Mainstreaming militants? Not without a political strategy

October 8, 2017: Mainstreaming militants? Not without a political strategy

The powers-that-be are all set to undertake a new experiment — mainstreaming of militants into national politics. This is yet another rushed plan that is being pushed without an open debate and a comprehensive strategy that ordinarily would require input from the Parliament and the civil society. If history is any guide, a decade later, the state might reluctantly acknowledge that it made yet another mistake.

The so-called ‘policy’ was first confirmed by a retired military general and some leaders of the ruling party and picked up by local and international press. Later, the usual denials were issued but succeeding events proved that the efforts were afoot to implement this mainstreaming experiment. Milli Muslim League (MML), a new ‘political party’ backed by Hafiz Saeed fielded an unofficial candidate in the NA 120 by-election in Lahore. Another extremist outfit -—Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan — fielded its candidate in the election who secured more than 6 percent of votes. The key election plank of this group was to glorify killer Mumtaz Qadri and called him a ‘martyr’.

Another jihadist leader Fazlur Rehman Khalil has indicated that he is also working on creating his own political party. Both Hafiz Saeed and Khalil are designated as international terrorists by the United States. Under Indian pressure, the US has already put a $10 million bounty on Saeed’s head.

Without developing an effective disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) strategy, the current move will only radicalize the society further

Pakistan Army’s spokesman recently confirmed that there was a plan to develop a ‘constructive’ role for these groups. It’s official now.

The implementation of this mainstreaming plan was accelerated within a fortnight of Nawaz Sharif’s ouster on July 28. Media reports and statements of Sharif’s aides suggest that this plan was presented to the former Prime Minister who rejected it. Sharif’s successor may have agreed to it but civilian assent is a mere formality given how the security policy is crafted and implemented in Pakistan.

Three factors are at work here. First, there is growing international pressure for the Pakistani state to distance itself and curb the private jihad enterprises that have mushroomed in the last three decades. The Americans and Indians are now joined by China that gave a clear signal through the BRICS declaration a few weeks ago. Second, the security establishment has been grappling with this issue since Operation Zarb e Azab started. They have effectively fought the Pakistani Taliban but evidently are in a fix about the future of the erstwhile proxies. Third and perhaps more immediate in the current context is how to cut Nawaz Sharif’s vote-base — -that traditionally included the conservative groups — to size. Nawaz’s gradual shift to the centre has annoyed the Barelvi-Islamist voter.

This is not a new plan. In the 1980s, the establishment used similar schemes to undercut the popular support of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Sectarian and ethnic groups were facilitated and even armed. The country paid a price. Today when credit is taken to clean-up Karachi, no mention is made as to how armed groups in the country’s largest metropolis emerged and why. The electoral manifestation of 80’s formula emerged with the formation of Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) when all the shades of rightwing groups were merged to defeat the PPP. Ironically, Nawaz Sharif was a participant in that political engineering. Three decades later, the tables have turned. Now as Imran Khan’s confidantes Sheikh Rasheed and actor Hamza Ali Abbasi’s statements suggest: the old formula wine might be served in new bottles.

The difference between IJI and the (emerging) coalition of 2017-2018 is that the latter includes groups that are armed. Without developing an effective disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) strategy, the current move will only radicalise the society further. As we witnessed during recent Lahore by-election and its aftermath, militants-based parties mobilised in the name of ‘blasphemy.’ Even more ludicrous are the calls to punish Nawaz Sharif for hanging Mumtaz Qadri thereby confirming that, when all is said and done, the state apparatus uses this law for its own benefit. Such pandering has had pernicious consequences. For instance, the regular mob lynching in the country over allegations of blasphemy.

Similarly, within the religious discourse the idea that jihad can only be declared and waged by the state, has gained currency in the wake of counter-narratives to terrorists’ propaganda. The jihadists, if they are not demobilised, will take this discourse into the mainstream. Such narratives will also intensify political competition between political actors as to who is more loyal to Islamic causes. Nothing sells like religion in our part of the world. The case of India’s religious nationalism testifies that it is not religion-specific phenomena but a function of post-colonial societies adjusting to issues of identity, neo-liberalism and modernity.

If mainstreaming is the way forward then de-mobilisation and de-weaponsation are its crucial pre-requisites. These steps must precede the reintegration of militants in the political system. Security apparatus of the state has to publicly and verifiably distance from all political activities of the militant groups. The militant groups, under the supervision of a national commission should demobilise  their cadres, and deweaponise them.

Experiences from DDR in Africa and parts of Latin America have underscored that reintegrationonly works when it is framed through an organic political process. This is where the role of Pakistan’s Parliament becomes even more important. Pakistan is not a post-conflict state in tatters. It has functioning political institutions, howsoever stymied they might be. The key issue here is that the military cannot do this alone. It would require the support and input from political parties, civil society, academia (not just those who work in its ambit) and find ways that the process mainstreaming takes place within the constitutional framework.

Sadly, so far there are no signs that such an inclusive national debate is occurring. Instead, the current mainstreaming appears to be another attempt to continue the strategic goals vis-a-vis India and cut Nawaz Sharif, the errant boy, down to size. This is why the media must monitor it and urge more transparency as the process unfolds in the months to come.

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