The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Imran Khan needs to build bridges with his political opposition, not with violent groups

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in Islamabad in March 2020. (B.K. Bangash/AP)
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Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan seems more willing to talk to terrorists blamed for killing thousands of Pakistanis, including security personnel and schoolchildren, than sit down with his political opposition.

He was absent from a five-hour, closed-door special meeting of the parliamentary committee on national security on Monday because he probably didn’t want to shake hands with his nonviolent rivals. Why is he digging a big hole for himself?

Chief of Army Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa and Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, the director general Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), have informed parliamentarians from the government and the opposition that the new Taliban regime in Afghanistan was facilitating talks with the banned group Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The top military officials told parliamentarians before Aug. 15 that the Afghan Taliban and TTP were not listening to them and that they were the same sides of one coin. What changed after the Taliban takeover of Kabul? Many questions were asked to Bajwa but he was not able to answer clearly. Most parliamentarians were tight lipped after the meeting, but they confirmed that all major opposition parties except the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) rejected talks with banned outfits. The TTP announced a month-long cease-fire with Pakistan within minutes of the security briefing and another religious group, Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), called off a protest the same day.

When Khan was in the opposition, he supported the TLP. When he came into power, his government imposed a ban on the TLP in April 2021, citing a terrorism law. Within six months, he surrendered to the TLP and removed the ban, notification of which was issued on Nov. 7. TLP leaders have been involved in murder cases and killings of police officials. After reaching an agreement with the government, TLP leaders are getting freedom orders from courts. This agreement is putting a question mark on the rule of law in Pakistan. Now, other groups are now demanding the same treatment from the state.

A leader of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) threatened that if the ban on his organization were not lifted, then he would be compelled to call for protests, as did the TLP. This is a clear sign that accommodating one group will encourage others. They can blackmail the government like the TLP did and, ultimately, the state will lose its writ.

Just a few months ago, Pakistan failed to come out of the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force’s “grey list.” One of the reasons was because Pakistan never prosecuted a group of U.N.-designated terrorists. Now, any agreement with the TTP and TLP could be seen as a deviation from the assurances given by Pakistan on many international forums. Some parliamentarians asked Bajwa why, if these deals are necessary for bringing peace in Pakistan, is Ali Wazir, a member of the parliament, being treated differently? Wazir has been behind bars since December for making a critical speech about the army. He never killed any soldier. There is amnesty for the killers but why no mercy for Wazir?

If the law is not applied equally to all citizens, how can we expect stability? The Pakistani state signed many agreements with the TTP in the past, but there were no positive results. This is the seventh time that the Pakistani state is trying to make a such a deal. Pakistani authorities also made several deals with the TLP. Both groups have different backgrounds, but the TTP extended its full support to the TLP in April. Whenever the TTP or TLP broke agreements, they were declared Indian agents by government ministers. Now, these same ministers are coming up with arguments to justify deals with those who were labeled Indian agents in the recent past. Who lied then? There is no open debate. Khan is treating parliament as a rubber stamp. He is playing with the morale of the security forces. A nuclear state is looking helpless in the face of some groups, but showing its muscle to nonviolent politicians such as Wazir.

Some opposition lawmakers told me that Khan always supported the TTP and TLP in the past and that he is planning to use those groups against them in the coming elections. Ruling leaders of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf are openly talking about the possibility of an alliance with the TLP in the coming election. That is why opposition parties are uniting and have begun holding antigovernment rallies.

Khan is determined to secure a second term at any cost. Bajwa may also like to extend his term; Hameed seems to want to succeed him. But soon, the generals won’t be able to coexist. The prime minister may choose between Bajwa and Hameed, but he has no choice between law and lawlessness.

If Khan is willing to accommodate lawbreakers, then he is inviting economic sanctions and troubles for his people. He is digging a hole not just for himself, but for his country.

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