RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — Mullahs, militants and retired military men in Pakistan are forming a powerful alliance to promote an anti-US agenda, pressuring the Pakistani government at a time when relations with the United States are dangerously frayed.
Among these men, Hafiz Saeed is the most notorious.
Saeed leads the charity group Jamaat-ud Dawah, which the United Nations says is a front for Lashkar-e-Tayba, a group widely held responsible for killing 166 people in the Mumbai attacks in 2008. In Pakistan, however, a court absolved Saeed of all terrorism charges.
In a recent rally at a park in the city of Rawalpindi, Saeed and his collaborators, who now call themselves the Pakistan Defense Council, vowed to pressure Islamabad into ending its relationship with the United States. The group also fumed against a possible reopening of NATO supply routes and plans to increase trade with India, traditionally seen as Pakistan’s archenemy.
Saeed’s men, some armed, surrounded the park and guarded a meters-high stage. A banner behind the stage depicted missiles and fighter jets. Dozens of cameramen captured the fury.
“Jihad is our path,” a captivated crowd of more than 10,000 men chanted.
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The Rawalpindi rally was the sequel to a massive gathering on Dec. 18 in the eastern city of Lahore, where the alliance first shot into prominence. A third gathering was held Sunday in Multan, a city in the southern part of Punjab province.
Hamid Gul, a retired Pakistani general and former spy chief, is now the coordinator of the so-called Pakistan Defense Council. He said the group first came together last October, but only pursued a higher profile after the NATO attack in November that killed 26 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghanistan border.
The raging anti-Americanism that followed the attack provided fertile ground for the council to start agitating, said Amir Rana, the director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies in Islamabad.
The Pakistani government soon after the attack began to reconsider its relationship with the United States, closing key routes NATO has long used to bring supplies to its troops in Afghanistan. It was a low point in relations between the two on-again-off-again allies that was made even worse when Pakistan discovered the United States, without its knowledge, had begun backchannel talks with the Afghan Taliban.
“If America leaves Afghanistan, stops the drone attacks on Pakistan and halts all CIA and intelligence networks, stops supporting India and accepts Pakistan’s role in dialogue with Taliban, then we can sit with them and negotiate,” Saeed said.
Pakistan’s active military elites most likely support the Pakistan Defense Council and its viewpoints, analysts said. The military wields significant control over the country’s security policy, both through official and unofficial channels. It ruled Pakistan for half it 64-year long existence and is often at odds with the policies put forward by the current, elected — and civilian — government.
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“Whenever you have an elected government the situation gets a little more diffuse and complex,” said Simbal Khan, a director at the Institute for Strategic Studies Islamabad. “There is a little bit of a tussle here and there. Supporting these kinds of civil organizations, civil platforms becomes a way to ensure that [the military] perspective is heard,” she said.
And it works, Rana said. “The public opinion is now more clearly anti-US and anti-NATO, and there is less space for alternate views,” he said, referring to debates on Pakistan’s popular TV talk shows. Khan disagrees. She says the council’s views add to the debate, but doesn’t dominate it.
Pakistani policymakers, meanwhile, shy away from tackling arguments made by the religious vanguard and make little effort to inform the public of the reasons behind its policies.
“They don’t try to change public opinion. That’s the tragedy,” Rana said. Pakistan’s inability to explain why it plans to grant India the status of Most Favorite Nation (MFN) is one such example.
The status simply means that World Trade Organization members such as Pakistan won’t discriminate their trade partners against each other with trade laws and provisions. But members of the Pakistan Defense Council object to the status. How can our enemy be a Most Favorite Nation, they ask.
Perhaps as a result of the opposition, the government has wavered on whether or not to move ahead with granting India the status, which could go a long way toward easing tensions. A final decision is still pending in the parliament.
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In its negotiations with the United States, Islamabad has regularly pointed to the opposition voiced by religious political parties, such those currently supporting the council, as the reason for its reluctance to cooperate further on things like security matters, say Howard Schaffer and Teresita Schaffer, two former U.S. diplomats and authors of the book, “How Pakistan Negotiates with the United States; Riding the Roller Coaster,” which was published last year.
The presumed “street presence” of these parties makes Islamabad reluctant to pursue issues that have either a “real” or “contrived” Islamic angle.
“Pakistani governments have used this threat on many occasions to avoid making commitments important to the United States. American diplomats need to be wary of this tactic,” the Schaffers write.
Abdul Basit, Pakistan’s foreign office spokesperson, would not comment on the analysis.
The Pakistan Defense Council’s influence on the way the government negotiates with the United States depends on whether or not it can keep up the momentum, analysts said.
“The US will see how flexible Pakistan can be. If there’s no flexibility you can link it to the impact of these kind of movements,” Rana said.
In the past, such alliances in Pakistan had little staying power, only cropping up at important junctures in Pakistan’s history. In 2002, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, a political religious alliance, was formed out of the Pakistan-Afghanistan Defense Council, an anti-American, pro-Islamist alliance of different religious parties and organizations. It was established shortly after the US invasion of Afghanistan. Political differences, however, drove the main players of the alliance apart.
Some analysts believe another religious political alliance may arise from the Pakistan Defense Council platform, while others say the obstacles to political unity amongst religious parties are too great.
Saeed and his collaborators insist they have no political ambitions, but have no doubt their council will remain.
“We promise to continue with this movement,” a bellowing Saeed told the crowd.