In the past week, two marches featuring thousands of protesters have converged on Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on charges of electoral fraud during last year’s elections. Imran Khan, a former cricketer turned politician and the leader of the centrist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party, leads one side. The other side is organized by cleric Allama Mohammed Tahir-ul-Qadri, leader of the nonpolitical religious group Pakistan Awami Tehreek. On Aug. 20, demonstrators from both sides entered Islamabad’s secured red zone, where Pakistan’s Supreme Court, the National Assembly and various foreign missions and embassies, including the United States’, are located.
As tensions escalated in Islamabad, the U.S. State Department came out in support of Sharif’s government. The alacrity with which the U.S. sought to defend Sharif and decry the protesters exposes Washington’s inability to recognize that the war against the Taliban requires a political and not military solution.
In finding such a solution, Khan and Qadri may just be suited for the job. The insurgents have demonstrated an edge over Islamabad in the ideological battle that only genuine statesmanship energizing the popular will can counter. Qadri’s nonviolent, Islamist, pro-military and state rhetoric along with Khan’s anti-Western populism form a powerful political counterweight to the Taliban’s violent, religious, anti-imperialistic rhetoric. Where military stratagems have failed, this new Pakistani politics may succeed.
Uniting the public
Pakistan has been fighting the Taliban militarily for the last 14 years. Zarb-e-Azb, the Pakistani army’s latest offensive, has been going on for the past several months. Aerial bombardment and ground operations have led to the capture or killing of hundreds of alleged Taliban militants in North and South Waziristan, which have been subject to hundreds of U.S. drone strikes in recent years.
To boost public support for the operation, the military has enlisted the help of Pakistani media, which have aired valorous homages to the forces, featuring martial anthems and poignant odes to soldiers slain at the front. None of this, however, has resulted in a definitive public relations victory. The counterinsurgency has displaced hundreds of thousands of people who are now languishing in camps, assailed by poverty, polio and general haplessness. Similarly, aerial campaigns against the Taliban were followed by retaliatory responses such as the attack on Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport in June, which nearly sealed off Pakistan’s main gateway to the rest of the world. In addition, ideological support for the Taliban in urban slums of cities such as Karachi has ensured that the group has retained its hold in disparate parts of the country.
So far, no political movement has been able to unite the Pakistani public against the group. In allowing the current protests, the Pakistani army may be recognizing the mixture of Khan and Qadri’s religious oratory and anti-establishment populism could accomplish what military campaigns have not. Khan, a former Pakistan cricket captain, long loved by Pakistanis for leading the country to a fondly remembered World Cup victory in 1992, is eschewing Sharif and his predecessor Ali Zardari’s reliance on foreign aid. He has been a passionate opponent of U.S. drone attacks and their many uncounted civilian casualties. Since last year’s elections, Khan, whose party controls the Taliban stronghold Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, has also been vocal about alleged massive vote rigging carried out by Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League — which he says makes the current government illegitimate.
Qadri’s supporters have been gathered on the opposite side of Pakistan’s Constitution Avenue. The author of a 500-page fatwa against terrorism, Qadri has rallied thousands of his followers, describing their protest as an act of faith against the injustice of a deeply sinful and degenerate government. On June 14, in Punjab, Sharif’s stronghold, where his brother Shahbaz Sharif has been chief minister for years, police fired at unarmed protesters belonging to Qadri’s group, killing 14 people and injuring several more. The police have, until now, refused to file an information report against the assailants, allegedly at the behest of Shahbaz Sharif, failing to take even the first step in a criminal investigation of the incident.
While the marches may not force Sharif to resign, they underscore the emergence of a pro-justice and anti-Taliban voice. It is too bad that Washington does not recognize their potential as antidotes to extremism.
Khan and Qadri bring two disparate constituencies together. Khan’s followers are progressive, urban youth who are attracted to his promises of dismantling a system that rewards nepotism, ignores merit and provides no real accountability. This young, middle-class faction is opposed to the cronyism of Pakistan’s existing political parties, in which party leadership is passed to sons and brothers. Khan has repeatedly called for real democracy that rewards merit and for peaceful protest. Between his speeches, large crowds, including many young unveiled women, dance to concerts, much to the chagrin of Pakistan’s conservative religious clerics, all the while chanting slogans like “Go, Nawaz, go!”
At their Islamabad protests, Qadri’s supporters appear more sedate and look like participants in a solemn religious gathering. The protesters pray publicly and communally five times a day, with Qadri conducting daily religious sermons. All his female supporters wear headscarves. Their public presence is persistent, soldiering on into a second week despite drenching rain and tremendous heat, and sacrificial in the tradition of early Islamic martyrs. Qadri emphasizes the rewards for their perseverance are not temporal but transcendent; it is their duty as Muslims to stand for a better Pakistan, to be nonviolent and to agitate against an unjust system, rigged elections and corrupt leaders. He vehemently supports the Pakistan military’s operations against the Taliban, which he alleges Sharif’s government has failed to do. In his last few speeches, the charismatic preacher has held up a burial shroud before his supporters, proclaiming that he has “taken last bath of life with an intention of martyrdom while fighting for the rights of the oppressed and downtrodden people.”
Support from the military
Despite drawing large crowds, some of Khan’s and Qadri’s demands remain ambiguous. Both sides demand Sharif’s resignation and they have at different times also called for the overhaul of the electoral system, but without providing details on what such reform entails or how it would be enacted. Besides, it is unclear if the two groups would come together as a single political bloc if their demands were met and new elections held.
The Pakistani military has thus far refused to take sides in the conflict, asking the government and the protesters to sort out their differences and end the impasse. But given its meddlesome history and the fact that no such large-scale demonstrations can take place in Islamabad without its tacit approval, the reticence represents a choice. It is plausible that the army sees the Khan and Qadri union, if successful, as a potent religious and political counterweight to the Taliban. In this sense, Qadri and Khan could together represent the kind of local, indigenous political solutions that are needed to win against the Taliban.
Over the last 13 years, U.S. drones and Pakistani military operations have proved inadequate in fighting the ideological battle against the Taliban. The latest political configuration suggests Pakistan may have at long last acquired the right weapons to end this conflict and rally its population against the Taliban. While the marches may not force Sharif to resign, they underscore the emergence of a pro-justice and anti-Taliban voice. It is too bad, if unsurprising, that the United States — still wedded to the battles of drones and bombs — does not recognize their potential as antidotes to extremism.