Pakistan’s new big jihadi show

Where militant defend the military from foreign sponsors and domestic puppets

When the jihadi face of Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex brazenly showed itself in the form of a Difa-e-Pakistan (Defence of Pakistan) rally in Lahore last month, it appeared that the military face had used ‘non-state actors’ to send a signal both to Washington and its own people. The street power and anti-Americanism of jihadi militants would impress upon Washington the need to continue to do business with the relatively more reasonable military establishment. At the same time, the rally and the rhetoric would channelise public anger at the US/NATO attack on a border position in the Mohmand Agency in a way the military establishment liked.

It also revealed the utter contempt the military establishment has for the game of dossiers-and-lawsuits over the 26/11 terrorist attacks on Mumbai the powerless civilian government of Pakistan has engaged New Delhi in. For here was Hafiz Saeed, the chief of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa/Lashkar-e-Taiba, not only out in the open, but addressing a massive, high profile public rally. It is unlikely though, that the show was staged for India’s benefit.

A month later, and after another such rally in Multan, it appears that the Difa-e-Pakistan project has at least two other objectives.

First, the presence of Deobandi leaders and groups at these rallies suggests that the military establishment is attempting to close the gap that arose between the two after the Lal Masjid massacre of 2007. If the military establishment can forge a ‘common minimum programme’ with the key Deobandi groups, the likelihood of the Pakistan Taliban and related groups ratcheting down their war against the Pakistan army increases considerably. There is a price Pakistan will have to pay for such a compromise, but because it benefits the military establishment, that price will be paid.

Second, the Difa-e-Pakistan movement provides the military establishment with a way to split Imran Khan’s base. Why would they do that, because wasn’t Mr Khan their man? Well, whether or not he is their man, it would not suit the military establishment’s purpose for him to more powerful than it would like.

It may well be that Mr Khan, convinced of his own power, is dancing less to the piper’s tune. In his interview on Indian television in November 2011, Mr Khan declared that he would bring the armed forces under civilian control, wind down all militant groups and deweaponise Pakistan. That’s not quite what the men in khaki would like. That’s certainly not what the jihadi groups would like. So even if Mr Khan is trying to be everything to everyone—he didn’t turn up at the Difa-e-Pakistan rally, but sent a letter that was read out—the prospect of a popular Prime Minister Imran Khan attempting to boss over the military-jihadi complex would be unwelcome to both the generals and the jihadis. Difa-e-Pakistan claims to be, err, ‘non-political’. It nevertheless can exert pressure on Mr Khan. More importantly, it can split his vote in the upcoming elections.

All this is fine as far as Pakistan’s domestic power struggles go. The immediate question for India and the rest of the world is the risk of spillover. Would emboldened jihadi groups be satisfied with mere rhetorical attacks against India and the United States?