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10 February 2022, Gateway House

Pakistan Army’s proxies get a boost

Islamabad recently lifted a ban on the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, a violent Islamist group in Pakistan, and released its leader from jail. This is worrisome, with serious implications for India and counterterrorism efforts as a whole, for the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan has emboldened the Pakistani Army to activate its proxies like the Tehreek-e-Labbaik, to advance its domestic political ambitions and openly support extremist organisations.

Former Fellow, International Security Studies Programme

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Now that it has the upper hand in Afghanistan since the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in August 2021, it appears that the Pakistani Army is once again activating its proxies – the religious extremist groups – to advance its domestic political ambitions. The November 1 agreement with the proscribed extremist group Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) demonstrates that the Army is using the group to keep in check the civilian government -led by Prime Minister Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). The military’s kid-glove treatment of the TLP demonstrates the ‘military-mullah nexus,’ which has made Pakistan the epicentre of global terrorism.

On the PTI government’s agreement with the TLP after the group’s violent protests in Punjab Province.[1] The terms of the agreement are unknown, but post-agreement, TLP’s imprisoned leader Saad Rizvi, jailed under Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act (1997) under suspicion of terrorist activities, was released. The government asked him and other TLP leaders to join the political sphere, suggesting a settlement with the military’s blessings.[2] The agreement was facilitated with the active participation of Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Qamar Javed Bajwa, despite the death of at least four policemen in TLP’s protests.[3] [4]

This brazen support to the TLP does not come as a surprise as the Army has used extremist groups like the TLP to send a ‘message’ to the civilian rulers, who work at cross-purposes with the military.

The TLP, as a Barelvi group, has a unidirectional focus on the issues of Khatm-e-Nabuwwat (finality of the prophethood) and Tauheen-e-Risalat (blaspheming the Prophet). This focus has made it an influential religious-political group. Then led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, it began to get traction in 2015 through its local protests and became prominent in 2017 after it protested against an amendment in the election law that it alleged questioned the finality of the prophethood. TLP protests brought life to a halt in Islamabad and cornered the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government. The civilian government, failing to clear the protesters from the streets, turned to the Army, whose mediatory role appeared to be a tacit attempt to undermine the credibility of civilian institutions.

Similarly, during the 2018 National Assembly elections, the military had utilised the TLP to provide an electoral advantage to the PTI against the PML-N, especially in Punjab province.[5]

It is important to note that the TLP’s 2021 protests in Punjab took place when the controversy over the appointment of the new Inter-Services Intelligence Chief had brought out in the open, the differences between Prime Minister Imran Khan and COAS General Bajwa.[6] Hence, the military may have used the TLP protests and the subsequent agreement to signal the civilian rulers that there would be political consequences of their actions, if not immediately, then in the future.

Despite its protests and violence, the TLP is not an ‘anti-state’ insurgent group like the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, nor is it armed. Instead, its members and supporters are ingrained in society, mostly residing in Punjab and Sindh, just like the cadres of India-centric terror groups, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad. Therefore, the military perceives the TLP as a ‘containable outfit’ that can do its dirty work rather than making them hostile against the state.[7]

Aligning with the Army also helps the TLP to widen its base. The group understands the ruling PTI’s growing vulnerabilities at all levels – political, economic, and foreign policy and capitalises on them accordingly. For instance, its demand in April 2021 to expel the French ambassador from Pakistan over the republication of Prophet Muhammad’s caricatures (October 2020) besides increasing the domestic influence, propelled it to international recognition. The TLP’s latest protests in Punjab have provided greater credibility for Saad Rizvi, whose leadership was initially questioned after his father’s (Khadim Rizvi) death last year.[8]

Since the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, radical groups in Pakistan have become emboldened and question the democratic system in the country. Calling for the implementation of Sharia law, the TLP’s activities are in line with this trend.

The military’s patronage and an emotive religious issue of blasphemy have made the TLP an influential actor in Pakistan’s politics. The civilian government’s abject surrender to the TLP has set a dangerous precedent as future civilian governments, too, will be vulnerable to the coercive actions of extremist groups. The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and an increasing tilt towards the ‘centre-right’ politics in Pakistan is only expected to strengthen groups like the TLP.

With the agreement with the TLP, PM Imran Khan may have staved off the pressure for now, but the challenges for him are far from over. Growing pressure from the opposition and alliance parties, speculation about former PM Nawaz Sharif’s return, a collapsing economy – these will further weaken PTI’s position in the run-up to the 2023 elections. The military’s displeasure will only increase PTI’s vulnerabilities allowing the military to give further prominence to its proxies.

Sameer Patil is former Fellow, International Security Studies Programme, Gateway House.

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[5] TLP received the sixth-largest share of votes in the 2018 elections, third in Punjab, and won two provincial seats in Karachi. Its performance dented PML-N’s vote share in Punjab province, giving an advantage to the PTI candidates.