Attack Raises Specter of Election Violence in Pakistan – Foreign Policy

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South Asia Brief: Attack Raises Specter of Election Violence in Pakistan
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Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: The Islamic State-Khorasan claims responsibility for a deadly attack at a rally in Pakistan, Bangladesh’s political opposition calls for a caretaker government until January elections, and China’s vice premier visits Islamabad to mark a decade of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
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Attack on Rally Raises Fears in Pakistan
The Islamic State-Khorasan (ISK), the faction operating mainly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, this week claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that targeted a political rally in northwest Pakistan near the Afghan border on Sunday. The attack in the district of Bajaur killed at least 54 people and injured around 200 more, bringing into sharp relief the tragic costs of the current government’s inability to address a resurgence of terrorism in Pakistan in recent years.
In 2014, after nearly a decade of violence, Pakistan’s military mounted a major operation against militancy in the country’s northwest that led to significant reductions in terrorist attacks. However, since the Taliban took over in neighboring Afghanistan two years ago, terrorist attacks in Pakistan have increased by a whopping 73 percent. The Taliban regime galvanized Islamist militants operating from Afghanistan, providing them with safe havens and inspiring them to step up cross-border attacks in Pakistan.
The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)—a group that is separate from but ideologically aligned with the Afghan Taliban—has perpetrated the most terrorist attacks in Pakistan since the group was launched in 2007. But since the 2014 crackdown, the TTP has mainly attacked police and soldiers, largely avoiding civilian targets. The TTP—although emboldened since the Taliban takeover—has no capacity to overthrow the Pakistani government; instead, it is staging relentless attacks against state security forces.
The threat of the TTP has often overshadowed that of IS-K, which was formally established in 2015 and regularly targets civilians. IS-K mostly carries out attacks in Afghanistan, but it has also struck in Pakistan—including the Sunday attack. The Islamic State also claimed one of the deadliest bombings in Pakistani history, which killed 149 people in Balochistan province in 2018 and also targeted a political campaign event.
IS-K also has quite different motivations: The group aims to undermine its Taliban rival by attacking them in Afghanistan and targeting groups aligned with them. One such group is Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), the Islamist party that held the rally in Bajaur. IS-K likely targeted the group for two reasons: JUI-F backs the Taliban, and it also embraces democracy by participating in elections, despite its hard-line religious and social positions. JUI-F’s top leader, Fazlur Rehman, is a member of the ruling coalition in Islamabad.
The Pakistani government’s response to the overall surge in terrorist attacks is underwhelming. It failed to negotiate a lasting truce with the TTP last year. Pakistan’s military has conducted limited operations near the Afghan border but hasn’t mounted a formal offensive, likely because of severe economic stress and political polarization. Islamabad’s best bet in the short term is to strengthen border security, but recent attempts—including the construction of a border fence—have not worked as intended.
With national elections set for this fall, large political rallies will continue to provide potential targets for militant groups. Sunday’s attack was not the first election-related terrorist attack in Pakistan, nor the deadliest. During the 2013 election campaign, there were more than 119 attacks in the three weeks leading up to election day. Pakistan has never postponed a national election because of terrorism threats, including then.
However, civilian and military leaders don’t want their nemesis, popular opposition leader and former Prime Minister Imran Khan, to return to power. Assuming Khan is not disqualified from public office on election day, one cannot rule out the current government using any further violence as a pretext to postpone the polls. That could prompt protests by Khan supporters, in turn leading to additional security risks and fresh unrest that militants could exploit.
What We’re Following
Politics heat up in Bangladesh. With less than six months to go until a national election, things in Bangladesh are heating up. In the last week, thousands of protesters from the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have taken to the streets in the capital, Dhaka. Last Friday, counter-protesters from the ruling Awami League party joined the fray. Although the protests were largely peaceful, things turned violent on Saturday, when police tried to forcefully remove BNP protesters from occupying key entry points to the city.
The BNP demands that the government step down to make way for a nonpolitical caretaker administration to prepare the country for January elections. However, Bangladesh’s Supreme Court ruled the caretaker provision, used in previous elections, unconstitutional in 2011. The opposition fears the Awami League—which has held power since 2009—will rig the January elections if it oversees them; many Western capitals expressed concern about irregularities during the 2018 elections.
Although weakened by harsh crackdowns in recent years, the BNP has mounted a comeback this year, capitalizing on the country’s recent economic stress. It promises additional protests until Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina steps down. That is not likely, but Hasina will need to be careful about how she responds to the opposition’s new momentum. Bangladesh is under growing pressure from the West to ensure a free and fair election, and it has a strong interest in not alienating the United States or European Union—both key trade partners.
A decade of CPEC. Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng visited Pakistan this week to mark the 10-year anniversary of the start of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the Pakistan component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative—and its flagship program. During He’s visit, the two sides agreed to speed up the development of railway projects as well as the implementation of a second phase of CPEC—both of which have lagged.
Once seen as the most operationalized part of the BRI, CPEC has fallen on hard times in recent years, with many projects under development delayed—mainly because of Pakistan’s economic turmoil, as well as China’s own slowdown. Sending He to mark the 10-year milestone, as opposed to the country’s foreign minister or the president, suggests Beijing isn’t keen to give CPEC top billing at the moment. (The official version of events is that the Islamabad government specifically invited He.)
China is also increasingly worried about security threats in Pakistan, which was likely a discussion topic during a meeting between He and Pakistani Army chief Asim Munir. He arrived in Pakistan on the same day as the attack in Bajaur. During the visit, the government shut down commercial activities and schools across Islamabad—likely seeking to send a message that Pakistan takes Chinese concerns seriously.
Foxconn inks new deal in India. Taiwanese tech giant Foxconn, a major Apple supplier, has reached an agreement with the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu to invest in a new electronics component manufacturing facility near Chennai, the state capital. The company already has a presence in Tamil Nadu, including a factory that assembles iPhones. On Monday, the company inked a research and innovation agreement with the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras.
Foxconn chair Young Liu—in India last week for a state-hosted semiconductor conference—said that the existing facility in Tamil Nadu employs around 40,000 people, and the company plans to quadruple its workforce there by late next year. The new deal comes just weeks after Foxconn backed out of a chip manufacturing project in the state of Gujarat—a political setback for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Tamil Nadu’s government is run by a rival party.
Under the Radar
A senior World Health Organization (WHO) official told Voice of America this week that Pakistan and Afghanistan “have never been this close” to eradicating polio. The two countries are the only ones in the world where the virus is still endemic. So far this year, Pakistan has only one confirmed case, compared to 20 in 2022; health officials in Afghanistan have confirmed five cases after only two there last year.
Conspiracy theories have long stymied eradication efforts in Pakistan, causing vaccine hesitancy. In both countries, militants have attacked vaccination workers in previous years. However, Hamid Jafari, the WHO official, praised current efforts in Afghanistan. In 2021, the Taliban threw their support behind a vaccination campaign that has led to millions of new shots. Jafari also cited successful measures by Pakistan to prevent larger outbreaks.
This week, Pakistan launched a new immunization campaign that will target about 8 million children. Jafari called on the two countries to partner on eradication efforts, likely due to geography. The recent polio cases have all emerged in border regions: Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province and Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
More From FP This Week
Regional Voices
Moonis Ahmar, a former professor at the University of Karachi, laments in the Express Tribune that the city’s governance failures are exacerbating long-standing challenges in terms of crime, health care, water, and energy. “Unless the citizens of Karachi take matters in their own hands, there is hardly any likelihood of a qualitative change to mitigate the sufferings of people of this mega city,” he writes.
In the Times of India, entrepreneur Neelakantha Bhanu explains how artificial intelligence can strengthen education in India. “Embracing AI as a collaborative tool can pave the way for making education accessible to all, empowering students to harness their cognitive abilities and unlock a brighter future for themselves,” he writes.
Daily Mirror editorial argues that Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s recent visit to India could spur greater economic cooperation between the countries, but it could also create problematic outcomes: “There are concerns that this visit may compromise Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and economic independence, turning it into a vassal state of India,” it argues.
Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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