What the anti-NATO protest signals for Pakistan

Thousands turned out to protest the reopening of NATO supply lines through Pakistan, but most of the protest leaders do not command power at the ballot box.

Anjum Naveed/AP
Supporters of Defense Council of Pakistan, a coalition of hard line Islamist religious leaders and politicians, take part in an anti-NATO rally in Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, July 9. Thousands of Islamists rallied in the Pakistan's capital to protest against the government's decision to allow the US and other NATO countries to resume shipping troop supplies through the country to Afghanistan.

Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets for the past few days in a “long march” from Lahore to Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, in response to the government's recent decision to reopen NATO access to critical supply routes for the war efforts in Afghanistan. More protests are planned in cities across Pakistan in  the coming days, including a rally heading up the Khyber Pass.

The NATO supply line was closed by Pakistani authorities in November, after 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed in a cross-border attack by US soldiers further damaging already strained relations between the two allies. Since then, Pakistan's role in the US-led war in Afghanistan has hinged on the thorny issue of the supply lines and an apology. After a diplomatic stand off and a series of negotiations, the government resumed transit routes last week after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally issued an official apology for the deaths.

The recent protests organized by Difa-e-Pakistan Council or Defense of Pakistan Council (DPC), an umbrella coalition of right-wing parties, suggest however, that the issue is far from resolved for Pakistan's religious right. Although the protests may not significantly affect logistics of the resumed supply routes, they set the stage for the coming elections.

Analysts say that anti-establishment activism will further delegitimize the already weakened government, and the major opposition parties not currently participating in the rallies will try their best to exploit that.

It's already happening: Pakistan's The News reports that Imran Khan, one of the prominent contenders in the next election, used the opportunity to criticize another top contender, Nawaz Sharif. Mr. Khan also suggested his party, Pakistan Tekrik-e-Insaf (PTI) will launch its own protests.

The DPC alliance is led by controversial and high-profile figures, such as Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the leader of Islamist party Jamat-ud-Dawa and alleged mastermind of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and Hamid Gul, a retired head of Pakistan's Inter Service Intelligence. The US has a $10 million bounty on Mr. Saeed

The protests highlight various internal fault lines in Pakistan's national psyche concerning its role as a proxy state in the war in Afghanistan.

On the one hand, the demonstrations show signs of popular resentment at being used to fight an unpopular war, along with a sense of disproportionate nature of relations between the two allies. On the other hand, there is evident anxiety that the US might withdraw too quickly at Pakistan's expense. The continuing public debate in Pakistan over the issue has a tendency of wavering between milking the supply route issue for all its monetary and diplomatic worth, and reasserting the issue of Pakistan's national honor.

“The right-wing parties are voicing anger at the fact that the government of Pakistan has opened NATO container routes without gaining anything over the past seven months,” says retired Brigadier Mehmood Shah, a Peshawar-based security analyst and former head of security in tribal areas. He adds that “there is a sense that [the Americans] are on their way out, and they want to destabilize Pakistan.”

Ultimately, Mr. Shah suggests, the DPC protests will have negligible political consequences, since the major players involved, like the Jamat-e-Islami, have street power but little ballot power to back it. 

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