A secular political party with a sizeable following among Pakistan’s Pashtun minority has announced a protest to force the country’s interior minister to resign after he said the party’s leaders were killed as a response by the hard-line Taliban.
Leaders of the Awami National Party (ANP) have called on Interior Minister Ijaz Shah to resign within 10 days or the party’s supporters will march on the capital, Islamabad, to force him out of office.
“There is no justification for him to remain in office after such a [callous] statement,” lawmaker Samar Haroon Bilour, spokeswoman for the ANP in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, told journalists on November 2.
“The ANP sacrificed hundreds of leaders and supporters in the war against terrorism,” she said. “We not only seek an inquiry commission to look into their deaths, but we also seek clarification from the state over this statement.”
Samar lost her husband and ANP stalwart Haroon Bilour to a suicide attack in July 2018. Her father-in-law, Bashir Ahmad Bilour, was also killed in a suicide bombing in December 2012. He was senior minister in the ANP-led provincial administration at the time. Overall, the party lost more than 1,000 members to attacks beginning in 2008. The Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella alliance of Pakistani Taliban groups, claimed credit for many attacks against the ANP.
Speaking in the eastern province of Punjab last week, Shah said the ANP’s leaders were killed as a reaction to their opposition to the Taliban.
“When the ANP assumed power and began acting against terrorism, the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan and Afghanistan killed the Bilours and the son of Iftikhar [Hussain],” he told a gathering last week. “This was a reaction,” he added. “Now I pray for the people who are supporting the narrative of [Pakistan Muslim League] Nawaz that Allah may protect them because I feel that they are vulnerable.”
The statement, however, was widely condemned. Opposition politicians even said Shah attempted to threaten them to persuade them from criticizing the country’s military. The ANP and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or PML-N are part of an opposition alliance. After its emergence in September, the Pakistan Democratic Movement has criticized Pakistan’s powerful military for interfering in politics and rigging the 2018 election to put current Prime Minister Imran Khan into power.
“The state should clarify whether Shah is telling the truth,” ANP leaders Iftikhar Hussain said in a November 2 statement. In 2010, the TTP took credit for killing Hussain’s only son. Rashid Hussain was 28 when he was shot dead in July 2010.
"He tried to scare the PML-N by invoking the killings of ANP [leaders],” he added. “Ijaz Shah has attempted to prove that the criticism of some people over Pakistan’s counterterrorism policies is justified."
Sardar Hussain Babak, another ANP leader, said the statement amounts to a confirmation that the opposition is being targeted. “Now the government is threatening people, saying they will do the same to them that they did to others,” he told Radio Mashaal.
Rights activists and certain politicians have criticized the Pakistani military for supporting the Taliban in Pakistan by sheltering the Afghan insurgents and turning a blind eye to the TTP for years. The Pakistani military, however, rejects such criticism and points to its large operations against the TTP and allies as proof of its counterterrorism commitment.
Shah, a former brigadier general and spy chief, is a controversial figure. In 2004, Australia’s Foreign Affairs Department reportedly refused to accept him as the Pakistani envoy. Leaders of the Pakistan Peoples Party, another opposition group, have alleged their late leader, Benazir Bhutto, demanded Shah be investigated if she was killed. Bhutto was killed in December 2007, but Shah was never formally charged.
The outcry over Shah’s comments is unlikely to die down in Pakistan’s highly charged political atmosphere, where accusations of treason are common. It follows a debate over whether Islamabad did the right thing by quickly releasing a captured Indian pilot last year to avoid escalation with archrival India.
In Pakistani public discourse, the threat of treason charges is often invoked to silence government critics -- something that has reached a fevered pitch in recent weeks as the government and the military face mounting criticism from PDM leaders.