Pakistan and its Militants: Who is Mainstreaming Whom?

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Gandhara RFE/RL Members of Pakistani Islamist parties protesting against U.S. aid cuts in January 2018
by James M. Dorsey  23 October 2018

Abstract

Pakistani militants of various stripes collectively won just under ten per cent of the vote in the July 2018 parliamentary elections. Some represented long-standing legal Islamist parties, others newly established groups or fronts for organisations that have been banned as terrorists by Pakistan and/or the United Nations and the United States.

The militants failed to secure a single seat in the national assembly but have maintained, if not increased, their ability to shape national debate and mainstream politics and societal attitudes. Their ability to field candidates in almost all constituencies, and, in many cases, their performance as debutants enhanced their legitimacy.

The militants’ performance has fueled debate about the Pakistani military’s effort to expand its long-standing support for militants that serve its regional and domestic goals to nudge them into mainstream politics. It also raises the question of who benefits most, mainstream politics or the militants. Political parties help mainstream militants, but militants with deep societal roots and significant following are frequently key to a mainstream candidate’s electoral success.

Perceptions that the militants may stand to gain the most are enhanced by the fact that decades of successive military and civilian governments, abetted and aided by Saudi Arabia, have deeply embedded ultra-conservative, intolerant, anti-pluralist, and supremacist strands of Sunni Islam in significant segments of Pakistani society.

Former international cricket player Imran Khan’s electoral victory may constitute a break with the country’s corrupt dynastic policies that ensured that civilian power alternated between two clans, the Bhuttos and the Sharifs. However, his alignment with ultra-conservatism’s social and religious views, as well as with militant groups, offers little hope for Pakistan becoming a more tolerant, pluralistic society, and moving away from a social environment that breeds extremism and militancy. On the contrary, policies enacted by Khan and his ministers since taking office suggest that ultra-conservatism and intolerance are the name of the game.

If anything, Khan’s political history, his 2018 election campaign, and his actions since coming to office reflect the degree to which aspects of militancy, intolerance, anti-pluralism, and supremacist ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam have, over decades, been woven into the fabric of segments of society and elements of the state.

The roots of Pakistan’s extremism problem date to the immediate wake of the 1947 partition of British India when using militants as proxies was a way to compensate for Pakistan’s economic and military weakness.

They were entrenched by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s and General Zia ul-Haq’s Islamization of Pakistani society in the 1980s. The rise of Islamist militants in the US-Saudi supported war against Soviet occupation troops in Afghanistan and opportunistic policies by politicians and rulers since then have shaped contemporary Pakistan.

 

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