Thousands of Pakistani protesters, supporters of the hard-line Tehreek-e-Labaik Islamist party that demands strict adherence to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, have blocked a main entrance to Islamabad for more than two weeks. They have accused Zahid Hamid, the country’s law minister, of blasphemy after a change last month in the oath for parliament that they construe as blasphemous (and that has since been reversed), and are demanding his resignation. Under Pakistan’s blasphemy law, offending remarks against the Prophet Muhammad are deemed blasphemous and can result in a mandatory death penalty. The change in the oath dealt with wording surrounding the belief in the finality of the Prophet Muhammad, and was considered to be a concession to Ahmadis, a group declared non-Muslim by Pakistan’s constitution.
Blasphemy is a highly charged issue in Pakistan, with vigilante killings of those accused of it, and virulent mass protests against blasphemy law reform. While terrorist attacks in the country have abated relative to the high numbers of a few years ago—largely due to the success of the Pakistan military against the Pakistani Taliban, which stands weakened—ideological extremism continues to thrive.
But the Trump administration’s strategy on Pakistan is not focused on extremism, nor on terrorism within the country. Instead, the administration has made the elimination of safe havens for the Haqqani network—a sophisticated insurgent group that attacks the Afghan government and U.S. troops in Afghanistan—the top priority. The Haqqanis are considered to be backed by important elements within Pakistan’s security establishment, and their attacks are allegedly launched from Pakistan, which explains the rationale behind the current American strategy vis-à-vis Pakistan.
But making the Haqqanis the focal point of the U.S. strategy on Pakistan is a shortsighted view of the bigger picture—Pakistan’s struggle against extremism and terrorism. Until Pakistan itself deals with that bigger picture, heightened U.S. pressure vis-à-vis the Haqqanis is unlikely to work.