Fears of targeted killing at the hands of the Taliban operating in and around Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s recently renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, have forced the leadership of Pakistan’s key secular parties to stay in hiding instead of going out in public and governing. This absence of leadership has provided an opening for religious and pro-Taliban elements to win the hearts and minds of the hundreds of thousands in the area rendered homeless by the devastating floods ravaging Pakistan.
Hamstrung by their meager resources and lack of capacity to deal with such a huge calamity, the local and central governments have responded to the crisis far slower than the religious charities, which benefit from armies of volunteers and extensive funding. These charities have outdone the government by helping rescue trapped people, as well as providing shelters, cooked food, warm clothes, and emergency health services. They have also used their relief efforts as a propaganda opportunity, displaying banners replete with Islamist slogans and telling flood victims that the disaster occurred because Pakistanis have not obeyed God or implemented sharia.
The absence of a coherent government response invited the anger of the affected Pakistanis, while also forcing them to embrace and become dependent on the sometimes-banned pro-jihadi religious parties and their affiliated charities; until the flood, these parties had been rapidly losing ground and the trust of the people due to the increasing number of civilian casualties resulting from bomb attacks in cities and towns across Pakistan. These parties include the Jamaat-ud-Dawa-linked Falah-e-Insaniat foundation, as well as the Jamat-e-Islami and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, who seldom condemn the Taliban attacks on Pakistani civilians, let alone the attacks on Pakistani security forces or the NATO forces on the other side of the border.
Meanwhile, flood victims expected the leadership of the secular party that has governed Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa for the past two years, the Awami National Party (ANP), to visit them and share their grief and shock at their condition. But no leader from the ANP or the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) visited any of the troubled areas, increasing the sense of grievance of the people.
In such an environment, the central leadership of the ANP, which has been a vanguard of the anti-terror war since its coming into power in the province in late 2008, cannot openly challenge the religious parties, even on an issue like flood relief. Indeed, several elected ANP members, leaders and workers have been killed since the party’s ascent to power, mainly due to of its strong anti-Taliban stance.
In my conversations with senior insiders in the two parties, it has been made clear that the party leadership are faced with an imminent threat from the Taliban.
The Taliban killed a police chief at the time when the whole province was dealing with the impact of the flooding; last month, the son of a provincial minister known for his outspoken remarks against the militants, Mian Iftikhar Hussain, was shot dead; a suicide attack was carried out the next day in front of the minister’s house while people were gathered to mourn his son. The party’s central leader Asfandyar Wali Khan narrowly escaped a suicide attack at his house in October 2008 and since then, he has lived like a prisoner in Islamabad without visiting his hometown of Charsadda, the base of the politics of his forefathers and hundreds of the party leaders and workers were killed in different parts of the province. This month militants attacked and wounded the prominent surgeon Dr. Gulalai Wali, Asfandyar Wali Khan’s sister, in Peshawar.
Not a single elected government in Pakistan has completed its five-year term since 1988 and the existing one also seems ready to meet the same fate in face of its decreasing popularity. Pressure from religious movements that keep secular parties from providing services to their constituents will only help ensure that after the next elections it will be the religious parties governing in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the key zone in Pakistan’s ongoing war on terror.
As the secular nationalist leaders are being applauded by the world community, they are faced with increasingly dangerous challenges at home, faced with the threat of Taliban attacks as well as growing criticism from the voters who elected them to power only two years ago.
Daud Khattak is a Pashtun journalist currently working for the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Pashto-language station Radio Mashaal.