It seems Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan Niazi is in a very dubious peacemaking mode. Recently, he decided to treatise with the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), which unleashed a maelstrom of violence. Then was a truce with the extremely dangerous Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), mediated by a terrorist with a $5 million bounty on his head. All this to and fro doesn’t of course include those several dozen groups who are India-focused or are playing Pakistan’s game in Afghanistan. While terrorist activity and instability are no surprise in Pakistan, what is worrisome is a steady capitulation towards extremist groups, reflecting a steady drift to the extreme right. Unlike the Zia years – and thereafter – it seems that this drift is no longer top-down, but bottom-up. Given the current trends, it’s likely to get worse.
The TLP Protests
As anyone following Pakistan affairs would know, the TLP has been virtually holding the country hostage with violent protests that killed at least five policemen in the last week alone. This is its seventh protest. The issue? Calls for the closure of the French embassy and the expulsion of its ambassador after the publication of blasphemous sketches of the Holy Prophet in France. Samuel Paty, a teacher, was beheaded, and the Paris terror attacks that followed involved a Pakistani youth. But none of this was enough.
The history of the TLP has been recounted elsewhere, but it’s sufficient to note that its 2017 ‘sit-in’ was judged by the courts as having a clear ISI hand. Nawaz Sharif was unseated in the process, but the TLP had become self-propelling. Its violence persisted, with the government caving in and promising to put its demands before Parliament.
But Islamabad could hardly close the French embassy, which is a prominent supplier of defence equipment and aid. Further rounds of protests followed.
Imran Khan fumed and threatened, the TLP’s young leader, Saad Rizvi, was arrested, and the group proscribed. Within a few days, however, the government produced a resolution in Parliament, which descended into chaos as anti-France slogans and posters were displayed. The issue was shelved, with Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed observing that five police officers were killed and that the 11 police officers and two special rangers held hostage had been released bruised and bloodied.
How the Mighty Negotiate
Fast forward to the present. After bloody protests starting late October that killed more policemen, the government seemed to gird itself. The Pakistani Rangers were deployed in the affected provinces, and the National Security Committee designated the group as a terrorist organisation, decided to use all means to stop them, and blamed India, social media and unnamed journalists (in that order).
On 29 October, National Security Advisor Moeed Yusuf was warning against the group crossing “a red line”. Two days later, the government announced a deal, the details of which remain secret. The group was to be removed from the Proscribed List, cadres were released, all done in ‘national interest’. Notably, negotiators declared that the Army Chief could be given a “thousand per cent” credit for the deal.
One notification probably explains this astonishing turn of events. On 26 October, the Prime Minister’s office announced the appointment of a new Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (DG ISI), Nadeem Anjum. But Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, the incumbent, would continue to hold office till 19 November. That smacks of a deal, since the saga of the appointment of a new ISI Chief has been going on since August, with Imran Khan desperately wanting the retention of Hameed but the Army insisting otherwise, all of which had the whole country agog with speculation. So no, this is not over. Not by a long chalk.
Take a look at the negotiating team that included not only Foreign Minister Qureshi (presumably due to his religious status as a Sajjada Nashin and his own ambitions), but also Mufti Muneeb, a power broker, forcibly ousted from the Ruet-i-Hilal Committee for his extreme views, Maulana Bashir Farooqi of the Saylani Trust that is said to spend some PKR 10 million a month on projects including education (The Trust’s Facebook page is locked), and a businessman Aqeel Karim Dhedhi, a long-time friend of Imran Khan. Two parliamentarians were also part of the group.
So, religious clerics, the Army, and Khan’s pals got together to sort things out. That’s a pretty mixed bunch.
Terrorists Next Door
Even as all this drama was ongoing, Khan admitted that his government was in “talks” with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a group that created chaos in the country for years till the Pakistan army launched a series of military operations against them, which included bombing whole villages in tribal areas. Their cadres retreated to Afghanistan, but have again started violent operations following the Taliban “victory”.
It’s surprising enough that the government thinks that it is natural to negotiate with a terror group – the shocker is that the mediator is not the Taliban, but Sirajuddin Haqqani.
True, he is the ‘acting’ Interior Minister, but this is a bilateral “deal” where a US-designated terrorist is being used to negotiate with another terrorist group with a country that harbours more terrorists than there are anywhere else in the world. It shocked even Pakistan’s which summoned the Prime Minister demanding to know why he was negotiating with a group which among other acts, had killed 132 children in the Peshawar Army school attack in 2014.
So, consider. The TLP is now a major political force, and after being the third-largest political party in Punjab, it will probably make strides across other provinces. The fact that it got where it is due to the ISI using it to get rid of an elected government, and then in an Army power struggle, is only a part of the story.
The journey of the TLP from a marginal group led by an unknown cleric to one whose message now resounds across Pakistan is indicative that blasphemy and other extreme issues will now be central to the political noise in the upcoming elections. But while religion was the chariot, the wheels were greased by those in power who find it entirely acceptable to treatise and dialogue with terrorist groups of every hue. Prepare for the truly terrorist TTP to come to elections next. One of them has already been fielded in the elections in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir on a reserved seat. More will come. Welcome to the new normal, where terrorists, sponsors, and legislators are difficult to distinguish from the other.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)