Under militancy’s shadow, political canvassing takes a back seat

In contrast to the lively rallies and door-to-door canvassing witnessed in other parts of the country, many parts of KP and Balochistan grapple with a daunting reality — the looming threat of militant groups.
Published January 22, 2024

This article was originally published on January 22, 2024.

In a village in Bajaur, a Khyber Pakhtunkhwa district nestled along the rugged Afghan border, a disquieting silence hangs heavy. Inside a hujra [a traditional guest house], a Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam — Fazl (JUI-F) candidate for a provincial assembly seat huddles with villagers, his campaign promises hushed against the backdrop of fear. Four armed men stand guard outside, a grim reminder of the violence that has already marred the upcoming February 8 polls in the country.

Two candidates, Qari Khairullah of the JUI-F and Syed Rahim Shah of the Mazlum Ulasi Tehrik, recently became victims of separate militant attacks in Bajaur. Their incidents serve as stark warnings, underscoring the dangers that lie beneath the surface of this emerging election campaign. Khairullah escaped unharmed in a bomb attack on his car, whereas Shah was critically injured, and his colleague was killed as unidentified gunmen opened fire on their car.

“We’re stifled by fear,” said the JUI-F candidate at the hujra, requesting anonymity for security reasons. His words resonate with a community living under the constant threat of violence. In late July, a suicide bombing at a JUI-F rally in Bajaur left over 55 dead, and hundreds injured, intensifying the apprehension. The attack was later claimed by the militant Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP)

The fear is palpable. “The safety of our people is our major concern,” admits the candidate, desperation woven into his words. Whispers of withdrawals ripple through the district, with several of his party’s candidates opting out in the face of relentless attacks.

As the February 8 elections draw closer, an unsettling silence pervades much of KP and Balochistan. In contrast to the lively rallies and door-to-door canvassing witnessed in other parts of the country, these regions grapple with a daunting reality — the looming threat of militant groups, ranging from Islamist outfits to separatist movements, casts a long shadow over the democratic process.

In Tappi village, North Waziristan, a hotbed for militant attacks, Mohsin Dawar, former MNA and head of the National Democratic Movement, narrowly escaped an attack during his election campaign on January 3. A week later, another independent provincial assembly candidate from the same district, Malik Kaleemullah Dawar, was killed in an attack in the same village.

“Running the election campaign is challenging when militants are firing bullets and launching bomb attacks,” lamented an NDM supporter in Tappi village. In August, threatening letters targeting Mohsin Dawar and leaders of a local tribal council, Utmanzai Qaumi Jirga, were circulated in North Waziristan.

Mounting security fears

Amid rising security concerns, officials from the Counter Terrorism Department in Peshawar on Friday claimed the arrest of two ISKP militants planning a suicide attack on JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman and ANP KP chief Aimal Wali. The interior ministry’s ‘threat advisories’ in late December also underscored concerns about potential deadly attacks on these two leaders.

“While security threats may not be as severe as in the 2013 and 2018 elections, certain parties, especially the JUI-F and the ANP in KP, still face security threats from various militant groups,” highlighted Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud, director of news at The Khorasan Diary, an Islamabad-based research platform monitoring militant groups.

And even as the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the ISKP remain significant threats, the emergence of lesser-known militant groups like the Tehreek-i-Jihad Pakistan (TJP) and the faction led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur adds further complexity to the security landscape leading up to the polls.

In 2023, these groups orchestrated 208 terrorist attacks, resulting in 579 fatalities and 938 injuries — a marked increase from 179 the previous year, according to the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, an Islamabad-based think tank.

While the TTP claims that public places and political parties are no longer its target, security officials and experts advise caution, citing a strategy reminiscent of the Afghan Taliban. “Commanders affiliated with the TTP and its splinter groups, such as Jamaat ul Ahrar (JuA), claim responsibility for such attacks,” said a Peshawar-based security official, pointing to instances like last January’s suicide bombing on a mosque in Peshawar, where TTP commanders claimed attacks instead of the main organisation.

Mehsud expressed concern that the TTP could target certain politicians due to their alleged cooperation with the government in the crackdown on them. He cited the example of a TTP attack on PML-N KP chief provincial Amir Maqam in June in the Martung area of Shangla, where he, fortunately, remained unhurt.

Furthermore, Mehsud noted that many attacks on election campaigns, such as the recent ones in North Waziristan, may go unclaimed by any group because militant entities avoid claiming responsibility to avert public backlash.

He highlighted, however, that the ISKP has emerged as a significant threat to political parties in general, drawing from the transnational militant outfit’s global anti-democracy ideology. “It poses severe threats to the JUI-F because of the party’s close links with the Taliban administration in the ongoing Afghanistan situation,” he added.

Political analysts observe a tangible surge in security anxieties before the vote, with pervasive fear and threats prompting senior politicians to avoid traditional campaign gatherings.

Militant attacks in past elections

Pakistan has grappled with a persistent issue of deadly attacks by militant groups during election cycles. The formation of the TTP and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 set the stage for a turbulent 2008 election where over 500 people were killed or injured, primarily in attacks carried out by the terror outfit.

The 2013 elections witnessed a number of targeted attacks, making the election campaign period one of the bloodiest in Pakistan’s history. During the polls, ANP topped the list of parties whose leaders and workers were terrorised by the TTP in KP and Karachi. Additionally, the TTP targeted the Qaumi Watan Party and the PPP.

The three-week election campaign period leading up to the polls on May 11, 2013, was the bloodiest in Pakistan’s history. According to a report by Critical Threats — a project of the American Enterprise Institute that compiles militant activity globally — 81 people were killed, and 437 were wounded in over 119 violent incidents between April 20, when campaigning officially began, and May 9, when a campaign blackout was instituted. On the night of May 9, the son of former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was kidnapped by Al Qaeda-linked militants.

Despite the 2018 general elections being less violent than those in 2013, they continued a troubling trend with high-casualty attacks, particularly by the ISKP — a new player that emerged in mid-2014.

On July 13, just two days before polling, over 140 people were killed during an election rally held by Nawabzada Siraj Raisani of the Balochistan Awami Party in Mastung, Balochistan. Raisani himself was a victim of the attack, which was claimed by the ISKP.

Baloch separatist threat

In Balochistan, political parties in the Makran region are proceeding even more cautiously in their election campaigns, mindful of the enduring separatist insurgency. On Jan 10, Aslam Buledi, a PML-N candidate contesting the National Assembly constituency, comprising Turbat and Panjgur, was critically injured in an attack in Turbat, though no group has claimed responsibility.

On Monday, Jan 15, unidentified attackers threw a grenade into a school during a training session being held for polling staff in Balochistan’s Kharan district. Two days later, on Jan 17, Asghar Rind, the PPP’s candidate for Turbat’s provincial assembly set, narrowly escaped a grenade attack on his house in Turbat.

The next day, on January 18, district administrations in various Balochistan districts, including Kohlu, Dera Bugti, and Katchi, issued ‘security advisories’ to candidates regarding potential attacks on political leaders.

During their election campaign in Dasht area in Balochistan’s Kech district, the National Party’s provincial assembly candidate, Lala Rashid Dashti, along with Senator Akram Dashti, were attacked on Sunday evening in Dasht area, but remained unhurt.

Recent calls by the Allah Nazar-led Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) and Baloch Raji Aajoi Sangar (BRAS) — an alliance of major Baloch separatist groups — urging the Baloch people to boycott the elections, underline their stance that political participation harms the separatist cause.

A law enforcement official in Quetta, speaking on condition of anonymity, noted that the separatist groups’ call for a Baloch boycott essentially serves as a threat to political parties participating in the electoral process.

In 2008, two major Baloch ethno-nationalist political parties — the Abdul Malik Baloch-led National Party (NP), and the Akhtar Mengal-led Balochistan National Party (BNP) — boycotted the elections. However, the NP has since borne the brunt of several attacks by the BLF due to its participation in electoral politics. “Separatist groups vehemently oppose our party’s policy of seeking solutions through electoral politics, making our leaders prime targets,” said an NP leader from Turbat, again requesting anonymity due to security reasons.

The BLF was formed by disgruntled leaders of the Balochistan National Movement (subsequently renamed NP) and the Baloch Students Organisation associated with them. Initially, NP workers faced criticism from the hardliner elements from BSO — renamed BSO-Azad — and the BNM for the party’s political views favouring elections. NP activists mentioned that after the BLF’s formation, the situation worsened when the group began targeting its leaders and members.

Kiyya Baloch, a journalist and analyst studying Balochistan’s insurgency, highlighted that the killings of well-respected NP political figures, such as Maula Bakhsh Dashti and Nasim Jangian, has led to a decrease in public support for the BLF. “This may be one reason why separate groups are avoiding targeting Baloch ethno-nationalist parties,” he said.

Baloch also pointed out that politicians and candidates perceived by separatist groups as collaborating with law enforcement agencies in the crackdown on them could be considered key targets.

Postponement of elections?

Whispers of a delay in the elections echo through the power corridors as concerns mount over the worsening security situation in KP and Balochistan. In a recent interview on Dawn News programme ‘Doosra Rukh’, KP Governor Ghulam Ali too acknowledged the difficulty of conducting political activities in both KP and Balochistan due to the challenging security situation. However, an ECP official downplayed the likelihood of a delay, citing past elections having been held despite similar challenges.

“While large-scale terrorist attacks targeting political rallies have unfortunately marred past elections, they never warranted a postponement,” the ECP official said. “The current threat landscape differs significantly. We’re witnessing isolated incidents, not the coordinated attacks of the past.”

Header image created with AI