Instead of sending troops to assist the police in dispersing the protestors blocking a main road, military chief Bajwa had ‘advised’ the government against ‘violence’ and to end the siege ‘peacefully’…..writes Dr Sakariya Kareem

Pakistan’s new army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa (L) receives the change of command baton from the outgoing Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif (R) during the change of command ceremony in Rawalpindi, Pakistan (Xinhua/ISPR) ****Authorized by ytfs****

In a video that went viral last month, the serving Director General of Pakistan’s para-military force Punjab Rangers, Maj-Gen Azhar Naveed, was seen handing out coupons of Pak Rs1000 to Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA) demonstrators who were released from detention after they staged over two weeks of siege, holding the civilian government of Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to ransom.

The general was heard assuring the militants — “kya hum bhi aap kay saath nahin hain?” (aren’t we supporting you?)

These demonstrators had abducted and tortured policemen while protesting. Their dharna had been declared illegal by the Islamabad High Court which had also specifically criticized the Army Chief, Gen Qamar Jawed Bajwa for opting to act as a mediator rather than follow the government’s orders.

Instead of sending troops to assist the police in dispersing the protestors in response to a written ‘request’, Bajwa had ‘advised’ the government against ‘violence’ and to end the siege ‘peacefully.’

The military clenched fist is gone—only the velvet glove is visible. The military that has claimed to be fighting militancy are now supporting them overtly and covertly, ostensibly to make the civilian government look ineffective and weak.

While those in service are acting in this manner, those retired are even more vocal in supporting the very same militants they claimed to fight – and are proud of it.

Keen observers of the Pakistan scene say that they are only following the all-pervasive trend that has Pakistan’s polity bleeding. While not taking power formally – Army Chief Gen. Bajwa indeed swears by democracy – it is pulling strings from behind, with the top judiciary in collusion.

This combine is playing favourites among the established parties by targeting through one judicial verdict after the other the ruling PML-N’s Nawaz Sharif and sparing his rival Imran Khan, while additionally ensuring that the Bhuttos’ PPP does not join any opposition combine.

Although an elected prime minister, Nawaz was pushed out by the Supreme Court, while his finance minister Ishaq Dar was forced to resign and has since absconded. By contrast, Imran Khan, also involved in the Panama Gate, has been spared, but his PTI weakened with the conviction and disqualification of his principal moneybag and party secretary general, Jahangir Tareen.

All this while, the Islamists parties and the militants, who are always the military’s cats-paw, are having a good time, forming political parties and seeking to make gains in the elections next summer.

The contrast is clearly visible. For three decades Pakistan’s military establishment has stoutly denied supporting violent religious groups irrespective of whether a group’s target lay in India or Afghanistan or, select political parties and religious minority groups within Pakistan. But today the military’s attitude is more ambivalent.

Both serving and retired senior army officers are now openly expressing support for some groups. These include the newly emerged religious parties opposed to the PML-N government, notably Hafiz Saeed’s Milli Muslim League (MML) and Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s TLYRA.

Religious groups have already made their debut on the national scene with the MML and TLYRA candidates winning over 10,000 votes in the NA-120 by-election caused by the resignation of Nawaz.

The Abbasi Government, more in an interim form in office till the elections, has released Saeed, the Lashkar-e-Toyaba (LeT) founder and 2008 Mumbai terror attack mastermind to irritate India and to thumb the nose at the Trump Administration that officially demanded that Saeed be re-arrested. This is not without military nudge and the effect is that Saeed is available to play the godfather of the militants and their political outfits, in time for the elections.

Saeed is the military establishment’s darling and that includes former military dictator, retired Gen Pervez Musharraf. His recent televised praise of Hafiz Saeed also reflects this changed stance.

Declaring that “I am the greatest supporter of LeT”, he asserted that “LeT and JuD are both very good organisations of Pakistan” because “I have always been in favour of action in Kashmir and I have always been in favour of pressuring the Indian army in Kashmir”.

This is a remarkable turnaround if one recalls that Musharraf’s government had declared LeT a terrorist organisation and banned it on Jan 12, 2002, under pressure from the Bush administration.

Militant groups operating against India in Jammu and Kashmir have always been looked favourably upon by the security establishment— this fact has never been in question. Successive governments, both military and overtly civilian, have done this openly and boasted about it. To that list must now be added the groups operating against Afghanistan.

There is a serious contradiction.  Officially, militancy and militants are condemned. The public and Pakistan’s foreign benefactors in the West are assured that militants are being combatted and victories are claimed and celebrated.

The Operation Raddul Fasaad (elimination of internal conflict) launched last year points to a recognition in Army Headquarters of the serious danger involved; more Pakistani soldiers have been killed by jihadists turned bad than those in four Pakistan-India wars. Indeed, the ‘sacrifices’ and ‘martyrdom’ of these soldiers are put forth as proof of Pakistan’s ‘commitment’ to fight terrorism.

On the other hand, the same militants are being encouraged to join politics. A line of reasoning attributed to former ISI DG Lt-Gen Rizwan Akhtar, has found its way into military circles. It is argued that allowing militant organisations to enter mainstream national politics would channel energies of militant groups away from violence and towards “peaceful politics.”

The unstated part is that these militants would be the military’s Trojan Horses in politics, ignoring the fact that these militants have a record of feeding the hand that bites them.

A sit-in protestor is arrested by police during an operation against the activists of a religious group in Islamabad, capital of Pakistan, on Nov. 25, 2017. Pakistani police on Saturday morning began to carry out operation against the activists of a religious group, who launched a sit-in protest that blocked the main highway to the capital Islamabad for 20 days.

To the military establishment, de-radicalisation through mainstreaming of militants could make sense. But its people, with limited vision and intellect, have not been clear about the extent to which this can be done.

Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, well-known analyst of Pakistan asks: “Does it include allowing former militants into the police and armed forces as well as government? Would organisations presently active overseas such as Falah-i-Insaniat (LeT’s charity arm currently operates in seven countries) become the USAID/DFID of Pakistan?”

He explains this change in the context of the changed geopolitical situation in Pakistan. Till only a few months ago, the United States loomed large over Pakistan. US pressure after 9/11 forced Pakistan to end its support to the Taliban and LeT, albeit only formally. “But today China — not America — is Pakistan’s principal economic benefactor as well as its supplier of military hardware,” he surmises.

“China, in spite of its problematic Muslim Uighur movement, does not mind much the extra-state actors that keep India off balance in Kashmir. It has repeatedly vetoed India’s efforts to get Maulana Masood Azhar onto a UN list of individual leaders linked to Al Qaeda. While China is a signatory to the BRICS declaration against militant groups allegedly harboured in Pakistan, for Pakistan to now give America the finger appears reasonably safe.”

Earlier, the army, during the “Operation Zarb-i-Azb” could eliminate those militants directed their guns at the army. For others, the army controls purse strings to ensure that the militant organisations and individuals can be made to act within defined limits.

Some significant exceptions are there. For example, despite the ‘Zarb’ operation that followed the slaughter at the Army Public School in Peshawar on December 16, 2014, the security establishment has yet to act against the chief perpetrator of that massacre, Ehsanullah Ehsan, who is in its custody.

Last month’s siege that succeeded in forcing the resignation of the country’s Law Minister has shown that there is a newly favoured force in national politics — the non-jihadist Barelvi movement. The TLYRA, led by the foul-mouthed cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi. The army hopes to play the Deobandis against the Barelvis.

Hoodbhoy avers: “This is good news for those committed to eternal conflict with India.”

All this is at the direct cost of mainstream political parties that, despite their numerous weaknesses and follies, are wedded to democratic electoral processes.  The military clearly wants to weaken them.

Just months ago Nawaz Sharif and his PML-N were considered unbeatable in the forthcoming elections of 2018. But the Sharif Government was trying to get the better of the military. This conflict between the Sharif government and the security establishment was exposed by the “Dawn leaks’ by the newspaper’s staffer Cyril Almeida.

It also showed that Sharif had insisted on some form of accommodation with India and dispensing with militant organisations.

Hoodbhoy says that although the Panama Papers sealed Nawaz Sharif’s fate, his party has so far survived. “Weakening the PML-N further will require peeling off its right-wing vote. TLYRA, MML, and perhaps others have leapt into electoral battle.” He adds that Tahirul Qadri, the Canadian-Pakistani cleric who had teamed up with Imran Khan in laying the siege of Parliament two years ago “may again parachute himself in from Canada next year.”

It is clear that the military establishment is pushing the militants into the electoral process to weaken the political parties.

Hoodbhoy reaches a conclusion that is grim for Pakistan, for the South Asian region and needless to say, for India-Pakistan relations.

“The 2018 elections are likely to bring martial law without martial law. Parts of the deep state see as ideal a weak coalition government with establishment-friendly Imran Khan as prime minister.”





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