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Violence By Islamist Militants Haunts Pakistani Elections In Restive Province

Pakistani lawmaker Mohsin Dawar's car after it was attacked while campaigning in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections.
Pakistani lawmaker Mohsin Dawar's car after it was attacked while campaigning in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections.

Former lawmaker Mohsin Dawar recalls the moment a hail of bullets hit his Toyota Land Cruiser as he campaigned for upcoming parliamentary elections in Pakistan.

Dawar was attacked on January 3 as he approached the village of Tappi in North Waziristan, a mountainous district in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

The attackers fled after his supporters returned fire. His armored-plated SUV kept him safe.

Dawar, who leads the secular National Democratic Movement political party, says he was attacked again on his way home from Tappi.

"The militants appear to enjoy a lot of space," he said. "We can't determine whether [they want] to delay elections or scrap the process.”

Dawar argues that Pakistan desperately needs the February 8 elections to end uncertainty amid the severe political and economic crises the South Asian nation of 220 million people is facing.

But he adds that it is “tough to campaign in these conditions."

Mohsin Dawar, head of the National Democratic Movement, speaking to his party's supporters in North Waziristan. (file photo)
Mohsin Dawar, head of the National Democratic Movement, speaking to his party's supporters in North Waziristan. (file photo)

Dawar was actually fortunate to survive the attacks on him, as others in North Waziristan have not been as lucky.

On January 10, Malik Kaleem Dawar (no relation to Mohsin Dawar), a provincial candidate and two of his supporters were killed in an attack in Tappi.

Elsewhere in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, another candidate survived roadside bombs as Islamist militants continue to try to disrupt those campaigning for the elections. Civilians, police, and soldiers are killed in almost daily clashes with militants across the province, which is home to 35 million people.

Experts say candidates and political leaders remain under severe threat in the province, which was the epicenter of Pakistan’s domestic war on terrorism between 2003 and 2014.

More than 80,000 residents of the predominantly ethnic Pashtun-populated region were killed and more than 6 million displaced in the fighting during that time.

Since the Taliban's return to power in August 2021, its ideological and organizational ally, the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has increasingly expanded its campaign of violence. It is seeking to return to the former Khyber Pakhtunkhwa strongholds it controlled before 2014.

Smaller and newly emerging Islamist militant groups also frequently claim responsibility for attacks in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which further complicates the security picture in the run-up to the vote.

In South Waziristan, which abuts North Waziristan, Ayaz Wazir is campaigning on the secular Awami National Party (ANP) platform. He says the lack of access to the Internet prevents him from reaching his potential voters remotely.

“Campaigning in person is very risky amid frequent terrorist attacks,” he told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal. “One has to risk one’s life to campaign in this environment.”

Mounting Security Fears

Since 2007, hundreds of ANP leaders and supporters have been killed in attacks by the TTP during parliamentary election campaigns.

Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud, director of news at the Khorasan Diary, a website tracking militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, says that security fears are mounting in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the crucial weeks before the vote.

He says officials and observers are worried about what might happen when political parties start holding large, noisy campaign rallies that typically mark the election season.

“Fear and threats are so pervasive that it is preventing senior politicians from holding rallies,” Mehsud adds.

In addition to the TTP, Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) and new murky groups have emerged as a significant threat to the elections. For nearly a year, the Tehrik-e Jihad Pakistan, a lesser-known militant group, has claimed responsibility for deadly attacks on security forces.

“All these entities can target candidates who had opposed them in the past or continue to do so,” Mehsud said.

He adds that an indication of the presence and influence wielded by militants in the province is how some groups are trying to extort money from candidates in exchange for them not being attacked.

“Direct and indirect threats from various militant groups are front and center across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” Mehsud said.

Islamist political parties -- previously immune from attack by the Islamist militants -- have become their main target in the province.

Relatives console a man who lost his loved ones in a blast that targeted a police vehicle in Bajaur on January 8.
Relatives console a man who lost his loved ones in a blast that targeted a police vehicle in Bajaur on January 8.

On January 3, Qari Khairullah, a candidate of Jamiat Ulema Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), the largest Islamist political party, survived a roadside bomb attack in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s northern Bajaur district.

That came just three days after the convoy of JUI-F leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman was shot at in Dera Ismail Khan, a southern district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The IS-K claimed in July to have carried out a devastating attack on a JUI-F rally in Bajaur. At least 56 people were killed and hundreds more injured in one of the deadliest attacks ever on Pakistani political parties.

“Our supporters are being threatened to keep them away from our rallies,” Rehman told Pakistan’s private Geo News TV.

He argued that, while militant attacks plagued elections in 2008 and 2013, these incidents didn’t threaten the overall political process.

“We need an election, but we also need a conducive environment for [holding] elections,” he said.

Rehman is visiting Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in an apparent bid to improve tense relations between the Taliban and its erstwhile ally Pakistan, where many are wondering whether the Taliban can persuade the TTP to refrain from attacking politicians and campaign rallies.

On January 11, Pakistani Information Minister Murtaza Solangi told journalists that the constitution requires the caretaker government to support the Election Commission to hold free, fair, and transparent elections.

“We will meet all the demands of the Election Commission regarding security,” he said, adding that the security threats in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa “are real, which the government is seeking to address.”

Attacks by the Taliban and other Islamist militants had a significant impact on three previous elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Days before voting in July 2018, a suicide bomber killed senior ANP leader Haroon Bilour and scores of his supporters in Peshawar, the provincial capital.

In 2013, the TTP warned people to avoid three secular parties: the ANP, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement. Scores of ANP supporters and candidates were killed in the run-up to the elections in daily TTP attacks across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

On December 27, 2007, former Pakistani Prime Minister and PPP leader Benazir Bhutto was killed just days ahead of the January 2008 parliamentary elections. The PPP won the vote.

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