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Pakistan and Its Militants: Who Is Mainstreaming Whom?

By Dr. James M. DorseyNovember 18, 2018

Imran Khan image by Usman Malik via Flickr CC

Mideast Security and Policy Studies No. 158, November 18, 2018

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Pakistani militants of various stripes collectively won just under 10% of the vote in the July 2018 parliamentary elections. Some represented longstanding legal Islamist parties, others newly established groups or fronts for organizations that have been banned as terrorists by Pakistan and/or the United Nations and the United States.

The militants failed to secure a single seat in the national assembly but have maintained, if not increased, their ability to shape national debate, mainstream politics, and societal attitudes. Their ability to field candidates in almost all constituencies, and, in many cases, their performance as debutants enhanced their legitimacy.

The militants’ performance has fueled debate about the Pakistani military’s effort to expand its longstanding support for militants, which serves its regional and domestic goal of nudging them into mainstream politics. It also raises the question of who benefits most: mainstream politics or the militants. Political parties help to mainstream militants, but militants with deep societal roots and significant followings are frequently key to mainstream candidates’ electoral success.

Perceptions that the militants may stand to gain the most are enhanced by the fact that decades of successive military and civilian governments, aided and abetted by Saudi Arabia, have managed to deeply embed ultraconservative, intolerant, anti-pluralist, and supremacist strands of Sunni Islam in significant segments of Pakistani society.

Former international cricket player Imran Khan’s electoral victory may constitute a break with the country’s corrupt dynastic policies, which had ensured that civilian power alternated between two clans, the Bhuttos and the Sharifs. However, his alignment with ultra-conservatism’s social and religious views, as well as with militant groups, offers little hope that Pakistan will become a more tolerant, pluralistic society and move away from a social environment that breeds extremism and militancy. On the contrary: Policies enacted by Khan and his ministers since taking office suggest that ultra-conservatism and intolerance are the name of the game.

If anything, Khan’s political history, his 2018 election campaign, and his actions since coming to office reflect the degree to which aspects of militancy, intolerance, anti-pluralism, and supremacist ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam have, over decades, been woven into the fabric of segments of society and elements of the state.

The roots of Pakistan’s extremism problem date to the immediate wake of the 1947 partition of British India, when using militants as proxies was a way to compensate for Pakistan’s economic and military weakness.

They were entrenched by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s and General Zia ul-Haq’s Islamization of Pakistani society in the 1980s. The rise of Islamist militants in the US-Saudi supported war against Soviet occupation troops in Afghanistan and opportunistic policies by politicians and rulers since then have shaped contemporary Pakistan.

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