TIME Pakistan

Diplomats Killed in Pakistan Helicopter Crash

Pakistani soldiers gather beside an army helicopter at a military hospital where victims of a helicopter crash were brought for treatment in Gilgit, Pakistan on May 8, 2015.
Farman Karim—AFP/Getty Images Pakistani soldiers gather beside an army helicopter at a military hospital where victims of a helicopter crash were brought for treatment in Gilgit, Pakistan on May 8, 2015.

The Taliban claimed responsibility but officials and eyewitnesses said the helicopter was not attacked

The ambassadors to Pakistan from Norway and the Philippines and the wives of the ambassadors from Malaysia and Indonesia have been killed along with two others when a Pakistani military helicopter crashed on Friday morning.

The diplomats were traveling as part of a tourism expedition with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the Naltar valley near Gilgit, about 300 miles north of the capital Islamabad. The prime minister was on a separate aircraft, which turned back and returned to Islamabad upon hearing of the crash. Two diplomats survived and are being treated at an army medical facility,

Government officials say that the military helicopter went down due to a “technical fault”. This has been a worrying trend for the past decade in Pakistan’s ageing fleet of Russian-made MI-17 helicopters. Three years ago, five people were killed when one of the helicopters crashed in Skardu — not far from the location of Friday’s crash — due to “unknown reasons.”

In 2009, 41 people were killed aboard an MI-17 due to what was also said to be “a technical fault”. The same reason was given for the deaths of four people in Pakistan-administered Kashmir in 2007, and for 13 people who suffered the same fate in the northwestern tribal areas in 2004.

There had initially been fears that the crash may have involved terrorism. The Pakistani Taliban eagerly contacted local reporters to claim responsibility, adding that they had meant to target Sharif, the Prime Minister, in retaliation for military action against them. In the past, Pakistan-based terrorists have targeted foreign diplomats, including attacks on the Danish embassy and the kidnapping of an Iranian diplomat.

Government officials deny that terrorism was the cause of the crash and eyewitnesses said the helicopter appeared to spin out of control and crash, without any mid-air explosion. Pakistan has announced a national day of mourning to mark the losses suffered by Norway, the Phillipines, Indonesia and Malaysia, as a stream of condolences appeared from politicians and journalists on social media.

Leif Larsen, the 61-year-old veteran envoy from Norway, was a thoughtful and highly-respected member of the Islamabad diplomatic corps. Last week, he had spoken in an interview with Newsweek Pakistan about his affection for the seldom-mentioned “softer side” of Pakistan.

Domingo D. Lucenario, Jr., the 55-year-old ambassador from the Philippines, was one of his country’s most distinguished diplomats. He had won a series of presidential awards for his service. Before arriving in Islamabad, he also served as Manila’s envoy to Afghanistan, Kyrgyztan and Tajikistan, Lucenario had spent four years as an ambassador to a number of African countries.

TIME isis

ISIS Faces a Crowded Landscape of Terror in Pakistan

Women mourn their relative Mohammed Ali Khan, 15, a student who was killed during an attack by Pakistani Taliban gunmen on the Army Public School, at his house in Peshawar in 2014.
Zohra Bensemra—Reuters Women mourn their relative Mohammed Ali Khan, 15, a student who was killed during an attack by Pakistani Taliban gunmen on the Army Public School, at his house in Peshawar in 2014.

With the Taliban dominant, ISIS will have trouble making space in Pakistan—though the group is becoming more popular

The brutal methods that the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has become notorious for were already seen some years ago, first in Afghanistan and later in Pakistan, as the two branches of the Taliban in those countries took root. The Pakistani Taliban, in many ways, are the closest analogue of the terror group now expanding across the Arab world.

Formed in 2007, the Pakistani Taliban seized territory, imposed its own brutal brand of Islamic law, executed opponents — including landowners, politicians, and others they deemed to be guilty of crimes of “vulgarity” and “heresy”. Women from among the famous “dancing girls of Swat” were found dead, their bodies dumped in the central square of Swat’s main town. Preachers of Sufi Islam, a syncretic form of the religion that puts a heavy emphasis on ascetic practices, were brutally killed – their bodies cut apart and hanged publicly.

Beheadings were also a constant feature. When the Pakistani Taliban kidnapped over 100 Pakistani soldiers in South Waziristan in 2007, they severed the heads of many, especially the Shia soldiers. A sword was used to cut across both ways and the head then lifted from the torso. The bodies of journalists were also discovered in some cases, dumped, with bullet holes in their backs.

READ MORE: Inside ISIS, a TIME Special Report

The Taliban, like ISIS, share a sectarian ideology. Those whom they do not deem to be in line with their brutal brand of Islam, they declare to be non-Muslims. Those who aren’t Muslims, they deem to be “worthy of being killed.” This has led to attacks on army officers and religious minorities of various stripes — Shia Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, Hindus and Christians.

The Taliban work closely with both al-Qaeda and long-established anti-Shiite groups like Sunni extremists Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. There is a lot of slippage between these groups; the boundaries between them are often ill-defined. Also, like ISIS, these groups will turn to kindap and ransom as a means of generating funds. Warren Weinstein, an American academic and development expert in his 70s, is still being held by al-Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas after having been sold up through various groups.

This makes Pakistan both an attractive breeding ground for ISIS, but also one that is so crowded out by entrenched terror groups that they may struggle to break into the market. “It’s an already busy landscape for militant groups,” says Simbal Khan, Pakistan scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington. “There’s no vacuum for a new group.”

That doesn’t mean they are not trying, and in some cases, already finding success. The Pakistani government has issued reports warning that “ISIS” or “Daesh” (as it is known by its Arabic acronym) has collaborated with sectarian militant groups, like Jundallah and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, along the border with Iran. Elsewhere, in November 2014, a series of former Pakistani Taliban militants announced their allegiance to ISIS and al-Baghdadi.

In Pakistan’s second city of Lahore, graffiti has appeared celebrating ISIS. Government officials and analysts say this is a more a feature of ISIS propaganda than any evidence that the group has operational capacity in Pakistan. Still, that same month, a number of ISIS activists were arrested from Lahore — they are thought to have been former members of anti-Shiite organizations that have a foothold in Punjab province, of which Lahore is the capital.

After the Peshawar massacre, where Taliban soldiers slaughtered nearly 150 people at a public school, there appears to be greater clarity among Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership about the need to fight terrorism. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced near the end of 2014 that there would no longer be any distinction made between “good militants” and “bad militants.” The policy of backing militants who attack Afghanistan and India while only fighting those who launched terror attacks at home in Pakistan would be reversed.

While the jury is still out on whether this will become official and lasting policy, the army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif — the most powerful man in Pakistan — has said that he will not allow a group like ISIS to establish a base inside Pakistan. They are watching events in the Arab world with mounting anxiety, but Pakistan and Afghanistan’s focus remains very much local for the moment. “The Pakistani leadership, in civvies and in uniform, are on one page,” says Khawaja Asif, Pakistan’s Defense Minister. “We must fight for our existence, and the existence of all humanity.”


Pakistan’s New Strategy to Beat the Taliban

The Peshawar massacre must mark a turning point in Pakistan's battle against Taliban militants

Nearly a week after Pakistan’s worst-ever terrorist attack resulted in the death of 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar, the grief has turned to anger. As the Pakistan army pounds militant targets, the country’s politicians have achieved rare unity against the Taliban. For the first time, there are large protests outside mosques in Islamabad notorious for their pro-Taliban sympathies.

None of this should be surprising. No society can remain unmoved by the mass slaughter of their most vulnerable. That message appears to have finally registered with horror-hardened Pakistanis in a way that hasn’t been the case these past several years. “We are not making any differentiation,” Khawaja Muhammad Asif, the Defense Minister, said of the new approach. “All Taliban are bad Taliban.”

But many are right to question the durability of this new resolve. After all, in the past, Pakistan has seen assassinations, massacres of minorities, attacks on high-profile installations, even the seizure of large territory. Each time, there would be a bout of public outrage that would inevitably dissipate. Old arguments about whether the Taliban should be confronted or negotiated with would be revived.

This time, though, there is evidence of real change. Since the summer, the Pakistan military has been mounting an ambitious ground offensive in North Waziristan, the most hazardous of the country’s seven tribal areas. The armed forces had long resisted doing so out of fear of a backlash, despite repeated Western pressure. It took worsening action from the militants and a new army chief to make a difference.

The Peshawar massacre demonstrates that the militants are being hurt by the offensive. They feel the need to raise the human cost to Pakistanis of such military operations—and they did so in blood. But this time, the politicians aren’t balking. They have resolved that this war is their own, and that they can no longer afford to discriminate between so-called “good Taliban”—those who operate in Afghanistan—and the “bad Taliban” fighting the military in Pakistan.

The problem in Pakistan hasn’t been support for the Taliban. That exists and exists still, as the well-attended funerals of militants hanged in the aftermath attests. The enthusiasts have always been a minority. The problem is with those who don’t believe the Taliban exist, pleading that Muslims could never slaughter coreligionists, fingering India, Afghanistan, the U.S. and Israel instead. And there are those who still see the militants as a merely misguided group that would cease if violence if the state stopped attacking them. These apologists and equivocators have long enjoyed prestige and influence in the Pakistani media.

The Pakistani leadership is finally taking a more clear-eyed view of the militant menace. They aim to destroy not only the Taliban, but, Defense Minister Asif told me, extremism altogether. “Extremism of any kind, of thought, action, religious or political extremism is bad,” he said. “We have to eliminate them wherever we find them.”

As for those preachers continue to retain some affection for child-murderers, ordinary citizens are assailing them on the streets. On Monday, protesters gathered in five different cities across Pakistan to “reclaim their mosques” from Taliban sympathizers who abuse their pulpits to incite militant violence. They are calling on the police to arrest these imams, braving serious threats from militants.

There’s reason to be skeptical. As one Pakistani columnist sourly mused, there have been so many “last straws” in the struggle against the Taliban that there’s now a mountainous haystack. And the response so far has been characterized more by an immediate desire for vengeance than a long-term pursuit of justice. The execution of convicted militants gratifies widespread calls for revenge, and helps the government and military show people they are doing something.

But when facing an enemy that craves “martyrdom,” such measures hardly constitute a long-term strategy. For a state that has nurtured jihadists as instruments of official policy, and long encouraged its citizenry to look upon them as holy warriors, rolling back that history is a tremendous challenge.

In recent years, Pakistan has only ever fought militants when it felt it absolutely must. More often it has appeased them when it could. It has tolerated those that don’t attack the state directly. And it has steadily supported the ones who use its soil to launch attacks in Kashmir and Afghanistan. As some have quipped, it has been both “the fireman” and “the arsonist” of militancy.

Given the frailty of a state that can’t enforce basic laws, collect tax or provide electricity, it would be foolish to expect Pakistan to mount simultaneous assault on this bewildering array of scattered groups. But Pakistan does need to stop being the arsonist, though. In the short-term, the militants that pose the greatest threat— the Pakistani Taliban—will have to be a priority. As the Taliban are targeted, the state will also have a responsibility to protect its citizens at the same time. More massacres would severely strain the new consensus. The government will also have to overhaul its security structure. In the cities, and the largest province of Punjab, the sledgehammer of military action won’t be effective.

They will need civilian law-enforcement agencies that can act, but also prosecutors who can effectively bring culprits to justice and protect those who help the state in that task. One of the greatest scandals of this government has been the failure to prosecute the self-confessed killers of hundreds of Pakistani Shias, murdered by sectarian militants who regard them as infidels. The witnesses, judges, and prosecutors were too afraid of reprisals to act.

This won’t be a short war, either. Unlike the U.S. in Afghanistan, Pakistan cannot simply withdraw from the region. It has to stay— forever. In the long run, madrassas will have to be reformed, mosques cleared of extremist preachers, and militant groups defanged of their vast arsenals.

It will be a war whose end cannot be foreseen today. It is easy to sit in Western capitals and complain that Pakistan isn’t doing enough, as many argued last week. But from the point of view of a long traumatized population that is repeatedly forced to lower its children in early graves, the sentiment trespasses the boundaries of taste. Pakistanis don’t want pity or sympathy. At this crucial moment, they deserve the world’s solidarity.

TIME Pakistan

School Massacre Unites Pakistan Against the Taliban

Shoes lie in blood on the auditorium floor at the Army Public School, which was attacked by Taliban gunmen, in Peshawar, Dec. 17, 2014.
Fayaz Aziz—Reuters Shoes lie in blood on the auditorium floor at the Army Public School, which was attacked by Taliban gunmen, in Peshawar, Dec. 17, 2014.

As the 141 children and teachers who were killed in Pakistan’s deadliest terrorist attack at a school in Peshawar were buried by their bereft parents and relatives on Wednesday, the deep sadness and grief that has affected everyone in Pakistan gave way to outrage against the Pakistani Taliban militants who took responsibility for the attack.

In a rare show of unity, Pakistan’s political leaders came together to declare that they were setting aside their rivalries to unite behind a joint plan to eliminate terrorism. The country’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, said all militants were now targets, which marked a significant break from Pakistan’s history of backing militants such as the Afghan Taliban while attacking the Pakistan Taliban, what many in the West have criticized as Pakistan’s “double game.”

The mood in Peshawar was somber after the funerals. Pakistanis from all over the country traveled to the city to offer their condolences. Small crowds chanted slogans in protest, while others quietly sat with grieving families. In Pakistan’s other cities, people gathered to hold solemn candlelight vigils, bearing placards that mourned the dead and demanded action against their killers.

Ali Sajid, 34, a painter in Peshawar, said that the entire city is consumed by sadness and anger. He had seen several terrorist attacks before but this time the militants targeted children. “This will definitely change things,” says Sajid. “I think this city has bled enough, and rendered many sacrifices.” Now, he added, “the government and the security forces should launch an offensive against the militants and force them to perish.”

“There will be no distinction between ‘good’ or ‘bad’ Taliban,” Sharif said at a press conference after meeting with leaders of rival political parties.

“Everyone is in tears,” says Daniyal Aziz, a lawmaker from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party. “This is a defining moment for Pakistan. The sadness has turned into anger very quickly.”

Sharif won the support of such inveterate opponents as former cricketer Imran Khan, who has spent the past six months leading street protests aimed at pushing the Prime Minister out of power. At the height of those protests, Khan even challenged Sharif to a public duel. On Wednesday, they were sitting side by side at Wednesday’s political conference in Peshawar and referring to each other in respectful tones. Khan later abandoned his party’s nationwide protests against the government in a demonstration of national unity.

The fallout from the Peshawar massacre shows just how far Pakistan has come over the past 18 months. Back then, both Sharif and Khan had been trying to court the Taliban to get them to sign a peace agreement. Now, like the secular politicians they once criticized, they have resolved that there can be no reconciling with the murderers of children. “There are moments, like this tragedy, when it becomes incumbent on everyone to come together,” Khan told journalists at the press conference.

The Pakistan military, which ran the school that was attacked, launched airstrikes on militant targets in the tribal areas along the Afghan border on Tuesday night. Gen. Raheel Sharif, the army chief, flew to Kabul with his intelligence chief to demand that Mullah Fazlullah, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban who is believed to be hiding in eastern Afghanistan, be handed over. There is greater cooperation between Pakistan and the U.S. now, too, with drone strikes targeting Pakistani Taliban bases in Afghanistan on Tuesday night.

Some observers are wary. There have been many false dawns before when Pakistanis first thought that large-scale terrorist tragedies would mark a turning point before the political resolve dissipated. But many are confident that the massacre in Peshawar has changed Pakistan forever. “We hope that this is the case,” says Sherry Rehman, an opposition politician and former ambassador to Washington. “It’s the only thing that can be done.”

But if the deaths of so many children at school cannot change Pakistan, then nothing will. “This is now make or break,” Rehman said. “It’s really a point of no return.”

In defiance of the anger from Peshawar, Mohammad Khurasani, the Taliban spokesman, warned Pakistan to expect more attacks on military targets: “We are still able to carry out major attacks. This was just the trailer,” he said on Wednesday. Pakistan’s resolve remains strong but it will likely suffer many more deaths before it achieves peace.

Read next: Peshawar Survivors and Bereaved Tell of the Massacre’s Horror

TIME Pakistan

At Least 141 Killed in Taliban Attack on School

Pakistani aircraft have launched retaliation attacks on the Taliban

At least 141 people have been killed, mostly school children, in a Taliban attack on a Pakistani school on Tuesday, according to a Pakistani military spokesman.

The attack began in the morning hours, with about half a dozen gunmen entering the school in Peshawar northwestern Pakistan and shooting at random, police officer Javed Khan told the Associated Press (AP). Army commandos quickly arrived at the scene and started exchanging fire with the gunmen, he said. Students wearing their green school uniforms could be seen on Pakistani television, fleeing the area.

The Pakistan army said they had secured the school after several hours of fighting and killed seven terrorists.

According to a statement from the office of the Chief Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province almost all of the dead are children under the age of 16. The Taliban has frequently targeted schools and the assault in Peshawar is the deadliest such attack in the country’s history.

For more than five hours special Pakistani troops fought the attackers and cleared parts of the school, say officials, as some students were still being held hostage. More than 100 others were taken to nearby hospitals to receive treatment for their injuries. Grief-stricken parents congregated at the school to see if their children survived the attack.

“My son was in uniform in the morning. He is in a casket now,” one parent, Tahir Ali told AP, as he came to the hospital to collect the body of his 14-year-old son Abdullah. “My son was my dream. My dream has been killed.”

One of the wounded students, Abdullah Jamal, told AP that he was with a group of eighth, ninth and 10th graders who were having a first-aid class when the violence began.

When the shooting started, Abdullah, who was shot in the leg, said nobody knew what was going on. “Then I saw children falling down who were crying and screaming. I also fell down. I learned later that I have got a bullet,” he said, speaking from his hospital bed.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif arrived in Peshawar on Tuesday as his government declared three days of national mourning. On arrival, Sharif told reporters: “These are my children and it is my loss. We will continue our struggle to completely eradicate militancy.”

Taliban spokesman Mohammed Khurasani claimed responsibility for the attack in a phone call to media, saying that six suicide bombers had carried out the attack in revenge for the killings of Taliban members at the hands of Pakistani authorities.

The militants have long targeted schools in their campaigns of violence, most notably in the Swat Valley, where Malala Yousafzai, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, was shot by the Taliban in 2012 for being an advocate for the education of girls.

Malala said she was heartbroken by news of the deaths of so many school children. “I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters, but we will never be defeated,” she said in a statement.

The school in Peshawar was run by the Pakistani army. At the time of the attack over 1,500 children – from grades 1 to 10 – were present. It has been a favored tactic of the militants to strike at a range of targets associated with the military, from mosques to factories and colleges.

The attack was motivated by revenge for the army’s ongoing military operation in North Waziristan against Taliban strongholds. An unnamed Taliban spokesman told Reuters: “We targeted the school because the army targets our families. We want them to feel our pain.”

North Waziristan is also home to several hundred foreign fighters from al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups. As the fighting was continuing at the school in Peshawar, there were reports on Pakistani TV that eyewitnesses to the attack heard some of the assailants speak in Arabic and central Asian languages, rather than local languages such as Pashto or Urdu.

Pakistani army officers said that bombers had struck more than 10 Taliban targets in the hours after the retaking of the school in retaliation for the attack.

Read next: Here’s What It Looked Like at the Scene of the Peshawar School Attack

TIME Pakistan

Pakistan Protesters Clash With Police as Calls for Sharif’s Ouster Grow

Supporters of Tahir ul-Qadri, Sufi cleric and leader of political party Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), carry an injured fellow protester during the Revolution March in Islamabad
Zohra Bensemra—Reuters Supporters of Tahir ul-Qadri, Sufi cleric and leader of political party Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), carry an injured fellow protester during the Revolution March in Islamabad, Aug. 31, 2014.

Three die in violence as opposition leaders demand Pakistani Prime Minister resign over electoral-fraud claims

There is an old joke about Islamabad, the sleepy and verdant capital of Pakistan: It is half the size of Arlington National Cemetery, it goes, but twice as dead. On Saturday night, however, the quiet streets near the government buildings in Islamabad were transformed into what many observers compared to a war zone, as anti-government protesters clashed for hours with the police amid clouds of tear gas. Three people are reported to have died, and hundreds wounded.

The clashes have dimmed hopes of an agreement being reached between the embattled government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the tens of thousands of protesters led by former cricket legend turned opposition leader Imran Khan and his ally, cleric Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri.

Khan, chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, contends the elections last year that brought Sharif to power for a third time were rigged. He is demanding the resignation of Sharif and fresh elections. Qadri wants nothing less than a complete overhaul of the political system through a “revolution.” Until Saturday, authorities had generally tolerated the crowds of protesters who began gathering in Islamabad on Aug. 14 for mostly peaceful demonstrations.

But as Khan and Qadri make clear that they will not settle for anything short of Sharif’s resignation, the deadlock has raised the prospect of an increasingly dangerous confrontation that could bring down the 15-month-old civilian government.

The two sides blame each other for the violence. Late on Saturday, Khan and Qadri urged their followers to enter the highly fortified “red zone” of the capital, a security-sensitive area at one end of Islamabad that is home to the presidential palace, Parliament, the Prime Minister’s house, the Supreme Court and many foreign embassies. The government says it was forced to respond after the protesters cleared away shipping containers used as barricades and advanced toward the Prime Minister’s residence.

Doctors treating the injured said the police had used several rounds of tear gas, baton charges and even rubber bullets. Images circulating on social media showed the bodies of protesters bearing bloody and livid scars from the apparent use of rubber bullets. At the same time, the police said they were confronted with a contingent intent on carrying out violence against state institutions, armed with large sticks, hammers and iron rods. Some of the protesters cut the gates at Parliament, letting hundreds enter into its lawns and parking area.

Pakistan’s journalists were caught in the middle of the clashes. Geo TV, one of Pakistan’s largest news channels, claimed that its offices were attacked by protesters, broadcasting images of large holes in its glass building. The standoff between the government and the protesters has sharply polarized Pakistan’s lively and excitable news media, with prominent news anchors taking vocal positions on both sides of the divide.

Sharif’s government has attempted to engage with the demonstrators. Earlier in the week, the army chief General Raheel Sharif — no relation to the Prime Minister — had been asked by the government to step in and mediate an end to the protests. But neither Khan nor Qadri seem prepared to compromise on anything short of their exacting demands.

The government says it is prepared to give Khan all he has asked for, including a high-profile judicial inquiry into allegations of electoral fraud, except Sharif’s resignation. But on Sunday morning, the onetime cricket star appeared emboldened by the protests, calling on supporters around the country to convene on Islamabad for a fresh night of protests.

Not all of Khan’s allies believe that’s the best approach. Javed Hashmi, a widely respected member of Khan’s party, spoke out Sunday against the decision to advance on the Prime Minister’s residence and Parliament. “This kind of behavior is not seen in any country in the world, where people pick up sticks and protest outside the Prime Minister’s house,” Hashmi said. He added that if martial law is imposed in the country, Khan will bear the blame for leading Pakistan to that fate.

Sharif, meanwhile, remains determined to stay in power. But Saturday night’s violence, with the threat of another confrontation Sunday, may have eroded his authority further. Up to now, analysts believed that Sharif’s premiership would withstand the demonstrations, despite being weakened by them. On Sunday morning, however, several commentators on Pakistani news channels have been drawing comparisons with 1977, when anti-rigging protests and police brutality against the backdrop of failed negotiations led to a military coup.

TIME Pakistan

Pakistan’s Army Steps in as Politicians Continue to Squabble

Aamir Qureshi—AFP/Getty Images Pakistani supporters of Canada-based preacher Tahir-ul-Qadri shout anti-government slogans during a protest in front of the Parliament in Islamabad on Aug. 29, 2014.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif asked the powerful army chief to negotiate a resolution to the political crisis

Just last May, Pakistan was celebrating its first ever successful transition from one elected government to another, after the completion of a full five-year term in office. Now, just 15 months after the last elections, hopes of democracy strengthening have dissipated after the country’s powerful army stepped in on Thursday night to assume a political role and mediate with anti-government protestors.

For over two weeks now, the Pakistani capital Islamabad has been paralyzed by tens of thousands of protestors led by the former cricket captain-turned-opposition leader Imran Khan and the prominent cleric Tahir ul-Qadri. The two groups insisted they were separate but led closely coordinated campaigns. Khan wanted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resign, while Qadri has been insisting on a complete overhaul of the country’s political system as part of a self-styled “revolution.”

The government’s efforts to negotiate with the protestors repeatedly failed. Each time, Khan said that nothing short of the prime minister’s resignation would suffice. The former World Cup-winning cricket star claims that last year’s elections were systematically rigged to deny him victory—something the government strenuously denies. The European Union’s Election Observation Mission praised the 2013 elections as a demonstration of “strong democratic commitment,” in its July 2013 report, but added that “fundamental problems” remain in the electoral process that leave it “vulnerable to malpractice.”

Khan has become an increasingly polarizing figure in recent weeks: to his hardcore of supporters he is a rare, principled politician taking on a venal and inept political class; to his opponents he is a vain and reckless politician who is prepared to risk damaging democracy in pursuit of power. At the height of the protests, he incited his supporters to stop paying taxes and electricity bills as part of a “civil disobedience” campaign, and, in a flight of rhetoric, even seemed to be challenging Prime Minister Sharif to a duel.

Late on Thursday night, after weeks of holding out, Prime Minister Sharif asked Gen. Raheel Sharif (no relation) to negotiate a resolution to the crisis. The move seemed to underscore two abiding realities in Pakistan. The often squabbling civilians are still unable to resolve their differences among themselves, and that the true center of power remains the military’s headquarters in Rawalpindi.

There is no danger of the army taking over and imposing martial law. There appears to be little appetite for that in Pakistan, despite similar rollbacks of civilian rule over the last two years in Egypt and Thailand. But now the civilian government’s authority has been badly, if not fatally, weakened. Even if Prime Minister Sharif survives the current crisis, with his parliamentary majority intact, he will be hamstrung in his ability to implement many of his proposed reforms.

The Sharif government has scarcely helped itself, though. Prime Minister Sharif’s name was this week included among the accused in a police report looking into the killings of 14 protestors loyal to cleric Qadri in June, in the eastern city of Lahore. On that occasion, the notoriously heavy-handed Punjab police lived up to its reputation by assailing the crowds with tear gas and later opening fire. The prime minister isn’t likely to be tried for the incident, but his younger brother, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, is facing intense pressure to step down now.

Although Prime Minister Sharif formally asked the army chief to step in, it is widely suggested that he did so reluctantly. The Punjabi industrialist-turned-leader of the conservative Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz has a decades-old difficult relationship with Pakistan’s generals. Once a protégé of the former dictator Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Sharif turned against his mentors and has repeatedly clashed with every army chief during his two terms as prime minister in the 1990s. The last of those confrontations, in 1999, saw him overthrown in a military coup led by Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Prime Minister Sharif’s current difficulties with the army appear to stretch back to his decision, soon after assuming office last year, to place Musharraf on trial for imposing a state of emergency in November 2007. His government’s other initiatives, including attempts at warmer ties with neighbors New Delhi and Kabul through an independent foreign policy, are believed to have chafed military leaders. Now, the army will likely play a more decisive role when it comes to Pakistan’s foreign and defense policies, relegating the civilians to the often messy and unpopular business of day-to-day governance.

Soon after it was announced that the army chief would step into mediate late on Thursday night, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, the defense minister and one of Prime Minister Sharif’s closest aides tried to gloss over the occasion by claiming that the army was merely playing “a constitutional role”. But another member of the Sharif cabinet was plainly dispirited by the sight of thousands on the street being able to imperil a national electoral mandate. A picture is worth a thousand words, tweeted Khurram Dastgir-Khan, the commerce minister, with an attached image. It was the movie poster for George Lucas’ Star Wars film, “The Empire Strikes Back.”

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