Pakistanis often complain that they are ruled by Allah, America, and the army.
In 2017, the country found itself with a new army chief, a new American administration, and a new band of militants acting in Allah’s name. Perhaps that is why it had to get a new prime minister as well, ushered in through a military-backed judicial coup.
Yet, amidst a tense regional strategic stalemate plagued by mutual covert warfare, the army’s greatest fear is “the enemy within.” The result is a return to levels of repression last seen during the dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq (1977-88). And just as in Zia’s time, the army is turning to religious ideology to legitimise its extra-constitutional powers and demonise all dissent.
This determination to stack the decks while maintaining the trappings of civilian-led democracy is likely to generate even more intense drama as the country heads into 2018, an election year.
Meanwhile, in one of his first tweets of the new year, US president Donald Trump added to Pakistan’s consternation, accusing Islamabad of lies and deceit.
Blogger abductions: Dirty war on the social media front
In early January 2017, six Pakistani bloggers disappeared for three weeks. It was clear from the beginning that they had been picked up by the country’s alphabet soup of military-affiliated intelligence agencies, something later confirmed by the bruised and psychologically shaken victims themselves. The bloggers’ release was brought about by a high-visibility campaign waged by Pakistani civil society and press, backed by international pressure, but the ordeal was far from over. The deep state and its online troll armies had publicly accused the bloggers of blasphemy, using those claims to not only tar the reputation of the activists, but to leave the threat of both state prosecution and random vigilante violence permanently hanging over their heads.
What shocked many Pakistanis was the new profile of the targets for the security state’s permanent routine of surveillance, abduction, and torture. These were middle-class civil society activists from Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad, not anti-state jihadis or armed separatists from the periphery. Their crime was building popular pages on Facebook that included criticism of the military, not picking up a gun or running underground organisations. This case foreshadowed what has since become depressingly routine intimidation and punishment for progressive online activism. The changing pattern of repression is an indication of just how sensitive the military is to the power of social media in an era where hundreds of millions of Pakistanis are getting on 3G mobile internet, exploring the world, and coming together as never before. Clearly, the lessons of the Arab Spring have been learned.
Trump’s Afghan revue: New song, same dance
On Aug. 20, Trump announced the results of his Afghan policy review, overseen by senior military men such as HR McMaster and James Mattis. Pakistan was deeply upset that the administration had largely embraced the Indian government’s narrative, but it was hardly surprising given the army’s stone-faced refusals to acknowledge, let alone discuss, its covert Afghan policy. The US decision to renew its military commitment to Afghanistan was a relief to New Delhi, but continuing American dependence on Pakistan for the logistics needed to sustain the war means that Washington’s bark has been far worse than its bite. In November, the US Congress quietly dropped its demands for action against the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) on the department of defence’s advice. Pakistan almost immediately released the LeT’s leader, Hafiz Saeed, from prison, despite the fact that the US state department designates the LeT a terrorist group and has a $10 million bounty on Saeed’s head. However, media reports on Jan. 01 said that Pakistani authorities had now banned the Saeed-led umbrella organsiation, Jamat-ud-Dawa, from collecting donations.
Meanwhile, bloody terrorist attacks on civilians and security forces continue in Peshawar, Quetta, and even Lahore, keeping Pakistanis on edge. Spooked by Indian national security advisor Ajit Doval’s publicly declared intention to exploit every internal fissure within Pakistan, the army has borrowed from India’s playbook for combating cross-border insurgencies. The responses have included hardening the western border with fencing, border posts, and patrolling, besides taking a much tougher line on visits and domicile by foreign citizens. Afghan refugees were once welcomed with open arms as “Muslim brethren.” Now, they are increasingly treated as suspected militants and unwelcome enemy aliens, with hundreds of thousands pushed back into a war-torn country they never knew. Meanwhile in Afghanistan, the Taliban, despite being deeply fractured between rival factions and competing masters (Iran as much as Pakistan), continues to encroach on the even more dysfunctional Kabul government.
Banning one prime minister, terrorising another
In July, Pakistan’s supreme court, acting on the advice of an Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)-led investigative tribunal, used a minor offence to bar then prime minister Nawaz Sharif from elected office for life. By November, the replacement cabinet headed by a Nawaz loyalist, Shahid Abbasi, was thoroughly humiliated and subdued. That month, a largely unknown group, Tehreek-e-Labbaik, blockaded the main highway to the capital Islamabad and engaged in violent protests, killing, beating, and kidnapping police officers. Their demand was for the resignation of the federal law minister and a veto on a vast array of areas, including school textbooks based on the false claim that anti-blasphemy laws were being watered down. The army refused to render “military aid to civil power” when so ordered, and instead drew up terms for the government’s surrender, including the resignation of the law minister who had to publicly implore the vigilantes to accept his apology. Meanwhile, a two-star general was filmed distributing money for return bus fares to freshly released rioters. The clip went viral on social media, but heavy pressure inhibited discussion in newspapers and television channels.
The stark lesson to the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and all other parties was that they could be cut down to size at any point by the military without a visible coup. Nothing, not their party supporters, not the police, not the courts, not the press, not foreign governments, could protect them—nothing apart from a good relationship with the army. The government seems suitably cowed for now but the mere fact of the PML-N’s parliamentary majority, and Sharif’s continued party leadership from his palatial residence in Jati Umra, continues to irritate and unsettle the military. They know from 25 years of on-and-off conflict that Sharif just never quits.
The upshot for 2018: All about the elections
National and provincial elections are scheduled for mid-July and the military will do whatever it can to ensure the PML-N is defeated, or that Sharif’s control of the party is weakened.
Meanwhile, the security state will continue to push forward with its plan to “mainstream” extremist parties, encouraging Labbaik, the LeT, and Deobandi Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) to participate. Elected office provides extremists a lucrative alternative to fighting the state, especially if continued international pressure curtails their role in Afghanistan. The additional benefit for the army is that these newcomers will bleed off votes from the major parties, weakening the challenge to the military.
It is also likely that repression against online and offline dissent will increase further, coupled with a deepening crackdown on non-governmental organisations (NGOs). With the free hand granted by the state to its pet extremist parties, the result will be an even more intolerant atmosphere for sectarian and religious minorities, moderates, liberals, the press, and civil society. It is a grim picture, but democracy and civil society have a long history of extraordinarily resilience in the country. Pakistan is a difficult nation for anyone to dominate; no dictator has lasted much beyond a decade before being pushed out. Perhaps, Pakistan’s challenge for 2018 is learning how to resist a new kind of invisible and anonymous dictatorship.
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