By Ajit Kumar Singh*
For decades now, the Pakistan establishment, including both political parties and the military leadership in pursuit of their own agendas, have propped up and exploited Islamist extremist and terrorist formations. Increasingly, however, these radical groups are realizing their own power and capacity for mass mobilization and, instead of operating as proxies for others, seek a direct political role for themselves.
The ‘political front’ of the United Nations (UN)-designated terrorist Hafiz Muhammad Saeed-led Jammat-ud-Dawa (JuD), the Milli Muslim League (MML), will be contesting upcoming general elections scheduled to be held on July 25, 2018. The MML decided to contest on the platform of a “dormant” political entity, Allaha-u-Akbar Tehreek (AAT), registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). Ahmad Nadeem, an MML spokesperson, told PTI on June 9, 2018,
MML president Saifullah Khalid and AAT chief Ehsan Bari have agreed to field joint candidates on the platform of AAT in the upcoming elections. Under the seat adjustment agreement, the MML will field more than 200 educated candidates. They will contest the elections on the AAT’s election symbol chair.
Asked if Saeed or any “significant leader” of the JuD would contest the election, Nadeem said,
No … Hafiz sahib has no such plans at the moment. The MML is taking part for the first time in the general elections and hopefully, we will make it to the parliament. Our priority is that those joining us from other political parties or educated youths in respective constituencies be given AAT tickets. We are hopeful that the people will elect our candidates.
He added that AAT would launch its political campaign once its candidates filed their nomination papers.
Saeed, the ‘chief’ of JuD, the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) front organization, and mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, launched his political party, MML, on August 7, 2017. Saeed ‘nominated’ Saifullah Khalid, a religious scholar and longtime ‘official’ of the JuD, as the President of MML. At the formal launch of MML in Islamabad, Khalid announced,
We have decided to make a new political party, so that Pakistan is made a real Islamic and welfare state. Once he [Saeed] is released we will seek his guidance and ask what role he wants in this political party. We demand an immediate release of Hafiz Saeed.
Saeed was released from house arrest at midnight on November 24, 2017.
MML applied for registration with the ECP in the same month (August). Subsequently, the ECP had sought the opinion of the Interior Ministry which, in its reply sent in September 2017, had written,
There is evidence to substantiate that Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the JuD, and Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation are affiliates and ideologically of the same hue and the registration of the MML is not supported.
The letter reportedly mentioned that MML president Khalid had claimed ideological affiliation with Saeed’s organisation.
Finally, on October 11, 2017, the ECP rejected MML’s application for registration as a mainstream political party, with Pakistan’s Chief Election Commissioner Sardar Raza Khan observing, “The Interior Ministry’s letter mentions that the Milli Muslim League is backed by banned terrorist outfits.” However, in a petition filed in the Islamabad High Court (IHC), MML challenged the October 11, 2017, Election Commission order. In March 2018, the Court set aside the Election Commission’s order and directed the electoral body to pass a ‘speaking order’, either registering MML or giving clear cause for refusal. MML thereafter filed a contempt of court petition in the IHC against the ECP for using delaying tactics regarding its enlistment as a political party. June 11, 2018, has been fixed for the case hearing in the High Court.
Despite the ECP rejection, MML has succeeded in finding a way out to participate in the election, highlighting existing weaknesses in the electoral system in particular and the establishment as a whole. An unnamed member of JuD reportedly stated,
It [AAT] was a kind of dormant party registered by a citizen Ehsan [Bari]. There are several such parties registered with the ECP and such an arrangement is made ahead of the general elections if any mainstream party or organisation faces any issue or complication. Since the Milli Muslim League fails to get registered with the ECP it is going for this arrangement (contesting the upcoming polls on AAT platform).
MML had even participated in a by-election for the Lahore National Assembly (NA) seat held on September 17, 2017. In that election, won by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) candidate Begum Kulsoom Nawaz who secured 61,745 votes, Yaqoob Sheikh, the MML-backed candidate, bagged 5,822 votes – more than four times the votes secured by the main opposition Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) candidate Faisal Mir (1,414 votes). Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) candidate Yasmeen Rashid, at the second position, bagged 47,099 votes. The constituency fell vacant after the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was asked to vacate the seat and resign as Prime Minister subsequent to the Supreme Court’s ruling on a technicality relating to the possession of an Iqama (working visa) for Dubai while he was Prime Minister, during proceedings in the Panama Papers case. The winning candidate, Begum Kulsoom Nawaz is Nawaz Sharif’s wife.
As SAIR noted earlier, with the United States (US) exerting more pressure, there seems to be some urgency among terrorist formations and their individual leaders operating out of Pakistani soil, to gain ‘political legitimacy’. Apart from MML, declared a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” by the US on September 30, 2014, Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, founder of the terrorist Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), which operates in Indian Jammu & Kashmir, has reportedly decided to form his own political party: Islah-e-Watan Party (IWP). Khalil confirmed this decision in an August 25, 2017, report:
Yes, I have been in touch with my colleagues and followers and we have even finalized a name for the party – Islah-e-Watan Party (IWP). For this purpose, the central Shura (executive committee) would soon meet to finalise details… We would like to condemn the derogatory statement made recently by US President (Donald) Trump. The US needs to know that Pakistan is neither Syria nor Iraq. If any step is taken against Pakistan, we would turn our lands into a graveyard for aggressive forces.
Media reports quoted an unnamed source in the group as saying, “Maulana (Khalil) has taken a lead from Maulana Makki’s [Abdul Rehman Makki] decision to mainstream his (banned) outfit.” Abdul Rehman Makki is the second in command of JuD. Khalil was reacting to US President Donald Trump’s “Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia”, where he declared his intentions to forge a “Radical Redirection” in US policy towards Pakistan, declaring,
We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond. Pakistan… has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists… Pakistan has also sheltered the same organizations that try every single day to kill our people. We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately. No partnership can survive a country’s harboring of militants and terrorists who target U.S. service members and officials. It is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order, and to peace.
There is no further report about the current status of the Islah-e-Watan Party (IWP) in the media.
Significantly, established political parties are currently in crisis, with the erstwhile ruling party [the country is going to the elections under a caretaker Prime Minister, former Chief Justice Nasirul Mulk], Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), facing serious problems in the aftermath of the ouster of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif following the Supreme Court’s ruling, purportedly in the Panama Papers case. The main opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) are also not on a strong footing, each riddled with its own controversies and scandals.
Given the track record of the principal establishment parties – PML-N, PPP, PTI – there will be no surprise if they readily agree to ally with any of these ‘terrorist political parties’ to win the upcoming elections, or in a situation of weak or no majorities for any single formation. There is also a possibility that these mainstream political parties could help these terrorist political fronts to find ways and means to participate in the election.
Significantly, each of the major establishment parties had tried to woo Islamist extremists, and particularly the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), before the 2014 elections. Despite then-TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud’s declaration that “democracy is the system of infidels”, Nawaz Sharif repeatedly advocated a policy of appeasement towards the Pakistani Taliban. In May 2013, he declared, “A few weeks ago, the Taliban (TTP) offered dialogue to the Government of Pakistan and said, ‘we are prepared to talk’. I think the Government of Pakistan should have taken that seriously. [It] did not take it seriously.” The LeT-JuD combine, moreover, has continuously benefited from state largesse under PML-N regimes, particularly in the Punjab Province under the Shahbaz Sharif regime. It is in Punjab that LeT-JuD has its headquarters and largest infrastructure.
Indeed, the Sharif brothers’ (Shahbaz Sharif has been the longtime Chief Minister of the Punjab Province) closeness to JuD is also well known. In the most brazen move, Saeed, in April 2016, set up a Sharia’h (Islamic law) court in Lahore to dispense “speedy justice”, taking up citizens’ complaints and issuing summons carrying a warning of strict action in case of non-compliance. It was the first instance of such a parallel judicial system being established in the Punjab province. JuD claimed the ‘court’ only offered arbitration and resolved disputes in accordance with the Islamic judicial system, but failed to justify the summons. The impunity with which Saeed operated clearly confirms the support he receives from the ruling Pakistani establishment, in addition to the significant resources his organization has received from the state exchequer.
The then Government of Pakistan’s Punjab Province, led by Shahbaz Sharif, gave about USD one million to institutions linked with the JuD, in 2009. When asked why the Punjab Government had allotted money in the budget for institutions it managed, a spokesman for JuD, Hafiz Abdur Rehman, responded: “The truth is that we are ourselves astonished at this.”
Reacting to photographs featuring him with Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi, the leader of the ‘banned’ sectarian terrorist Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat (ASWJ), which surfaced on social media, an unrepentant the then Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan stated on January 14, 2017, that the Shia-Sunni conflict dated back 1300 years and was a part of Islamic history, and it was unfair (with regard to terrorism) to “link everything with ASWJ’s Chief”. Responding to a question in the Senate about his remarks that outlawed sectarian organisations should not be equated with terrorist outfits, Nisar raised the question whether it was “a crime” to suggest that separate laws should be formed to deal with groups proscribed on sectarian basis to remedy the “confusion being created”. In a reply to the criticism he faced from PPP for meeting with Maulana Ahmad Ludhianvi, Nisar inquired, “How is it fair to link everything to Maulana Ludhianvi? Which PPP leader did not meet leaders of proscribed organisations in their time?” PPP’s association with the banned Peoples’ Aman Committee (PAC), a Karachi based gang, is widely known. PAC, a Lyari criminal network linked to numerous targeted killings, reportedly allegedly worked as PPP’s armed wing.
Similarly, PTI often wooed the extremists, with its leader Imran Khan continuously advocated a negotiated settlement with the TTP and its affiliates. On March 1, 2018, welcoming the Afghan Government’s offer to the Taliban to hold negotiations and recognise them as a legitimate political entity, Imran stated,
I am happy that President Ghani [Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani] has not only offered amnesty to the Taliban, but has also invited them to open their office in Afghanistan. When I urged our [Pakistan] government to hold talks with the local Taliban and offered them to set up an office in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, I was called Taliban Khan.
Imran Khan had reportedly opposed the military action against TTP and called for dialogue with them in early 2014.
In an interview with the Sunday Times published on February 4, 2018, Imran again defended the Afghan Taliban as he attacked ‘liberals’ who support NATO’s war on the Taliban as “thirsty for blood”.
In February 2018, Imran’s party PTI-led Khyber Pakhtuunkhwa Government provided the Darul Uloom Haqqania seminary, notorious as the ‘University of Jihad’, PKR 227 million to render the controversial institution more ‘mainstream’. Earlier in June 2016, the seminary, situated in Akora Khattak town in Jehangira tehsil (revenue unit) of Nowshera District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had received grant of PKR 300 million from the KP Government. The seminary led by self proclaimed ‘father of the Taliban’ Sami-ul Haq counts some of the world’s most dreaded terrorists among its ‘alumni’, including the now deceased Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, the leader of the Pakistan-based Haqqani network that is allied with the Afghan Taliban. Sami-ul Haq in an interview in 2009 declared, “Give them [Taliban] just one year and they will make the whole of Afghanistan happy. The whole of Afghanistan will be with them … Once the Americans leave, all of this will happen within a year.” The Joint Investigation Team (JIT) of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) formed to probe the murder of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto had revealed the attack on Benazir had been planned in Akora Khattak by former students of the Madrassa Darul Uloom Haqqania and one of the prime suspects in the case had revealed to investigators that she had been targeted due to her stance over the Lal Masjid operation.
Earlier, on April 22, 2013, Imran Khan observed, “the Pakistan Tehrik-e-insaf will pull the Army out of the Pashtun-dominated tribal areas and restore peace through talks if it comes to power in the May 11 (2014) general election”. Earlier, in October 2012, Imran Khan had claimed that the Taliban were fighting a ‘holy war’ justified by Islam in neighbouring Afghanistan: “It is very clear that whoever is fighting for their freedom is fighting a jihad… The people who are fighting in Afghanistan against the foreign occupation are fighting a jihad.”
The PPP’s approach towards TTP and its affiliates was comparably accommodating. On February 4, 2013, the then Federal Minister for Interior Rehman Malik declared, “We are ready to start talks with you (TTP). You tell us what team you would like to talk to, and let’s set an agenda.” Further, PPP leader and former Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari had close ties with the Taliban. According to a June 14, 2010, media report, while meeting 50 captured Taliban leaders including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in a prison to assure them that their outfit had his Government’s full support and that they would be freed soon, Zardari had reportedly stated, “You are our people, we are friends, and after your release we will of course support you to do your operations.”
The infiltration of terrorist elements into mainstream politics in Pakistan now appears imminent. As they compound the power they have secured through violence and extremist street mobilization with constitutional legitimacy, the fundamentals of Pakistan’s politics can only change for the worse. Establishment parties who have long exploited these extremist groups may find that their own power is significantly compromised, or even directly challenged, by the inroads extremist formations make into the country’s electoral politics.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management