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EFSAS Commentary

The intriguing revival of the extremist Difa-e-Pakistan Council and the establishment’s continuing reliance on terrorists and bigots


Pakistan has been in the grip of crippling crises in multiple sectors over the past couple of years, be it the highly charged and confrontational political environment, near economic bankruptcy, social upheaval across strata, and the unprecedented, severe, security challenge along its borders with Afghanistan. The scale of the problem has reached such proportions that even the country’s military establishment, untouchable and all-powerful till recently, has become a routinely used punching bag for many, especially former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who believes that the military was behind his ouster from office last year. The military establishment, which seems to know only one way to deal with particularly rough situations, has chosen to respond as it has repeatedly done throughout its chequered history by unleashing the terrorists and religious extremists that have long been cultivated and nurtured by it as strategic assets. The revival of the dormant Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC) by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) this past week with the aim of neutralizing the challenge posed by Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf on the one hand and the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and militant Baloch groups on the other reeks exactly of that. Religious bigots in their multitude spewing venom against Pakistan’s imagined enemies, both internal and external, also serves to divert attention from the pressing economic woes that are bearing down upon the common man. 

The sudden rise to prominence of the DPC, which is a coalition of over 40 religious parties and terrorist groups, in 2011-12, was as intriguing as its re-activation is today. The DPC had came into being after Pakistan had banned the overland transport of NATO supplies to Afghanistan in November 2011, following a raid by NATO helicopters and fighter jets on two military outposts in northwest Pakistan that killed 28 Pakistani troops and plunged Pakistan-United States (US) relations into crisis. The DPC had held several rallies at that time in which leaders of banned terrorist outfits such as the Jamaat-ud Dawa (JuD), a front of the Lashkar-e-Taibah (LeT), and the sectarian Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, also participated. Reports at that time suggested that the controversial retired army general and former chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Hameed Gul, who was a prominent participant and speaker at the DPC rallies, had orchestrated the events on behalf of the ISI.

Observers opined that the formation of the DPC was also part of an ISI initiative to cobble together a political alliance ahead of the general elections scheduled for May 2013, in which the DPC could be used to tilt the balance in the direction that the military establishment desired. On the ISI’s involvement with the DPC, Myra MacDonald, author, former Reuters journalist, and expert on South Asia, had written “….Given widespread suspicion that the alliance enjoys the tacit backing of the Pakistan Army – few believe it could operate so openly without the approval of the Generals in Rawalpindi – it also provides an (albeit distorted) window into the thinking of the country’s powerful security establishment”.

In her 3 February 2012 article in the Pakistani daily The Express Tribune, Tazeen Javed argued that one could not be faulted for assuming that the DPC may perhaps comprise of officials of Pakistan’s defense ministry, four-star generals and decorated admirals who wish to ponder over the defense needs of the country and make major strategic decisions. She continued, “To find out that it is actually a motley crew of forty-odd religious parties, banned terrorist outfits like the Jamaatud Dawa (JuD), a few other political has-beens like Sheikh Rasheed and Ijazul Haq, and former spymaster Hameed Gul, among others, can be shocking”. On the question of what the DPC stood for, she eloquently wrote, “According to Hafiz Saeed of the JuD, it is a coalition with the aim to ‘defend Pakistan’. What do they actually do apart from claiming to defend the country? Not much besides holding rallies in different cities and threatening the government of dire consequences if their demands are not. What are those dire consequences? Chaos, anarchy and suicide bombings. But don’t we have them — anarchy, chaos and suicide bombings  —  already? Yes, but they have promised to scale up the operations if their demands are not met”. She concluded that “The Difa-e-Pakistan Council is not concerned with the public good; according to its chairman, ‘the council’s sole agenda is to ensure the integrity and sovereignty of Pakistan’… Does any of this make sense? No, not really”.

After all the fanfare and hype of its initial days, the DPC fizzled out quite remarkably over the years. Barring the odd statement issued every few years, the Council has, for all intents and purposes, been dormant. The killing of the DPC’s founder Maulana Samiul Haq in 2018 had an impact. Pakistan’s ordeals at the hands of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) between 2018 and 2022 also necessitated that the enforced hibernation of the rabble-rousers be extended till the FATF danger had passed. Not much time has passed since Pakistan managed to wriggle itself out of the FATF’s incisive examination, but from the impatient military establishment’s perspective, a few months was quite long enough. The establishment’s preeminence and unquestioned leadership had come under very open and vociferous attack for the first time in decades. Tired of being bottled up and silenced, a course of action that took away the visibility on which their appeal depended, the constituents of the DPC were also quite likely exerting pressure on their handlers in the ISI to let them loose. The timing, for the establishment, seemed right.

It is in this backdrop that a conference titled ‘Stability of Pakistan and Our Responsibilities’ was organized by the DPC in an Islamabad hotel on 8 April. Most prominent leaders of the Council, barring some such as those of the JuD and the Jamaat-i-Islami (JeI), participated. Addressing the gathering, DPC Chairman and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Sami) leader Maulana Hamid Ul Haq Haqqani set the tone when he alleged that “global forces were conspiring to weaken Pakistan”. He claimed that “enemy forces wanted to carry out suicide attacks at mosques and imambargahs” to create discord in the country. He proposed a united platform to bring Pakistan out of the prevailing political and economic crisis.

The Pakistani daily Dawn reported that Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, founder of the terrorist group Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) and current leader of Ansarul Umma, seconded the DPC chief and added that “Our motherland is fighting for survival, freedom and independence, national pride, and defense of important national interests. Our freedom, sovereignty and integrity are at stake”.

Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat head Ahmed Ludhianvi said that Pakistan was passing through a critical phase and in these times of trials and tribulations, the DPC was bringing a message of hope for the disappointed and dejected people of the country. Alleging that “foreign agents were interfering” in the internal affairs of Pakistan, he said, without elaborating, that the “Time has come to take care of it immediately”. In a thinly veiled attack on Imran Khan, he warned that those plotting against Pakistan’s security institutions would be given a befitting response by the DPC. Categorically stating that Pakistan was created in the name of religion, he claimed that religious parties were the ones that would shield it from evil eyes.

Other speakers said that the defense of a country and its economy go hand in hand. They said that the economy has been in a state of constant decline for the past few years, and blamed the political class for the prevalent ills. They accused politicians of being “busy in achieving their political benefits” at the expense of the poor economic situation, injustice, and terrorism in the country. They also blamed politicians for compromising the integrity of the nation. The speeches made by the extremist delegates were in particular directed at, and critical of, the PTI and its leader Imran Khan.

The declaration issued after the meeting said that political and economic instability was weakening the foundations of Pakistan and endangering its integrity. It was strongly critical of policymakers, saying that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was being allowed to “insult” the entire nation for just a billion dollars. It added, “The enemies of the country are enjoying Pakistan’s weak economic condition, but a few actors in the country are playing into their hands. Today, the State and the entire nation are being sacrificed for personal politics in the country, which is not acceptable to this forum”. The DPC leaders warned that the “politics of vengeance will destroy the entire system… hurling unrealistic and fake criticism is neither part of Islamic teachings nor allowed in eastern culture and traditions”. Ironically, the DPC lamented that facts were being distorted through organized propaganda campaigns on social media.

The reawakening of the DPC at this juncture has a lot to do with the problems confronting the Pakistan government led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, and with the challenge to the domination of the military establishment that has become a feature of Pakistani politics in recent years. Facing mass protests and calls for holding elections in which the incumbent parties are not expected to fare too well, the Sharif government is increasingly coming across as being desperately hopeless. This impression has taken deeper roots after the government recently suffered the humiliation of failing to arrest Imran Khan. The Army too has been stung by shrill criticism, even of its senior most generals, by Imran. The revival of the DPC seems to owe a lot to the common and urgent desire to counter the PTI chief.

That the Pakistani government and the military establishment are firmly on board with the revival of the DPC is evident from the fact that the State-run PTV also aired the DPC meeting, including the speeches of those like Ahmed Ludhianvi, the head of the banned outfit Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat. The establishment exercises strict control over media content in Pakistan. Also, heads of banned organizations would hardly be able to travel to the capital and participate in public events there without the State’s express consent. As the Pakistani daily The Nation put it in an opinion piece titled ‘Weaponising Religion’, “There has been an increasing push in past weeks to once again center extremist groups. The relaunch of the Difa-e-Pakistan Council and the presence of individuals like (Jaish-e-Mohammed leader) Maulana Masood Azhar on TV to push back against the PTI is straight from the playbook and only shows that weaponizing religion for political ends is a tradition we are not willing to let go off”.

A 10 April editorial in the Daily Times titled ‘Old Wine, New Bottle’, meanwhile, lamented that “As Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi, a leader of proscribed Ahle Sunnat Wal Jama’at, perched atop a grand stage and thundered against the “mummy, daddy, burgers” grilling institutions over the coals, one was forced to wonder whether we, as a country, would ever find the courage to learn from our mistakes. These strategic toys we leave in the sandbox only to fight against the meteoric rise of any political narrative manage to achieve nothing other than adding to its appeal. One of the biggest youth populations across the world is, certainly, not in the mood to be cowered away by mouthpieces who spew venom in all directions. Yesterday, they wished to throw spanner in the works of Westernisation corrupting the fabric of Pakistani society whilst they threw weight behind the Afghan Taliban. Today, they aspire to restore the credibility of the State and have pointed the barrels of their guns in the direction of ‘enemies hiding in Afghanistan’. The very chaos and anarchy they publicly lamented are the unfortunate children of their love affair with the power dynamics. There’s no denying that. There’s no glossing over that. But what remains to be seen is how a government, so adamant on delaying polls in the name of national security challenges, can withstand the re-energised huddling of jihadi groups. Are we, for the millionth time, stuck between good terrorism and bad terrorism? Or, do State institutions believe in carving mountains out of the proverbial molehills in their desperation to run from political battles?”

While the Pakistani State and the Pakistani people need to draw appropriate lessons from the impact that the repeated mobilization of terrorist and extremist assets by the establishment has had on their country’s polity, society, economy and security, the message for the FATF and other international anti-terrorist bodies is equally clear – the Pakistani terror machinery is openly back in action.