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Pakistan: Militant Protests Show Little Sign Of Destabilizing Country

Four weeks into the U.S.-led strikes on Afghanistan, Islamic militant groups in Pakistan are continuing to organize protests they hope will press Islamabad to reverse its support for Washington. But as RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports from Peshawar, the protests so far show little sign of gaining the momentum necessary to threaten the government's position or destabilize the country.

Peshawar, 2 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Since the U.S.-led air strikes in Afghanistan began on 7 October, Islamic militant groups in neighboring Pakistan have staged weekly protests in major cities, with some leading to riots in which several people have died.

Religious activists and armed Pashtun tribesmen also have blocked the strategic Karakoram highway linking China and Pakistan, raising fears of food and fuel shortages in the northernmost regions of the country. Most of that blockade finally was lifted on 30 October after a six-day standoff between protestors and police.

And on 1 November, 1,000 armed men belonging to one Islamist militant party -- the TNDM (Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-I-Muhammadi) -- began crossing into Afghanistan from northern Pakistan to support the Taliban. The same party promises that 8,000 of its activists it says are camped near the Afghan border will follow soon.

The protests and the movements of armed militants underline the risks that Islamabad is running by supporting Washington in the U.S.-led war on terrorism. The strikes have generated criticism not only from Islamists in Pakistan but also in the mainstream Pakistani press as reports emerge of increasing civilian casualties.

But so far, there is little sign that Pakistan's militant Islamic parties will be able to generate sufficiently large street protests to threaten the government of President Pervez Musharraf or destabilize the country -- two ways the militants might hope to change Pakistan's official policy.

Instead, after four weeks of protests, some militant leaders themselves say they have yet to succeed in building the momentum of anti-U.S. and pro-Taliban sentiment for street protests.

Muhammed Fateh is a regional coordinator for the Islamic militant party Tanzeem-i-Islami. The group, which counts some 5,000 members, is among the dozens of small and large parties cooperating in the umbrella Defense of Pakistan and Afghanistan Council, which is seeking to coordinate protests.

Speaking in his office in Peshawar, the capital of the Northwest Frontier Province, Fateh says his party strongly supports the Taliban. He says it regards the Taliban as an inspiration for its own goal of transforming Pakistan into a similarly fundamentalist Islamic state: "We consider Afghanistan at present to be above, in the religious category, above even Saudi Arabia, as far as God's, or Allah's, dictated system of government is there. At present, this is the only country which has declared that the supreme power is Allah, and that we will decide all of our issues according to the Prophet Mohammed -- peace be upon him -- and Allah's dictates. So then it becomes imperative on all Muslims to help [the Taliban], first ideologically, then materially, and if possible, physically."

But he says that, so far, demonstrations have not reached the large sizes he had hoped for and have failed to spread nationwide. Protests have brought out crowds of 5,000 to 10,000 in Peshawar and Quetta, both of which border Afghanistan, and up to 20,000 in the commercial capital, Karachi. But there has been little reaction in the rest of the country, including another major city, Lahore.

That leaves militants facing the prospect that unless there are violent crackdowns by police against the protests, the rallies may fail to grow much beyond their current level. Fateh says: "The present situation, as far as I can consider -- to be very frank -- the [opposition] momentum has not increased. I am being rather frank in admitting that, but as I said, if the Musharraf government takes harsher steps [to curb protests], it will only serve as a catalyst for a harsher response from the public."

Up to now, the protests have been largely peaceful, in line with calls from Islamic militant leaders themselves. The government, in turn, has restrained itself to placing the leaders under house arrest to prevent them from attending key rallies, then freeing them again after the events take place.

The anti-U.S. Defense of Pakistan and Afghanistan Council has now called for a general commercial slowdown on 9 November if the government fails to meet its demands to stop supporting Washington. But the amount of influence the parties have among the public is unclear.

Islamic parties have never been able to capture more than 3 percent of the vote in past elections, although they calculate their own total membership in the millions.

As the religious opposition awaits its next move, some press speculation has turned in recent weeks to whether the Afghan crisis could divide Pakistan along ethnic lines by radicalizing Pakistan's own Pashtun population.

Pakistan's Pashtuns share cultural and linguistic ties with Afghanistan's Pashtun majority and live primarily in the Northwest Frontier Province, in parts of Baluchistan, and in smaller numbers scattered across the country.

Abdullah Jan is the Peshawar bureau chief of "The News," one of Pakistan's major English-language dailies. He says cross-border ties are particularly strong in Pakistan's so-called "tribal areas," where resident Pashtuns enjoy local autonomy from Islamabad, including having the right to carry weapons.

Jan says Pashtuns in the tribal areas often consider their tribal affiliation as more important than their nationality, even if they have Pakistani citizenship, passports, and voting rights.

"Many tribes are living in Pakistan and at the same time in Afghanistan, so they are the same people. But it won't be correct to say they consider themselves as Afghans more than as Pakistanis. [Instead], they consider themselves as belonging to a specific or particular tribe, so their attachment to their tribes is really strong, no doubt."

But Jan says there is little separatist feeling among Pakistan's Pashtun, something that might be needed if anger over the U.S.-led bombings is to destabilize the country. He says that, instead, the last decade has seen separatist sentiment even among radical Pashtun nationalists give way to active participation in Pakistani politics.

Jan says Pashtun nationalism -- including a goal of merging the Pashtun in Pakistan with those in Afghanistan -- was championed by the leftist National Awami Party until it was banned in 1973. The party later re-named itself as the Awami National Party, or ANP, and, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has moved increasingly into the mainstream: "They have observed a complete somersault in their policy, in their stance after the early 1990s. They changed their policies, and now they are very actively participating in Pakistani politics. And there have even been times when they joined hands with Pakistan Muslim League, a political party which created Pakistan. They joined in a government with them twice, which was very surprising for many analysts."

Jan also says no new separatist parties have formed among the Pashtuns to take up the ANP's discarded cause. That makes many political analysts in Pakistan say they see little likelihood the current Afghan crisis will seriously threaten Pakistan's stability.

Pervez Iqbal Cheema, president of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute in Islamabad, says the tens of thousands of Islamic militants and several thousand armed Pashtun tribesmen on the streets to date must be considered within the context of a nation of more than 140 million people.

"I don't think there is a great deal of reaction, and I think I would be worried if there were no reaction. The reason being we are next door [to Afghanistan]. It is an Islamic country, and we have a Pashtun population and they have a Pashtun population. I would be a little worried if there were no dissenting opinion. The largest gathering [militants] have been able to get is something like 20,000 people in Karachi. But remember, Karachi is a city of 12 million people."

Still, analysts in Pakistan warn that if U.S. strikes bring sustained civilian casualties in Afghanistan, opposition to the operations could build in mainstream society. A particularly delicate time starts in the middle of November, as Pakistan -- like the rest of the Muslim world -- begins the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Pakistan's President Musharraf recently repeated a call for the bombings to stop during Ramadan. He said that not doing so will give an excuse for all those who are against the actions in Afghanistan to raise their voices more.