Ignoring US pressure, Pakistan mainstreams jihadi groups

Military supporters in Pakistan are criticizing the foreign minister's comments against jihadi groups. At the same time, Islamist outfits are aiming for a greater political role in the country. Sattar Khan reports.

Pakistan's Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif has caused a political storm in his country by suggesting that Islamist groups like the Jamaat-ud-Dawa and the Haqqani Network have become a liability for authorities.

Asif's statements prompted opposition politician Imran Khan to call the foreign minister an "enemy" of the country.

The foreign minister's remarks are indeed a breakaway from the Islamic country's allegedly pro-jihadi line. Asif, who is critical of the army's interference in politics, also told US media that Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was ousted for seeking better ties with Pakistan's regional rival, India.

Asif's comments come at a time when US President Donald Trump is building pressure on Pakistan to take decisive action against militant groups that are based along the Afghan border. Washington believes that jihadi organizations sheltered by Pakistani authorities launch attacks from Pakistani tribal areas into Afghanistan. Islamabad denies these claims and says it is "sacrificing" enough in the battle against terrorists.

General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday the US would not be able to "attain our objectives" in Afghanistan without Pakistan changing its "behavior."

Read more: 'Trump administration has zero patience for Pakistan's terror policy'

The rise of a new party

Some analysts say that not only is the Pakistani military establishment not taking action against militant groups, it is actually trying to bring jihadi groups into mainstream politics in order to weaken liberal political forces.

Pakistan's secular sections point to the recent creation of the Milli Muslim League (MML) party, which contested a by-election in the eastern city of Lahore earlier this month.

Read more: Pakistan by-election: A 'referendum' against army's role in politics

The MML is believed to be a political front of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), an organization linked to the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) group accused of carrying out the 2008 Mumbai attacks. JuD's head, Hafiz Saeed, has a US bounty on his head.

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Pakistani liberal groups are alarmed by the fact that authorities, including the country's election commission, allowed the MML to participate in a by-election. The MML came third in the election after the ruling Muslim League-Nawaz group and Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI).

Tabish Qayyum, a spokesman for the MML, rejects claims that the military establishment is backing the newly formed party.

"The MML is an independent political party formed in accordance with the constitution of Pakistan and the 2002 Political Parties Act. It has no link or affiliation with any religious or political group," Qayyum told DW, adding that Saeed was not associated with the MML.

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Pakistan's 'credibility at stake'

Ahsan Raza, a Lahore-based political analyst, is not ready to accept Qayyum's claims.

"The MML openly sought votes for Mohammad Yaqoob Shaikh, the party's candidate for Lahore's by-election, in the name of Hafiz Saeed. Shaikh could be seen on posters with the JuD leader," Raza told DW.

"The MML activists and supporters raised jihadi slogans during the Lahore election campaign. For them Ajmal Qasab, one of the Mumbai attackers, is a hero. The party is also using Jamia al Qadsia mosque, the JuD headquarter, as their office," Raza added.

Read more: Why Pakistan allows jihadists to work in quake-hit areas

Tauseef Ahmed, an ex-professor at an Islamabad-based university, told DW the creation of MML and its popularity pointed to the "mainstreaming of jihadi outfits" in Pakistan.

"The country's military establishment is dividing Pakistani society along religious and sectarian lines. This policy has harmed the country. The military generals do not realize that the international community is observing the situation. Hafiz Saeed was declared an international terrorist by the US and a number of other countries," Ahmed told DW.

"By mainstreaming such groups, Pakistan has put all its credibility at stake. Why should the international community accept our claims that we are fighting extremists?" Ahmed said.

Read more: India's partition and 70 years of proxy jihad

The jihadi agenda

Unfazed by criticism, the MML continues to expand its activities in the country. It plans to launch a membership drive that could attract thousands of people.

MML spokesperson Qayyum told DW his party would contest the 2018 general elections from all major constituencies in Pakistan as the good performance in the Lahore by-election proves the party could do well countrywide.

A Senate committee recently criticized the country's election commission for allowing the MML to take part in mainstream politics. But analyst Raza says as long as the powerful military favors the mainstreaming of jihadi groups, the lawmakers' criticism won't change the situation on the ground.

"Ansar ul Umma, an organization that dubs Osama bin Laden a Muslim hero, has also announced it will form a political party in Pakistan. Soon Taliban militants would be mainstreamed. This policy will have catastrophic consequences for the country and its political structure," Raza said.

Some experts say that bringing militant groups into mainstream politics is not a new phenomenon in the world. In South Asia, for instance, Nepal has seen Maoist rebels joining politics and playing an active role in governance. But the Pakistani case is different in the sense that extremist groups are continuing to raise jihadi slogans and many of them have not laid down arms – and they don't intend to.

2007 - Twin blasts rock Karachi on former PM’s return

Two bomb blasts struck former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s motorcade on October 18, 2007 in the southern port city of Karachi. Bhutto was returning to Pakistan after almost eight years. The attack left 139 people dead. Bhutto, the first democratically elected female head of an Islamic country, died in an attack two months later, on December 27 in the northern city of Rawalpindi.

2008 - Wah bombing

The Wah bombing was a double suicide attack on the Pakistan Ordinance Factories (POF) in Wah on August 21, 2008. At least 64 people died in the attack, which remains to date the deadliest on a military site in Pakistan's history. A spokesman from Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack.

2008 - Insurgents target luxury hotel in the capital

At least 60 people died and over 200 were injured when a truck filled with explosives detonated in front of the Marriot Hotel on September 20, 2008, in the Pakistani capital Islamabad. Five foreign nationals were among the casualties, while another 15 were injured.

2009 - Peshawar bombing

A car bomb was detonated in Mina Bazar (a market for women and children) in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. The bomb killed 125 people and injured more than 200 others. The Pakistani government put the blame on the Taliban, but both Taliban and Al-Qaeda denied involvement in the attack.

2009 - Market in Lahore targeted

The December 2009 Lahore attacks were a series of two bomb blasts and a shooting which occurred in a crowded market in the country’s second largest city of Lahore on December 7. At least 66 people were killed. Most of the victims were women.

2010 - Suicide bomber targets volleyball match

A suicide car bomb killed 101 people at a village volleyball game in the northwestern district of Bannu.

2010 - Lahore Massacre

The May 2010 Lahore attacks also referred to as the Lahore Massacre occurred on May 28, 2010, during Friday prayers. 82 people were killed in simultaneous attacks against two mosques of the Ahmadi minority. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attacks.

2010 – Bomber targets market in tribal area

A suicide bomber killed 105 people in a busy market in the northwestern tribal district of Mohmand. The suicide bombing occurred on July 9 in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. The target of the attack was believed to be a meeting of tribal elders. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attacks.

2011 - Police training center in Charsadda attacked

A double bombing occurred on May 13, 2011, in Shabqadar Fort in the Charsadda District of northwestern Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. Two suicide bombers killed at least 98 people outside the police training center. At least 140 people were injured. The explosions occurred while cadets were getting into buses for a ten day leave after their training course.

2013 - Peshawar church bombing

On September 22, 2013, a twin suicide attack took place at All Saints Church in Peshawar, Pakistan. It was the deadliest attack on the Christian minority in the country, killing 82 people. The TTP-linked Islamist group, Jundalah, claimed responsibility for the attack.

2014 - Peshawar school massacre

On December 16, 2014, seven gunmen affiliated with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) conducted a terrorist attack on the Army Public School in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. The militants opened fire on school staff and children, killing 154 people, including 132 school children. This was the deadliest terrorist attack ever to occur in the country.

2015 – Gunmen target bus in Karachi

Eight gunmen attacked a bus on May 13, 2015, in Safoora Goth, in Karachi, Pakistan. The shooting left at least 46 people dead. All of the victims were from the Ismaili Shia Muslim minority. Banned militant group Jundallah claimed responsibility for the shooting. Also, pamphlets supporting the Islamic State terrorist group, with whom Jundallah claims allegiance, were found at the crime scene.

2016 – Lahore park bombing

On March 27, 2016, at least 75 people were killed in a suicide bombing that hit one of the largest parks in Lahore. The attack targeted Christians who were celebrating Easter. Fourteen of the dead were identified as Christians, while the rest were Muslims. The majority of victims were women and children. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a group affiliated with the TTP, claimed responsibility for the attack.

2016 – Quetta hospital bombing

On August 8, 2016, terrorists targeted the Government Hospital of Quetta in Pakistan with a suicide bombing and shooting that resulted in the death of over 70 People. The fatalities were mainly lawyers who had assembled at the hospital where the body of fellow attorney, Bilal Anwar Kasi, president of the Balochistan Bar Association, was brought after he was shot dead by an unknown gunman.