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Hafiz Saeed’s Release Completes the Political Mainstreaming of Jihadists in Pakistan

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The Pulse

Hafiz Saeed’s Release Completes the Political Mainstreaming of Jihadists in Pakistan

The prime suspect of the Mumbai attacks can now personally spearhead the Islamist campaign for parliament.

Hafiz Saeed’s Release Completes the Political Mainstreaming of Jihadists in Pakistan

Hafiz Saeed, head of the Pakistani religious party, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, waves outside a court in Lahore, Pakistan (Nov. 22, 2017).

Credit: AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary

Hafiz Saeed is a free citizen after a Lahore High Court review board refused to extend his detention. The Lashkar-e-Taiba (Let) and Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) chief was initially placed under house arrest on January 30 for three months, which was extended thereafter.

During the time that Saeed was detained, the proscribed JuD created a political offshoot, the Milli Muslim League (MML) to participate in the upcoming general elections. Before that, MML candidates Yaqoob Sheikh and Liaqat Ali Khan contested by-elections in NA-120 (Lahore) and NA-4 (Peshawar), despite the Election Commission of Pakistan not registering the party.

In the NA-120 by-election in September, Yaqoob Sheikh won 5,822 votes, which was instrumental in the 14,000 vote drop the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) saw in its electoral hub.

MML coupled with Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY), which is currently camped in the capital demanding death sentences for PML-N ministers and the complete dismissal of the Parliament, spearheaded the rise of Islamist parties that have simultaneously surfaced in recent months. The two parties have witnessed immediate electoral success in two high profile by-elections.

That these militant Islamist groups have the backing of the military establishment has not only been maintained by the ruling party, but has also been confirmed by retired Army generals.

While it is touted as a containment policy for rogue militant elements in the country, the main purpose for mainstreaming the jihadists is to politically dent the civilian government.

The PML-N, historically right-wing conservative, has continued to enjoy a major share of the Islamist vote – which is precisely what was taken away from them during the NA-120 by-election. Furthermore, with these jihadists on their heels – and eventually in the Parliament – any planned overtures toward improving relations with India would be curtailed as well.

Therefore, Hafiz Saeed’s release completes the political mainstreaming of jihadists in Pakistan, by ensuring that the prime suspect of the Mumbai attacks, and a UN designated terrorist, will now not only be able to streamline militant activities targeting India, he can now properly spearhead the MML and eye the Parliament next year.

Saeed’s release shows the dwindling power of the civilian government – increasingly under the pressure of radical Islamist groups – which has loudly maintained that the LeT and its chief are a “liability” that they’re struggling to get rid of.

It was a civil-military confrontation over Hafiz Saeed, led by Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, that resulted in the Dawn Leaks episode last year. Two senior ministers were sacked over the leak of details regarding the security meeting over Saeed, the veracity of which has been confirmed by developments over the next 12 months.

Saeed’s release has both symbolic and actual perils for the political parties gearing up for the 2018 elections. This is as firm a sign as any that anyone eying improved relations with India by putting the Kashmir conflict on the backburner will not be allowed to run the country. But, of course, with Saeed himself now free to plan electoral strategies there should be a tangible presence of jihad-mongers in the Parliament – a constant reminder of the fate of civilians that do not toe the lines on security and diplomacy.

Even so, there could’ve been a case to shun India and back militancy in Kashmir as a unified civil-military policy had there been any benefits at all for the Pakistani state. Notwithstanding the missed economic opportunities that the perpetual confrontation with India ensures, these jihadists do not limit themselves to Kashmir and have actually collaborated with groups that have openly declared war against the Pakistani state.

Militant groups like Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), affiliated with LeT under the United Jihad Council (UJC) umbrella, have actually worked in tandem with Sipahe-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhagvi (LeJ), which are blatantly targeting the Shia population in Pakistan.

Furthermore, sections of the JuD itself have been affiliated with the Islamic State, with the Counter Terrorist Department busting a collaborating cell in Sialkot, near the Indo-Pak border.

The fact that the civilian government hosted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, orchestrated operations to cleanse South Punjab of JeM, and then took up Hafiz Saeed’s case internationally and with the military establishment, is at the very least a factor in why Nawaz Sharif is no longer the prime minister, while Saeed’s party could be contesting the elections next year.