By Asif Shahzad
LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) – The backing of a candidate in a by-election last weekend in Pakistan by a political party controlled by an Islamist with a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head was in line with a plan put forward by the military last year to mainstream militant groups, according to sources familiar with the proposal.
The Milli Muslim League party loyal to Hafiz Saeed – who the United States and India accuse of masterminding the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people – won 5 percent of the votes in the contest for the seat vacated when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was removed from office by the Supreme Court in July.
But the foray into politics by Saeed’s Islamist charity appears to be following a blueprint that Sharif himself rejected when the military proposed it in 2016, according to three government officials and a retired former general briefed on the discussions.
None of the sources interviewed for this article could say for sure if the MML’s founding was the direct result of the military’s plan, which was not discussed in meetings after Sharif put it on ice last year.
The MML denies its political ambitions were engineered by the military. The official army spokesman did not comment after queries were sent to his office about the mainstreaming plan and what happened to it.
Pakistan’s powerful military has long been accused of fostering militant groups as proxy fighters opposing neighboring arch-enemy India, a charge the army denies.
Three government officials and close Sharif confidants with knowledge of the discussions said the military’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) presented proposals for “mainstreaming” some militant groups in a meeting last year. They said that Sharif had opposed the “mainstreaming” plan, which senior military figures and some analysts see as a way of steering ultra-religious groups away from violent jihad.
“We have to separate those elements who are peaceful from the elements who are picking up weapons,” said retired Lieutenant General Amjad Shuaib, adding that such groups should be “helped out to create a political structure” to come into the mainstream.
The plan – which Shuaib told Reuters was shared with him by the then-head of the ISI – said those who were willing “should be encouraged to come into the mainstream politics of the country”.
He added that in his capacity as a retired senior military officer he unofficially spoke to Hafiz Saaed and another alleged militant about…