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Militant Groups in Pakistan Emerge as Political Parties : Can Violent Extremism and Politics Co-exist?

As Pakistan is holding national and provincial elections in 2018, analysts fear that militant groups will attempt to use the new platform to influence legislation

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In this photo taken Monday, Jan. 30, 2017 Hafiz Saeed, leader of Pakistani religious group Jamaat-ud-Dawa addresses his supporters outside the party's headquarters in Lahore, Pakistan. Police say workers of a Pakistani charity are holding countrywide protest rallies after authorities detained its militant leader Hafiz Saeed who has a $10 million US bounty. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)(VOA)

Pakistan, October 1, 2017 : As international pressure is mounting on Islamabad to do more against militant groups operating from its soil, some militant groups are rebranding themselves as political parties.

“The Pakistan military is allowing militant, virulently anti-Indian groups to enter the political process to enable a vocal political voice against any Pakistani civilian warming relations with India,” Thomas Lynch, a research fellow at the National Defense University in Washington, told VOA.

“The aboveground voices of [Hafiz Mohammad] Saeed and [Kashmiri militant leader Fazlur Rehman] Khalil as political figures will meld with their enduring role as leaders of virulently anti-India armed groups in a way that will further constrain Pakistani political leaders from easily undertaking any moves toward rapprochement with India,” Lynch added.

New party

Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the leader of Jamaat-ud-Dawa group (JUD), which has been designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. and is widely considered a front group for Lashkar-e-Taiba terror group, launched a new political party last month.

Saeed was accused of masterminding Mumbai’s 2008 terror attacks that killed 166 people, including six Americans.

The U.S. government has offered a $10 million reward for information leading to his arrest.

JUD’s newly established Milli Muslim League party came in third in a by-election in Punjab last week, securing more votes than Pakistan’s People’s Party contender did.

Lynch said he thought that without the military’s blessings, the militants-turned-political parties cannot thrive.

“Nothing of consequence inside Pakistan security, politics or economics happens without the Pakistan military’s concurrence, either by direct support or indirect acquiescence,” Lynch said.

“This mainstreaming of longtime militant-terrorist groups led by Saeed and Khalil is of consequence [and] therefore must be supported by the Pakistan military,” he added.

Last week’s by-election was also contested by the Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah, a party of the followers of Mumtaz Qadri, who was sentenced to death after being convicted of murdering Punjab’s Governor Salman Taseer, the same person he was paid to guard.

Qadri killed the governor in 2011 because he advocated for reforms in the country’s controversial blasphemy laws.

The two parties of militants-turned-politicians reportedly secured 11 percent of the total votes in last week’s election.

Increasing pressure

The politicization of militancy coincides with increasing international pressure on Pakistan to take action against militant safe havens in the county.

militant groups
Pakistani protesters burn posters of U. S. President Donald Trump in Peshawar, Pakistan, Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017. Protesters have rejected Trump’s allegation that Islamabad is harboring militants who battle U.S. forces in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Muhammad Sajjad)(VOA)

Announcing his South Asia strategy, U.S. President Donald Trump last month put Pakistan on notice to stop harboring militant groups that use Pakistani soil to plan and launch attacks against Afghan and U.S.-NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Leaders of BRICS, an economic bloc composed of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, also expressed concerns this month about Pakistan-based militant groups and cited them as a problem for regional security.

Pakistan has long denied that militants enjoy safe havens in the country and has proclaimed itself as a victim of terrorism.

The country’s Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif, however, this week admitted that Hafiz Saeed and Lashkar-e-Taiba were liabilities for his country.

“Saeed, LeT, they are a liability, I accept it, but give us time to get rid of them,” Asif said at an Asia Society event in New York on Tuesday.

Optimism

Some analysts, however, see the new trend of pushing militants to mainstream politics as a good development.

“Unless these parties and individuals are allowed to be a part of the political system, they might never change their way and will go underground, which will be much more dangerous,” said Zubair Iqbal, an analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

The question is: Can violent extremism and politics co-exist? Pakistani-based political analyst Khadim Hussain has his doubts.

“The ‘mainstreamed’ extremist organizations have not publicly revoked their ideology. They have not yet dismantled their militaristic, welfare and ideological infrastructure. This seems to be legitimizing extremist violence in Pakistan,” Hussain said.

Hussain added that ” ‘mainstreaming ‘ and ‘integration’ seem to be a tactic to divert the U.S., BRICS and other regional and international stakeholders’ attention from the core issues of policymaking in Pakistan.”

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Lynch of NDU echoed Hussain’s analysis and said it was unlikely that the move would help curb extremism.

“I do not see this move helping to curb extremism in Pakistan over the short term,” Lynch said.

As Pakistan is holding national and provincial elections in 2018, analysts fear that militant groups will attempt to use the new platform to influence legislation.

“These groups will inject xenophobia and extremist views in the body politic if given free hand in politics,” Pakistani activist Marvi Sirmed wrote in an op-ed in Lahore’s Daily Times, urging the state to halt any kind of support to these groups. (VOA)

 

Next Story

Facebook Deletes Accounts and Pages Linked to Indian Political Parties and Pakistan’s Military

These Pages and accounts were engaging in behaviors that expressly violate our policies

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FILE - An Indian man surfs a Facebook page at an Internet cafe in New Delhi, India, Feb. 9, 2016. VOA

Facebook has removed hundreds of accounts and pages linked to Indian political parties or the Pakistani military for what the company described as “coordinated inauthentic behavior or spam.” The Facebook or Instagram accounts, pages or groups were detected through internal investigations into account activity in the region before upcoming elections in India.

“These Pages and accounts were engaging in behaviors that expressly violate our policies. This included using fake accounts or multiple accounts with the same names; impersonating someone else; posting links to malware; and posting massive amounts of content across a network of Groups and Pages in order to drive traffic to websites they are affiliated with in order to make money,” Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, said in a statement.

The social media giant has become much more conscious of user activity after a scandal in which data mining firm Cambridge Analytica used information from tens of millions of Facebook users to manipulate political campaigns in multiple countries, including the United States.

Indian political parties are relying heavily on social media to push forward their agenda in a tough general election that begins April 11, and the issue of fake news remains a major concern.

facebook, remove pages
Indian workers cut textile materials dedicated to the Indian National Congress ahead of India’s general election, in Ahmedabad, April 1, 2019. VOA

​Facebook says 687 pages and accounts that were detected and suspended by its automated system were linked to India’s main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, or INC. The Facebook statement also said the company removed 15 pages, groups and accounts tied to officials associated with Indian IT firm Silver Touch. The information technology firm is linked to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. One Silver Touch Facebook page was followed by 2.6 million accounts, compared to 206,000 followers of the INC-linked pages.

The INC tweeted that no official pages run by the party had been taken down. “Additionally, all pages run by our verified volunteers are also unaffected,” it said.

A party official who did not want to be named told VOA that Facebook has not shared further information with the party about the pages in question or provided a list of them.

Pratik Sinha, who runs fact-checking website AltNews.in, said Facebook’s announcement gives a “lopsided” view that only the opposition INC has been engaged in pushing spam. Sinha pointed out that Silver Touch, whose accounts were taken down, had spent much more on advertising on the social media platform compared to the pages created by the INC’s IT cell.

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FILE – A woman walks past a wall painted with the election symbol of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in an alley at a residential area in Kolkata, India, March 22, 2019. VOA

Pakistan’s military

In neighboring Pakistan, 103 pages or accounts linked to the media cell of that country’s military have been removed.

“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found that it was linked to employees of the ISPR (Inter-Services Public Relations) of the Pakistani military,” the Facebook statement said.

These individuals, according to the statement, were operating “military fan Pages; general Pakistani interest Pages; Kashmir community Pages; and hobby and news Pages” with posts on politics and the military.

The ISPR declined to comment for this story.

Journalists or rights activists in Pakistan often complain of online trolling or harassment from fake accounts.

Journalist Gharidah Farooqi said she regularly faces threats and harassment online from accounts that appear to be military fan pages. She has complained to the military’s media wing, but been told the institution has nothing to do with the issue.

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FILE – A military parade is held to mark Pakistan National Day, in Islamabad, Pakistan, March 23, 2019. VOA

Another journalist, Asma Shirazi, told VOA she has faced an “organized and institutionalized” campaign against her online for her coverage of opposition leaders, particularly ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Shirazi added that she has been accused of being “anti-Pakistan” and taking bribes from Sharif’s (Pakistan Muslim League) party.

Last week, several Facebook accounts posted pictures and personal details — such as home address and contact details — of rights activist Marvi Sirmed and incited people to kill her after falsely accusing her of acting against Islam and promoting a “free sex, incestuous society.”

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Sirmed is a regular critic of the military, as well as the current administration of Prime Minister Imran Khan. Facebook has already taken down at least one account, but Sirmed said several others remain. Sirmed says she has complained to local authorities and is awaiting a response.