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Ultraconservative triumph puts Pakistan at risk

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Image source: Pakistan PM’s website

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan may have averted for now further violence by caving in to demands of a militant, supremacist religious group. But in doing so, Mr. Khan is allowing radical ultra-conservatism to fester, undermining social cohesion, threatening economic development, and giving militants a say in foreign policy.

The government’s surrender to Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan or ‘I am Present Pakistan ‘(TLP), an outlawed far-right group, comes at a moment that Mr. Khan has taken several steps towards Islamicizing Pakistani society.

It also comes on the heels of ultra-conservatives in Pakistan feeling emboldened by the Taliban victory in Afghanistan. Further, the cave-in will do little to support Pakistan’s efforts to be removed from the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog.

In separate talks, Mr. Khan’s government has been negotiating a ceasefire with Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani Taliban. The talks were mediated by Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Afghan Taliban interior minister, who heads the notorious Haqqani network. The network has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States while the FBI has declared Mr. Haqqani one of its most-wanted people.

The ceasefire would halt the TTP’s 14-year insurgency aimed at forcing the government to introduce Islamic law in Pakistani tribal areas. Thousands have been killed in TTP attacks and clashes with security forces.

For its part, the TLP has made blasphemy its signature issue. It has repeatedly leveraged its self-declared position as a defender of Islam and the Prophet Mohammed to pressure the government to meet its demands. The group uses mass protests that besiege Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, as its battering ram.

Four people were killed and some 250 injured last week in a clash with security forces during the latest confrontation between the government and the group. Thousands of TLP supporters had blocked a key highway as they marched from Lahore to Islamabad, a distance of 380 kilometres. They ended the blockade once the government reportedly agreed to their demands.

The group demanded the lifting of the ban imposed on it in April; release from prison of its activists and leader, Saad Rizvi; unfreezing of its bank accounts, and the expulsion of the French ambassador.

Details of the agreement with the TLP have yet to be released but Pakistani media reported that the only demand rejected by the government was that Pakistan should expel the French ambassador because of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published in 2015 by a Paris-based satiric magazine. Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad said the government would put the issue to parliament, but it has yet to do so.

Militants attacked the magazine at the time and killed 12 of its staff. The online Pakistan edition of Saudi Arabia’s Arab News last week appeared to try to calm Pakistani tempers by reporting that French companies wanted to invest in Pakistani tourism infrastructure despite the volatility in the country.

The TLP is a political expression of the Barelvi strand of Sunni Islam that has long been viewed as more moderate than Deobandism, the other major wing of the faith in Pakistan.

Recent Barelvi militancy speaks to the deep roots that ultra-conservatism has struck in Pakistan. Decades of varying government policies that contributed to Islamization coupled with past massive public and private Saudi funding for militant religious seminaries or madrassas and militant groups have helped weave ultra-conservatism into the fabric of Pakistani society.

Syed Badiuddin Soharwardy, a 66-year-old Canadian-Pakistani imam watched how Saudi-funded religious ultra-conservatism was instrumentalized by the Pakistani armed forces in its dispute with India over Kashmir and in Afghanistan starting with the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s. He also registered how ultra-conservatism changed the demography of the military.

The son of a prayer leader and teacher, Mr. Soharwardy recalls accompanying his father to mosques on bases across the country of the Pakistani army air force and navy to celebrate the Prophet’s birthday, a ritual frowned upon by ultra-conservatives. “My father would participate in the celebration and the kids would sing rhymes praising the Prophet,” Mr. Soharwardy said.

Mr. Sohawardy calculated based on analysis of the sectarian affiliation of Pakistan mosques that if 70 per cent of mosques were Barelvi in the late 1970s, that number had shifted more than 30 years later to 55 per cent identifying themselves as Deobandi. The shift in the affiliation of military mosques was even more dramatic with 85 per cent currently adhering to Deobandism as opposed to 90 per cent in the 1970s aligning themselves with the Barelvis.

Barelvis were not immune to the spreading tentacles of ultra-conservatism. Khatm-e-Nubawwat Lawyers Forum, a network of 800 lawyers with close ties to the police forces, drove a spike in blasphemy prosecutions that started around the time the TLP was founded in 2015. Blasphemy is punishable by death in Pakistan.

The forum is associated with The Assembly to Protect the End of Prophethood or Majlis-e-Tahaffuz-e-Khatm-e Nabuwwat founded in 1950 as a Barelvi organization. The organization focused on preventing Ahmadis from identifying as Muslims.

Mainstream Muslims accuse Ahmadis of blasphemy because they refuse to recognize Mohammed as the last prophet. The founder of the Ahmadis, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, proclaimed himself in the late 19th century to be a Muslim prophet.

“Whoever does this (blasphemy), the punishment is only death. There is no alternative,” said the forum’s head, Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry.

Mr. Chaudry was the defence lawyer for Mumtaz Qadri who became a hero after he was convicted to death and executed in 2016 for the killing in 2011 of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab and an outspoken critic of Pakistan’s draconic blasphemy law.

Mr. Qadri’s grave in Bhara Kahu on the outskirts of Islamabad, a 25-minute drive from where he assassinated Mr. Taseer, has become a pilgrimage site that attracts scores of visitors. Graffiti celebrates Mr. Qadri on the road leading to his grave. Nearby shops sell flowers and pictures of the assassin.

Government critics charge the government’s deal with the TLP has undermined its authority and constitutes one more step towards affirming a greater role for religion in the country’s life.

Mr. Khan’s government has sought to Islamicise Pakistani education with the development of a new national curriculum and mandatory religion classes s part of university education. He has also recently established a body to monitor the curriculum, syllabi and social media for “blasphemous” content.

The writ of the state has yet again crumbled in the face of violent extremism.,” said columnist Zahid Hussain. The “agreement with the TLP has worsened the internal security situation arising from increasing faith-based extremism.”

Saad Hafiz, another columnist, argued that appeasement of militant religious groups like the TLP explains Pakistan’s welcoming of the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan.  He warned that their influence was shaping Pakistani foreign policy and curtailing the South Asian nation’s ability to achieve its geopolitical goals.

Pakistan’s perceived embrace of the Taliban even if it has refrained from recognizing the group’s government has fuelled anti-Pakistani sentiment in Washington. US President Joe Biden has yet to call Mr. Khan since coming to office in January.

“The collective triumphalism in Pakistan on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has not gone down well in Washington,” Mr. Hafiz said. “The street power of radical Islam has constrained international options. These factors have caused disarray and drifts in foreign policy that the country can ill afford. The net result is fewer allies, limited diplomatic space, and strategic mobility.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Afghanistan between an Inclusive Government and Instability

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Source: Twitter

The political processes around Afghanistan persist in active development. Although the attention of the world media has fairly reduced, diplomatic activity regarding the Afghan issue does not decrease. Obviously, despite considerable pressure from the world powers, the leadership of the radical Taliban movement ruling Afghanistan still refused to create an inclusive government and continues its policy of tightening the regime. 

On the eve,  the former US special representative of Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, drew attention to the probable worth of the situation in the country. The diplomat did not rule out the possibility of a civil war in this country. In a recent interview, he called on the Taliban to respect the view of a significant part of society to prevent a new war. Apparently, the American diplomat is rather overstating the situation since the opposition to the Taliban, at least for now, does not have sufficient resource base and support for a full-scale confrontation with the radicals. However, Khalilzad’s statement indicates an increasing irritation towards the Taliban from the great powers.

An Indian diplomat and counsellor of the Permanent Representative of India to the UN, Madhu Sudan, also spoke on this matter earlier. He stated that to ensure Afghanistan’s economic stability and development, it is vital to create an inclusive government. The Indian representative called peace and security in Afghanistan the most important aspect of the global community and called on all countries to join efforts to achieve it. According to the diplomat, despite the changes in the political system of Afghanistan, India’s attitude towards its people has not changed. That is why New Delhi previously sent 50,000 tons of wheat, coronavirus vaccines, other medicines and convenience goods to Afghanistan as humanitarian aid. At the same time, the Indian side stresses the need to create an inclusive government in Afghanistan.

The significance of the presence of representatives of all ethnic and political groups in the government of Afghanistan is also stated in the Russian government. Thus, speaking at the CSTO summit in Armenia, the Russian president called for creating an inclusive government in Afghanistan. “The priority at this stage is to ensure the formation of a truly inclusive Afghan government, which will include representatives of all ethnic groups at the necessary level,” Vladimir Putin said. It should be noted that the CSTO summit was a failure and actually launched the processes for the final disintegration of this inefficient organization. In turn, Russia’s position in the post-Soviet space has weakened so much that we can discuss the impending loss of regional power status. Moscow is no longer a hegemon in the South Caucasus, Central Asia and the former USSR as a whole.

However, the Taliban’s policy is increasingly annoying in world capitals, especially in the Global West, India and Iran. Thus, these cases were previously discussed in a conversation between the Presidents of Tajikistan and France. Emomali Rahmon and Emmanuel Macron highlighted the need to develop joint approaches to preserve Afghanistan’s peace and stability. Both leaders also stressed the necessity for an inclusive government.

Meanwhile, all political messages addressed to Afghanistan were denied by the Taliban leadership. Thus, it was stated that “the arguments about the creation of an inclusive government by foreign states are interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan.” “The creation of the government and state institutions is a matter of domestic policy,” said deputy Taliban spokesman Billal Karimi. He called on the international community to abstain from interfering in his country’s internal affairs.

A particular setback is also kept in the struggle against the drug trade. Mohammad Masoud Zahidian, Deputy head of the Iranian Counter-Narcotics Headquarters, says drug trafficking from Afghanistan has risen. According to him, the cause for the growth in drug trafficking was the activation of the southern route (Pakistani) from Afghanistan. According to the official, in 2022, more than 220,000 hectares of agricultural land in Afghanistan were allocated for poppy, with 76% of these crops in the provinces bordering Iran. It should be mentioned that the southern route is one of the main logistics routes under the control of the Taliban and Pakistani security forces. This route passes through the southern and eastern provinces of Afghanistan and then the territory of Pakistan. It is known that Islamabad provides comprehensive assistance, sponsors and counsels the Taliban movement.

The tightening of the domestic policy of the Taliban is indicated by some strange and illogical laws that the Taliban have recently introduced. Thus, the Ministry of Prohibition of Evil and Coercion to the good of the Taliban banned listening to music, explaining that music damages the morality of young people and leads them astray. In a video published by the Ministry, a person introduced as a psychotherapist says that some words that cause inebriation are used in music. Taliban officials also say that listening to music causes heart disorders.

Thus, the situation in Afghanistan is staining. The support for the Taliban, provided by Pakistan, China and partly Russia, has failed. The policy of the leading Western countries is also not entirely clear, which actually left Afghanistan in a power vacuum, which led to an increase in the influence of the Taliban, Pakistan and China. Seemingly, the insight of this is slowly coming to the world capitals.

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The Taliban Finally Granted Permission to the Former President Karzai to leave Afghanistan

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Former President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai. (Express photo by Nirupama Subramanian)

Based on the information, the former president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, was permitted to leave the country. At a time, when online meetings between Sohail Shaheen and American representatives are going on in connection with the start of intra-Afghan talks in Doha, The former president of the country, Hamid Karzai, was allowed to exit the country for the first time after August 15, 2021, when the Taliban took over. Nevertheless, it is not yet known when he will start his overseas trip, but his only purpose is to get preparation for the start of Intra-Afghan talks in Doha and to meet with American officials and foreign Afghan politicians. Since the end of October and the beginning of November, there are reports narrating that telephone calls are being made between President Hamid Karzai, and the US special representative for Afghanistan, Thomas West.

Besides, the persons are preparing for future negotiations, the re-established relationship between the former president Karzai and the CIA took place, when a CIA undercover intelligence officer met Karzai sometimes back, when he represented himself as an International media reporter. Sources suspect that the undercover agent interviewed the president under the auspices of a well-known German based Der Spiegel Magazine.

According to the information, former President Hamid Karzai will fly to Germany, while meeting with the CIA officials at the US Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Meantime, the former President Hamid Karzai will meet with some high-ranking officials of Germany and then have separate meetings with Western politicians and intelligence officers. Furthermore, after that, President Hamid Karzai will meet with the American ambassador to lay out the strategy for the potential negotiations.

 Currently, there is a lot of confusion in the Mandigak palace in Kandahar province, where Taliban Spiritual leader and the decision making hub located and it is said that there have been serious discrepancies  regarding allowing him to go abroad. However, Sheikh Haibatullah’s position is still neutral about his exit, while negotiating with his advisors to make a final decision in the upcoming days.

Nonetheless, there are no other specific differences regarding the permission. It is only the low-ranking Taliban fighters, who demand the precise judgement of the Taliban’s leader in this concern; In addition, some Taliban leaders are also unhappy about the whole process, especially the former members of the Quita Council of Taliban.

Now the ball is in the Taliban’s ground, whether they are ready to comply with the demands of the international community, by transferring the power to a transitional government or not, and to get along with the United States and get onboard the international community support. Definitely, it causes further splintering among Taliban groups and ISKP will use it as an opportunity to recruit Taliban fighters, while paving the way for regrouping in Khorasan Province the IS so-called territory.

The ISKP long before blamed Taliban for being ‘’ Rafeda’’, while simultaneously cooperating with the US, Russia, China and Iran for their political ambitions.  To conclude, the Afghan people will not accomplish a lasting peace and sustainable economic developments, since the country will turn into a new battle filed among countries, which have stake in Afghanistan.

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The Charisma and Chaos of Imran Khan

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PTI Chairman Imran Khan gestures at the march participants as his convoy arrives in Gujranwala on November 1, 2022. — Instagram

The chances of Imran Khan winning the elections of 2018 were quite murky. Despite his unparalleled fan base and populist rhetoric appeals to the young, and labor class of Pakistan, the legitimacy of his government is marred with allegations of fraud, rigging, and exploitation.

Some argue that his candidacy was a marketing tactic used by the ‘Establishment’ in Pakistan to form a government that is rather weak and dependent so that the ‘Establishment’ can continue its control over domestic security issues including the Nuclear escalation and relations with India.

But by and large, Khan won the elections.

Maybe it was the stardom attached to the name ‘Imran Khan’ and Pakistanis not wanting to confide in the same faces ruling them for centuries.

Maybe it was the mismanagement and violence that marred election day with unfathomable delays in result declaration in metropolis cities, coupled with post-poll manipulation.

Maybe it was the judicial-military nexus, that placed all the votes in the right places by not allowing voters to use their will during elections.

Maybe it was the 7 years-old narcotics case hearing moving forward against the stalwart of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, Hanif Abbasi, giving him a life sentence in a rare late-night session of court, four days ahead of the elections that effectively knocked PML-N out of the race.

But the deal was done and can’t be undone and Imran Khan became the Prime Minister of Pakistan, for better or worse.

Khan the Celebrity

Pakistani nationals were victims of the financial crisis, unemployed people, those who lost their homes, and who were in debt; these people felt like the two parties ruling Pakistan for centuries had destroyed their country’s economy.

Imran Khan, with his humongous stardom as an athlete and philanthropist, seemed like the only ‘Messiah’ that could save them from all the atrocities they were facing.

Though, a significant number of votes were cast in favor of PML-N but not in the places that would have locked the win. So Imran Khan, persuaded the angry Pakistanis, the youth, and the labor class who were fed up with being handed over in trade deals with other nations.

Khan, a socialite that he was, knew how to connect with these agitated masses. Their grievances were clear as a day and so he gave them pretty promises wrapped up in his vibrant rallies filled with catchy songs. His huge social media presence along with the ‘Naya Pakistan’ slogan further amplified his staunch.

But there lies a challenge as to why Khan became the top highlight of this era. To many who were tired of politicians filling their own pockets, and amid the corruption charges on Nawaz Sharif, Khan’s celebrity status, his colorful personality, his promise of a corruption-free Pakistan, and his unconventional ‘Don’t Panic’ attitude – all of this made Khan seem like the only option who would deliver a better life and nation and, if not that, then at least would be the eradicator of what Pakistan had become.

Khan the Totalitarian

The other side of the coin sees Imran Khan as a narcissist, self-centered, and power-hungry mogul. After achieving his eternal craving of becoming the Prime Minister, he hardly showed any respect for the institutions of the country. More often than not he refused to attend the sessions of Parliament, with his excuse being the presence of members of the opposition party whom he referred to as ‘Crooks’ and ‘Chors’ (thieves).

This resulted in laws, instead of passing through an ordinary law-making process, being passed through presidential ordinances, with very limited power. We can clearly say that these laws were passed without debate, consensus, and thorough examination, negating the very foundation of constitutional requirements.

Additionally, Khan likes to fabricate stories in his speeches, a lot. In this vein, he brings down any democratic provision that proves him wrong, including targeting political parties on concocted charges of corruption; sustained attacks on the media; undermining law authorities, even the Supreme Court is not exempted from his allegations.

Through the abrogation of rule of law, irresponsible remarks about institutions, and disdain toward democracy, Khan himself created a fragile parliamentary system, which then collapsed on him. Not only this, but he has fractured the already dwindling democracy of Pakistan into a whole new level.

Khan the Leader

Khan came onto the political scene when Pakistan was facing a volatile situation both at home and abroad, coupled with the tensions going on with the Americas, and the rampant inflation, he was still able to take some impressive measures. His work related to health, relief programs, house loans, the environment, entrepreneurship, and the COVID response is admirable.

In addition, his billion tree tsunami and the building of several small dams initiated an environment-friendly drive in the climate change-affected country. But was he able to deliver on the ‘Promises’ made to the nation? Absolutely Not.

Perhaps he should have paid more attention to the cabinet as the abrupt changes in the system dwindled the confidence of investors in Pakistan’s economic machinery. His careless handling of some important economic programs including the CPEC decelerated the capital influx that caused the GDP to drop considerably.

To top it all off, Pakistan, in 2021 dropped from 124th place to 140th place according to Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), leaving an ugly mark on Khan’s corruption eradication promises on which he has led the foundation of his political career. Maybe he should have abided by the agenda of progression in order to gear up his performance instead of getting involved in blame and shame politics.

Khan the funambulist

The important reason why Khan has a cult following in Pakistan is his unfiltered and raw opinions about topics like the Americas, and Afghanistan which he keeps casting in his speeches. And, the audience, mostly the social media-induced young generation eats it all up like a sweet concoction, without paying heed to the implications it will bring to the foreign policy of Pakistan.

Khan’s decision to appoint Usman Buzdar, an underqualified and inexperienced newcomer to a vital position in the key city of Punjab pretty much sums up his political foresight. Perhaps, the most interesting yet debatable contrivance of his regime is his relentless attitude toward the United States, no previous Prime Minister of Pakistan was able to say ‘Absolutely No’ to the US as it had many allies in the domestic political platform of Pakistan. This stance of Khan was admired a lot in the country, with the phrase being trending in Pakistan. But the remarks came with ramifications for Pakistan on the international forum. This whole scenario further makes people question his political sanity.

Imran Khan possesses all the characteristics of a populist leader and in Populism: A Very Short Introduction, Cas Mudde says: “Populists are dividers, not uniters” they split society into “two homogenous and antagonistic groups: the pure people on the one end and the corrupt elite on the other.” True to this narration, Khan has divided the nation into two groups of ‘Evil and Good’ people, and the consequences are detrimental to the stability of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

Conclusion

To sum it all up, Imran Khan, despite his misgivings, his warts, his narcissism, and his unhinged political views, is still able to reach a class of people that have seen Pakistan erode for centuries and consider him the last hope for the country. But he certainly is not the best choice for democracy as his political understanding is ruined by his self-righteous approach. In this manner, he is no better than former US President Trump who incited his supporters to pass on the U.S. Capitol to forestall the peaceful transition of power after his electoral defeat. It is precise to say that Pakistan has fallen into a deep cauldron and only a Magic Wand can heal it at this point. Though Khan has not singularly created this cauldron, he most definitely is exploiting and feeding on it.

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