Once again images of angry men chanting and trucks burning across Pakistan streamed across the world’s televisions. There is no easy solution for managing a movement like TLP that does not formally challenge the legitimacy of the state but rejects the authority of its institutions. Without a coherent plan to manage the next episode, Pakistan’s image will remain tarnished around the world even as it makes incredible strides forward.
The government found itself in an extremely precarious position. Should it prioritize the safety of citizens today at the price of emboldening TLP tomorrow? Or should it confront TLP & risk escalating violence against ordinary citizens and giving the movement martyrs? It chose the former, order quickly restored, and Pakistan left the world’s news cycle. Life goes on. However, which each episode outside confidence in Pakistan diminishes and its biggest critics are seemingly justified even when their assessments are wrong. This cost is difficult to quantify but it is real.
While visiting Islamabad last week, I went to Saeed Book Bank and was greeted by a display of the book Instant City by Steve Inskeep, a respected American journalist.
I picked it up. The cover displayed two men on a motorbike riding past the billowing smoke of burning buses without taking any notice. The book is about a single day in 2009 Karachi when a sectarian attack took place. Its author is good but I immediately set it down out of boredom. Every book looks and feels like this one while Pakistan’s rich culture, people, landscape, and developments remain permanently screened behind a plume of black smoke.
Pakistan’s government and military have made significant strides against terrorism. The once restive Swat valley was returned to civilian control just two weeks ago.
It barely made international news. Checkpoints continue to be removed across the country as confidence in security is restored and the most violent militants find themselves isolated. Pakistan is rising. In this environment it is understandable why the government may prefer to quietly lead TLP off the streets rather than loudly drag them. Perhaps the Prime Minister believes it is his duty to focus on the country’s broader security and economic development without distraction. His trip to China could be viewed as a rejection of TLP’s significance. But pragmatic actions do not easily follow iconoclastic speeches.
The risks of the agreement between TLP and the government must be accepted. Arguments that revolve around whether Aasia Bibi will or will not be added to the ECL or the relative merits of an appeal ignore the risk of normalizing TLP’s tactics. TLP’s specific demands merely serve as a vehicle to achieve their primary objective which is to grow in power and thus they cannot be duped with an unbinding agreement because they have already won. Last year, I walked through the Faizabad interchange dharna and the checkpoints established by TLP and they are not armed militants. However, paralyzing entire cities is a form of anti-state violence and turning a blind eye erodes the writ of the state, emboldens TLP, and kicks the can down the road. The government has arrested numerous TLP workers since the agreement took place and perhaps this indicates a strategy of quietly dismantling their capability from the bottom up. Is there a plan for the next episode which will inevitably come? It would be tragic if Pakistan were to leave a decade of militant violence behind only to begin a new one in which its major cities can be shutdown at the will of one man. The stakes are even higher because this time around the only victim will be Pakistan
There is also a risk in viewing TLP primarily as a creation of the establishment that now dares to challenge it. This framing prevents a cohesive challenge to a movement that openly disrespects all of Pakistan’s institutions. It also ignores the root causes of the movement. Is the establishment solely responsible for the dismal state of education and economic inequality in Pakistan or did corrupt and incompetent provincial administrators also play a role? Is there a single political party that has courted extremist groups at the behest of the establishment or have all political parties engaged with these groups during elections or when they find themselves in the opposition? TLP formed out of the vacuum left by weak governance and it is viewed as a tool by all of Pakistan’s political stakeholders.
The rise of TLP presents a new challenge for Pakistan because the group is composed of unarmed citizens who have mastered shutdown by disruption better than any group since the MQM of the 1990s. However, it would be tragic if Pakistan were to leave a decade of militant violence behind only to begin a new one in which its major cities can be shut down at the will of one man. The stakes are even higher because this time around the only victim will be Pakistan.