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Pakistan's war against the MQM party

Interview: Shamil Shams August 23, 2016

Expert Arif Jamal talks to DW about a paramilitary operation against the MQM, a liberal political party in southern Pakistan, and how the army is allowing an Islamist takeover of Pakistan's economic hub, Karachi.

Paramilitary soldiers escort blindfolded men, who were detained during Wednesday's raid on the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) political party headquarters, after presenting them before an anti-terrorism court in Karachi March 12, 2015 (Photo: REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro)
Image: Reuters/A. Soomro

Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a southern Sindh province-based political party, came under direct conflict with the Pakistani authorities on Monday, August 22, when its exiled leader Altaf Hussain criticized the army and government officials of systematically targeting his workers.

Hussain, who has been living in a self-imposed exile since the early 1990s, also called Pakistan "the epicenter of terrorism." The politician warned the authorities that his followers would choose not to be loyal to the country if the "extra-judicial killings" of his activists continued.

Soon after his speech, a group of protesters, allegedly belonging to the MQM, attacked a private TV station in the southern Karachi city, leaving one person dead and several injured. The MQM alleges that the TV channel toes the line of the military establishment and ignores its plight. The party, however, denies that its activists targeted the TV station.

The paramilitary forces reacted swiftly, detaining MQM's top leadership, including members of parliament, and sealed the party's offices across the city overnight.

While the authorities accuse the MQM of racketeering, abductions, torture and murder, the political group that represents the Urdu-speakers that migrated from India to Pakistan after the partition in 1947, denies these claims and instead complains of decades of discrimination and injustice.

Arif Jamal
Jamal: 'The current army-led campaign is aimed at weakening all the major political parties in the country'Image: privat

Arif Jamal, a US-based journalist and author of several books on Islamic terrorism and Pakistan, says in a DW interview that one of the key objectives of the Pakistani military is to weaken mainstream political parties to increase their control on government and civilian institutions. He also says that Raheel Sharif, who is being systematically projected by the pro-army media as a "messiah," is paving the way for an Islamist takeover of Karachi by weakening the MQM.

DW: Do you agree with claims by the MQM leadership that the Pakistan Army is selectively targeting its activists and members?

Arif Jamal: There is ample evidence that the Pakistani military is selectively targeting the MQM. It is now also targeting the Pakistan Peoples Party or PPP. The current army-led campaign is nationwide and in reality aimed at weakening all the major political parties in the country.

As the political parties remain divided and fail to put up united resistance, the army is leading them by the nose to support their actions. We see General Raheel Sharif sitting side by side with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in every decision-making meeting. In all the photos and videos in the Pakistani media, General Sharif appears to be running the show. He is never seen wearing his military cap, which means he is not required to salute his civilian bosses.

It looks abundantly clear that Pakistan's Rangers, the police, and other security agencies are taking direct orders from the army. The country's media is totally co-opted or gagged, so much so that some TV anchors and journalists were seen wearing military fatigue jackets when the Pakistan celebrated "Defense Day" against India last year. This further blurred the difference between the military's public relations department and the media.

This is not the first time that the army has acted against the MQM. There was a somewhat similar operation against the party in the early 1990s. Why is the state, particularly the country's ubiquitous military, against the MQM?

In or out of power, the Pakistani army continues to make and break political parties. In the second half of the 1980s, it encouraged and supported the formation and rise of the MQM in order to damage the PPP in Sindh. In the 1990s, the army generals felt the MQM had become too big to handle, so they created divisions in it.

The MQM is not the only political party which continuously faces such wrath of the army; other political parties, too, face similar kind of treatment from the generals. The army uses different ways to create divisions in different political parties at different times. The reason is that strong political parties are a direct threat to the supremacy of the military in politics.

Critics say that despite being a liberal party, the MQM uses terror to maintain its grip on Karachi, and that therefore the military operations against it are justified. Do you agree?

Like other countries in the region, Pakistan is also a violent society, with political parties frequently resorting to violence. However, it is unfair to describe political violence as terrorism. However, there are religious parties such as the Jamat-i-Islami (JI) and Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Islam which sponsor terrorism.

If terrorism were the reason, the army should have gone after the JI whose armed wing, Hizbul Mujahideen, remains a major terrorist group in the region, or other terrorist organizations such as the Jamatud Dawa (formerly Lashkar-e-Taiba). But the unfortunate fact is that the Pakistani army itself funds Hizbul Mujahideen and Jamatud Dawa.

General Raheel Sharif (L) meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the Prime Minister House in Islamabad, capital of Pakistan (/PID)
Jamal: 'We see General Raheel Sharif sitting side by side with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in every decision-making meeting'Image: picture alliance/Photoshot

How do you analyze the Lahore High Court's decision of banning MQM's leader Altaf Hussain's speeches in the media?

The Lahore High Court's order to register a treason case against Hussain and ban his speeches and images in the Pakistani media was unprecedented even by Pakistani standards. It violated all legal and democratic norms. The decision seems to be part of the ongoing army-run campaign against the political parties, particularly the MQM.

History shows that there has always been an "unholy nexus" between the Pakistani army and the Pakistani judiciary. The ties are still strong and the decision is the result of that nexus.

What could be the repercussions of weakening the MQM on Pakistan's national politics?

The weakening of the MQM and other political parties is creating a lot of space for jihadist groups in Pakistan. Because of the active military interference in political matters and conspiracies, no civilian government has been able to perform and show results since 1988.

People have lost whatever faith they had in democracy and civilian rule. The irony is that terrorist organizations such as Jamatud Dawa are openly recruiting and fundraising in Pakistan while the army is accusing politicians of funding terrorism.

We now discover that Zarb-e-Azb (the military operation in northern Pakistan) was aimed at weakening political parties and not eliminating terrorists. Some of the top global terrorists such as Hafiz Saeed and Hizbul Mujahideen's Yusuf Shah are openly leading public rallies, recruiting jihadists, and fundraising.

Terrorist organizations like Dawa fundraise millions of dollars on the occasions of Eidul Azha while political parties such as the MQM are not allowed to fundraise for genuine charity reasons. In fact, every year the jihadists fundraise hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A supporter of Pakistani political party Mutahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) holds a portrait of party leader Altaf Hussain during a protest against government, in Karachi, Pakistan, 16 May 2014 (Photo: EPA/SHAHZAIB AKBER)
MQM's leader Altaf Hussain has been living in exile in London since the early 1990sImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Some analysts say that the weakening of the MQM could result in the rise of Islamist groups like "Islamic State," al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan's urban centers. Why would the Pakistani generals want that?

Because the Pakistani generals have not abandoned their policy of using jihad as an instrument of its defense policy. The Pakistan Army still supports "good jihadists," which include the Jamatud Dawa - a Salafist group, that follows the same ideology as the "Islamic State" (IS) and Boko Haram.

IS has been winning over the extremist factions of Islamist terrorist groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region since its rise in June 2014 in the Middle East. Jamatud Dawa seems to be in alliance with the IS in Afghanistan. So the Pakistai army's strategy seems to be creating an alliance of "good jihadists" like Jamatud Dawa under the umbrella of the IS.

Arif Jamal is an independent US-based journalist and author of several books, including "Call For Transnational Jihad: Lashkar-e-Taiba 1985-2014."

The interview was conducted by Shamil Shams.