achakzai said that the TLP was a religio-political force and participated in the election process.
“No government wants to make such a group militant. It will be very dangerous if the state through hard policies or use of force makes them kinetic,” he said.
“The government pursued an imprudent policy. It had an agreement with them that should have not been made in the first place.
“Secondly, they made another agreement to enforce the first one, implying the expulsion of the French ambassador. It was a case of mishandling. The state has violated its own words,” he said.
On the lifting of the ban on the TLP, which might eat into votes of the main political parties, he said there would always be competing political forces to the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party and Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz support.