Proponents of jihadi ideology are creeping into Pakistani politics at an unprecedented level, regional experts warn, throwing the south Asian nation's security and its tense relationship with the U.S. deeper into question.
Carnage flooded Pakistan’s front pages two weeks ago after an Islamic State-claimed bomb attack killed 151 people at an election rally in the country’s Balochistan province.
As Pakistanis wonder what toll the threat of terrorism will take on their election on July 25, many activists decry another disturbing trend: the sharp rise in religious extremists running for office.
One of the deadliest in Pakistan’s history, the Balochistan attack was a shock amid a security environment that had nonetheless been improving in recent years, thanks to major military operations on the Afghan border. The restive northwestern region has been the target of mounting extremism, but radical Islamism is rife across much of the country of 208 million, with practically no government control in many tribal areas and extremist groups that enjoy support from parts of the military and security forces.
Just on Sunday, a candidate from the celebrity ex-cricket player Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI), the main opposition to the incumbent Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) party, was murdered in a suicide attack claimed by the Pakistani Taliban. The same day saw an assassination attempt on another candidate, his second brush with death in ten days.
Religious parties overall are fielding more than 1,500 candidates for national and provincial government seats this year. Activists and international observers point out that several are affiliated with banned terrorist groups and violent attacks, using front parties to run for assembly. Meanwhile other parties and individuals with a record of religious extremism have been quietly removed from the country’s terrorist watch list, known as the “fourth schedule,” and thus allowed to run.
'Stealthy reappearance' of banned groups
This is cause for serious concern, says the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which issued a statement last week calling attention to “the stealthy reappearance of banned outfits under other names and the fact that the state has conferred political legitimacy on them by allowing them to contest the elections." It alleged the groups’ campaigns “consistently misused religion to peddle a dangerous, divisive rhetoric.”
One example is the Milli Muslim League, a group banned in Pakistan for its affiliation with U.S. and UN-designated terror suspect Hafiz Saeed, who is connected with the 2008 Mumbai attacks . Saeed denies involvement in the attacks, which killed 166 people. He has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head.
Now, Saeed’s image is plastered on posters for the party Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek, which is believed to be a front party for the radical group and is fielding 206 candidates for national and provincial assemblies.
“This goes way beyond anything I can recall in Pakistan,” said Alyssa Ayres, a senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“This is certainly an ongoing major threat to Pakistan's stability and to regional stability as well. Why members of designated terrorist groups are being allowed to stand for election without any sort of prior commitment to de-radicalization is beyond me, and cannot possibly lead to a good outcome.”
Another highly controversial group whose leader and candidates are now running is Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), the banned political wing of the deadly Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a terrorist group responsible for killing hundreds of minority Shiites and for allying with al-Qaeda and ISIS. The group denies ties to LeJ. Its more than 150 candidates are running as independents or under a new party name, and its leader, Maulana Mohammad Ahmad Ludhianvi, was quietly taken off Pakistan’s internal terrorism watch list just in June.
Activists fear that the “mainstreaming” of extremists into Pakistani politics will harm its democracy, and lament that members of the two leading parties are now courting some of these fringe players to gain an edge over one another.
“These groups have a history of their involvement in terror activities and spreading religious intolerance against minority sects and faiths,” said Abubakkar Yousafzai, a member of the Karachi branch of Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission, speaking to CNBC. “Their participation in the election puts a question mark on the state’s anti-terrorism efforts and law enforcement agencies.”
The party leaders, meanwhile, reject accusations of extremism, while some ASWJ candidates have told press they support the democratic process.
While Yousafzai doesn’t think the groups’ candidates will win, he sees their efforts as taking advantage of a legitimate platform to strengthen their support bases.
“I think all these groups are not good for the health of constructive democratic structure,” he said.
The election comes shortly after Pakistan was downgraded on the Financial Action Task Force, a global body monitoring terrorist financing, to “gray list” status for not sufficiently fighting terrorist operations in Pakistan. The government subsequently agreed to improve its anti-terrorism efforts to avoid being blacklisted by the organization.
Yousafzai and other activists say the military, often referred to in country as the “establishment,” is behind this so-called mainstreaming. It denies influence, and Pakistan’s electoral commission says it has only followed court orders, asking that “the international community respect the sovereignty and laws” of Pakistan.
But the international community, and Pakistan’s previous government led by Nawaz Sharif of the PML-N, who is currently in jail on corruption charges, accuses the military of supporting this trend as part of its broader defense objectives. The country has long been seen as a safe haven for a range of jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, Lakshar e-Taiba, Jaish e-Mohammed and to a lesser extent ISIS, and the groups use their bases to plot attacks both inside and outside Pakistan.
US and India: Rocky relationships
Pakistan’s foreign policy is guided by one overarching fixation: its enmity with India. As part of its strategy to counter its neighboring rival and fellow nuclear state, Pakistan’s military and intelligence services have a long-documented history of supporting groups like the Afghan Taliban and the Jaish-e-Mohammed, among others, the latter of which is active against Indian forces in the disputed territory of Kashmir.
In-depth research from the Brookings Institution in 2008 said that Pakistan was “with the possible exception of Iran, perhaps the world’s most active sponsor of terrorist groups,” and its authors still hold their assessment to be true.
The White House in January suspended $2 billion in security assistance to Islamabad following President Donald Trump’s accusation that it hasn’t done enough to counter terrorism within its borders, highlighting the fraught and often rocky relationship with its strategic ally in the War on Terror.
The closely-fought election, which is expected to see a PLM-N victory, would not be in the military’s favor as the party is known for criticizing the military’s hold on politics. Still, drastic change on terrorism strategy or U.S. relations is not anticipated, Ayres said, particularly as Pakistan increasingly turns to China for economic and trade support.
“Unless some surprise election result in Pakistan leads to an immediate crackdown on the numerous groups that threaten the region, the election results will not create a major change to U.S.-Pakistan ties.”