Pakistan’s NGO Ban Strengthens Extremist Groups

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Move by Islamabad is a blow to an already vulnerable civic society.

The order from Pakistan’s government for 29 international non-governmental organisations to shut their operations and leave the country in 90 days — without giving a single reason for the order — is a blow to the country’s already vulnerable civil society. The far-reaching effects of the ban, which followed investigations by the military, will also strengthen Islamist extremist groups.

There is widespread concern across the diplomatic community at some of the actions taken by the government and the military, especially their leniency to Islamist extremist groups. The barring of international NGOs will hit foreign support for Pakistan. ‘’We don’t know what is going to happen next, the future is very uncertain,’’ a senior European diplomat told me.

The government is in disarray after the resignation of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in July. His much weakened party, the Pakistan Muslim League, continues to govern, but in an indecisive and directionless manner. 

The resulting political vacuum has allowed the military to assert itself on many fronts — in politics and on foreign policy, by influencing the media and in moving to curtail civil society and its international contacts.

According to the Pakistan Humanitarian Forum, international NGOs benefit some 29m people in Pakistan, employ more than 5,000 local staff and in 2016 contributed $285m in funding for development and emergency relief.

Some countries deliver aid directly to Pakistani-run NGOS, because they are more efficient than the government in reaching poorer areas. If these foreign contributions are restricted by the government, some local NGOs may also be forced to shut down.

Those included in the ban include Marie Stopes, one of the few agencies that promotes family planning, the Soros-backed Open Society Foundation, Action Aid and even the World Vegetable Centre. Open Society is largely involved in education, but has also provided critical emergency relief for floods and earthquakes.

Two years ago, the government ordered all international NGOs to re-register, which they complied with — although 15 were then shut down with no reason given.

Speaking privately, international NGO officials say the military has targeted foreign agencies operating in Pakistan since a doctor who claimed to be working for the charity Save the Children helped the Central Intelligence Agency track down Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Save the Children denies any involvement with the doctor, who was jailed for treason. 

Continuing severe acts of terrorism have also kept security uppermost in the minds of the military. All foreigners — diplomats, journalists and aid workers alike — are closely monitored by the Interservices Intelligence agency and their travel in the country is very limited. Several major cities, such as Quetta and Peshawar, are off limits to foreigners without special permission.

There are many rumours of an imminent collapse of the elected government, or that the judiciary may force it to resign, and any such extra-constitutional move would leave the army as the main political power broker. Such fears feed into a further threat to civil society that comes from the resurrection of Islamist extremist parties that were dormant or under judicial or military control for years but have now been let out of the closet.

Hafez Saeed the leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out the 2008 attack on Mumbai in which 164 people were killed, was freed from house arrest after a Lahore high court order that there was insufficient evidence to hold him and has established a new political party, the Milli Muslim League, with which he will contest the elections due to be held next autumn.

Another extremist group, Tehreek-e-Labaik or the Movement in Service to the Finality of the Prophet, which laid siege to Islamabad for three weeks in November and has been declared a terrorist group by the Islamabad high court, has also declared its intention to run as a party in the elections.

Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, an old alliance of eight Islamist parliamentary parties, which ruled two provinces after 9/11 and sheltered the Taliban escaping from their defeat in Afghanistan, is also being revived.

None of these groups can hope to win an election, but they will cut into the votes of mainstream parties such as the Muslim League, and with the legitimacy gained by running in the polls they will demand greater Islamisation of the country, at the expense of secular society.

Many extremist groups have established extensive Islamist NGOs which help the government and army when disasters strike. They have easily mobilised ambulances, medical units and trained aid workers and are often called on while more secular local NGOS are excluded from disaster areas, particularly on the Afghan border.

In giving aid they favour population centres that are sympathetic to the party. They also use the opportunity to recruit new members and establish a foothold in communities.

At a time of insecurity people need information but the media are cautious, wanting to avoid annoying the army or extremist groups. Their fears are real, too: civilian activists such as bloggers have been disappearing — often taken into custody by the intelligence agencies.

Pakistan faces a period of severe political uncertainty likely to lead to a vacuum that ultimately only the army will fill. To take on the international community at this time by banning international NGOs will leave the country with fewer friends in the global community at a time when it needs more.

The writer is author of several books about Afghanistan, Pakistan and central Asia, most recently ‘Pakistan on the Brink’