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Pakistani Bounties Aimed At Winning Taliban Support

Ghulam Ahmad Bilour offered a $100,000 bounty for killing the "Innocence of Muslims" producer.
Ghulam Ahmad Bilour offered a $100,000 bounty for killing the "Innocence of Muslims" producer.
Bounties abound in Pakistan these days. And the bounty setters -- mostly prospective candidates for the upcoming general elections -- are trying to cash in on anti-Western populism in the wake of the objectionable film "Innocence of Muslims."

But that's not their sole objective. There's something more important: winning the support -- or at least sympathy -- of the Taliban militants who might well regard political leaders and their election events as soft targets once the campaigning is under way.

Ghulam Ahmad Bilour, minister for railways in the central Pakistani cabinet and a stalwart of the nationalist and secular Awami National Party (ANP), led the way by offering a $100,000 bounty for killing the reported producer of the "Innocence of Muslims." Even Al-Qaeda and Taliban can claim the lucrative sum.

Ironically, Bilour's ANP stands out in Pakistan for its nonviolence and secularist ideology. Moreover, the party defiantly brandishes the number of ANP workers and leaders who've been targeted or killed by Taliban militants in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The figure also includes attacks on the party's central and provincial presidents, Asfandyar Wali Khan and Afrasiab Khattak, both of whom narrowly escaped with their lives, and the killing of two provincial legislators, Shamsher Ali Khan in Swat and Alamzeb Khan in Peshawar.

But Bifour has benefited in a way that he, and perhaps his secular nonviolent party, might have been calculating: The Taliban has removed his name from its hit list and potentially paved the way for further rapprochement with his secular party ahead of the general elections slated for March 2013.

Maybe more importantly, Bilour proudly took the stage on September 28 at the historical Mahabat Khan Mosque in Peshawar, the minister's home constituency, to the chagrin of rivals from the pro-Taliban Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam. The appearance was bound to be met with praise irrespective of the performance of his ministry over the past few years.

With the general elections just a few months away and anti-Western sentiment running high, who knows better than the religious parties of Pakistan to strike while the iron is hot? Thus Ikramullah Shahid of the JUI-S tried to outdo Bilour by announcing a $200,000 bounty on the head of "Innocence of Muslims" producer.

Bilour might have boosted his popularity rating with the bounty, but it must have come as no surprise that someone tweeted him as "Ayatullah Bilour al-Cinimayee" -- "Ayatullah" in a reference to the fatwa by Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini 23 years ago against "The Satanic Verses" author Salman Rushdie, and "al-Cinimayee" in a reference to the Bilour family's cinema business, deemed haram (forbidden) by some strict Islamists. Members of Bilour's own party also expressed alarm at his bounty announcement. One among them, female senator Bushra Gohar, termed it a "criminal" act.

But why single out Bilour? Another sitting minister of the central Pakistani cabinet, Sheikh Waqas Akram, declared during a television talk show that he'd kill the producer if he could. The central Pakistani government declared September 21 a public holiday in reaction to the outrage over the amateurish film. One year ago, Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Pakistan's largest province, Punjab, appealed during a public meeting to Taliban not to carry out attacks inside his province as his government was not touching them. The minister for law in Sharif's cabinet, Rana Sanaullah, was accused of supporting members of the banned Sipah-e Sahaba to browbeat opponents within his constituency.

Pakistani officials describe the country as a victim of Taliban and Al-Qaeda terrorism and say terrorists pose a serious threat to the country. But ruling and opposition parties alike appear willing to close their eyes to that threat as they pursue short-term political gain.

Bounties might briefly prop up parties or individuals, but they won't inspire confidence when the future of 180 million Pakistanis is at stake.

-- Daud Khattak