One of the more interesting, if counter-intuitive, facts about many civil wars and ethnic conflicts is that the number of combatants involved is usually much smaller than is often assumed. In Rwanda and Bosnia, for example, it was not uncommon for small groups of perhaps a few dozen well-armed men – some of whom were little more than criminals rather than trained soldiers – to take control of small towns and cities, presiding over small fiefdoms in which they wielded near-absolute power on behalf of their patrons. A similar dynamic can be seen more recently in the Middle East, where groups like ISIS and even the Afghan Taliban have been able to capture and control huge swathes of territory with relatively small numbers of fighters. The reason why groups such as these are able to capture and control disproportionately large territories and populations is because, in the instances where this happens, they are usually confronting authorities that are fragmented, weakened, and demoralised. It is almost axiomatic that rebellions and insurgencies succeed precisely when states experience breakdown, leaving their armies, police forces, and other institutions incapable of discharging their responsibilities and maintaining the political order.

The obverse of this observation is that there are few, if any, entities other than other states than can successfully challenge and defeat a modern state. The reasons for this should be clear; states command tremendous resources and possess more than enough infrastructural capacity to confront and eliminate the typically small groups that tend to engage in ethnic and civil conflicts. Yes, the latter will always be able to inflict damage upon states, using terrorism, guerilla warfare, and other tactics to strike at their targets, but the prospects of such a group vanquishing a functioning modern state on an open battlefield are very slight. The fact that, bereft of outside support, most insurgent groups lack air power and armour should be enough to illustrate precisely why this would be the case.

What, then, should be made of what happened in Pakistan this week? How can we explain a scenario in which a few thousand men belonging to the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) were able to shut down Pakistan’s major cities, controlling roads into and out of Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad (home to approximately 40 million people) while also preventing the free movement of people and goods within these areas? How can we make sense of abundant video footage showing the activists of the TLP engaging in acts of wanton violence, setting fire to vehicles, attacking passers-by with sticks and other weapons, damaging public and private property, and even looting? How is it that for three days, the leadership of the TLP was able to seat itself in front of the Punjab Assembly in Lahore and repeatedly call for the assassination of the Supreme Court, the murder of the Prime Minister, and for mutiny within the ranks of the armed forces? Why is that when the TLP finally agreed to call an end to its protests, it did so on its own terms, extracting an agreement in which it was provided with blanket amnesty even as the government acquiesced to all of its demands?

Does the success of the TLP, and the impunity with which it operates, suggest that the state in Pakistan simply lacks the ability to effectively fight the organization? This suggestion would seem absurd to most observers; after all, Pakistan is a nuclear state possessing a large, well-equipped, and battle-hardened military, an extensive array of intelligence services, sophisticated tools for the surveillance and monitoring of hostile agents (domestic and external), large police forces, and a state machinery that, while inefficient, is nonetheless far more robust than those associated with so-called ‘failed’ states. Is it really plausible to suggest that Pakistan cannot fend off the threat posed by a few thousand bearded ‘activists’ and opportunists armed with little more than a hope and a prayer?

When justice was finally done earlier this week and the Supreme Court acquitted Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who had spent a decade in jail after being wrongfully accused of blasphemy, it was not unexpected to see the TLP and allied religious organisations take to the streets to protest the decision. Stoking the fires of sectarian and religious hatred by focusing on alleged blasphemy has long been the modus operandi of the TLP and remains the key to their political success (such as it is). Yet, despite a well-received speech in which the Prime Minister promised to enforce the writ of the state and punish those internal enemies who would seek to destabilize the country, the TLP was able to operate with complete freedom and without any fear of consequences. After all his sound and fury on national television, Imran Khan literally disappeared, taking off for China with much of his cabinet and leaving behind a government whose paralysis meant that for three days, the TLP enjoyed de facto sovereign authority over the cities it controlled.

The government’s eventual capitulation to the TLP, agreeing to all of the latter’s terms in exchange for the end of its protests, has been lauded by some as a responsible way to resolve the issue without bloodshed. This would be a reasonable position to take except for two problems. First, this is just the latest of a long line of surrenders to the forces of extremism and obscurantism, one again affirming the fact that in the Land of the Pure, those who wield Islam as a political weapon can literally get away with murder, arson, theft, and whatever other crime they choose to commit. For now, the TLP has agreed to back down in exchange for the government not impeding a review of the judgment that led to Aasia Bibi’s acquittal, as well as the placement of her name on the exit control list, but what happens if the review does not overturn the Supreme Court’s decision? What happens when the TLP takes to the street once more? What concessions will the government make in the name of ‘peace’? Second, it is impossible to not contrast the gentle approach taken to the TLP with the more violent and coercive measures that have been repeatedly deployed against groups like the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, journalists, ‘liberal’ activists, and opposition politicians whose only ‘crime’ has been to question the official state narrative? Why is it that protests can be shut down, leaders can be jailed, activists can go missing, and individuals can be accused of treason and contempt of court when they espouse secular, liberal, or ethnic politics, but can get away with openly threatening the country’s civilian and military elite and disrupting the lives of millions as long as they do it in the name of religion?

The problem is not numbers. As discussed above, the TLP has neither the manpower nor the infrastructure needed to actually confront the Pakistani state. The problem is also not popular opinion, as the government has repeatedly shown itself to be quite adept at manipulating mainstream narratives as and when required.

The problem, as always, is one of political will. The TLP can do as it pleases because the powers-that-be are content to let it do so. When the TLP holds tens of millions hostage, it is able to do so knowing that the eventual outcome of any negotiation with the state will be the latter’s craven capitulation.


The writer is an assistant professor of political

science at LUMS.