By Bhaskar Roy*
Following US President Donald Trump’s executive order banning entry of people from seven designated Muslim countries, and hints from the White House that more countries could be added to the list, Pakistan moved swiftly to put Jamat-ud-Dawa (JUD) chief Hafiz Saeed and four other aides under house arrest. JUD offices were sealed and bank accounts frozen. The JUD’s charitable arm, Falah Insanyat Foundation (FIF) came under the same directive. Both the government and the Pakistani army gave similar terse reasons – national security was behind this action.
Hafiz Saeed was the head of the terrorist organisation Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) which was involved in numerous terrorist attacks in India, including the carnage in Mumbai (Bombay) in 2006. His role, and that of the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI are now well known.
The Hafiz Saeed- led LET was banned in 2002, but under the new name of JUD it was allowed to survive and flourish. FIF was floated as a charitable organisation as a cover. JUD has emerged with a new name again- the Tehreek Azadi Jammu and Kashmir (movement for Freedom of Kashmir). The JUD continues to collect donations at their old centres, but without JUD signboards and banners. So much for the ban on JUD.
Pakistan has drawn international opprobrium, sometimes hostility, for harbouring, aiding and directing terrorist groups. It has admitted these terrorist groups are part of its foreign policy tools. Two countries which have suffered the most are India and Afghanistan. Pakistani foot prints have been there in a number of terrorist attacks in the west, from the 9/11 attack in New York to attacks in other cities last year.
After the attack on the Indian airbase in Pathankot in January 2016 by Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM) led by Masood Azhar, international position took a sharp and vocal turn. Another Pakistan based terrorist attack in Uri (Jammu and Kashmir) last year rendered Pakistan’s arguments untenable.
Some Pakistani lawmakers including from the ruling PML-N and the foreign office are frustrated at the rebuff they face when they try to raise the Kashmir issue in international fora. At a meeting of the Pakistan National Assembly Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs last October, PML-N lawmaker Rana Muhammad Afzal asked why no action was being taken against Hafiz Saeed. He said that during a recent trip to France, when he tried to raise the issue of Indian atrocities in Kashmir, the interlocutors raised the question of Hafiz Saeed, and that Saeed was considered a “notorious character” in international circles.
Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) legislator Aitaz Ahsan told a joint session of Parliament (October 2016) Pakistan was being isolated because it gave freedom to “non-state actors”. He also sharply criticized the government for mishandling the Uri attack.
At a high level security meeting between civil and military leadership in Islamabad (Dawn, October 06, 2016), reviewing the recent diplomatic outreach by Pakistan, Foreign Secretary Aizaz Choudhary disclosed that Pakistan faced diplomatic isolation and that government talking points were met with indifference in international capitals. The reason was the same – Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar issue always came up.
Last year (September 20, 2016), two US congressmen moved a bill to designate Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism. The congressmen, Ted Poe (Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism), and Dana Rohrabacher, were incensed by Pakistan’s betrayal of the trust reposed by the US in Islamabad including through civil and military aid and declaring Pakistan a non-NATO ally. Both congressman are Republicans. The text of the bill cited multiple infractions by Pakistan in its sponsorship of terrorism, including harbouring Osama bin Laden and facilitating al Qaida’s movement of fighters to and from Afghanistan as well as the organisation’s purchase of weapons.
Ted Poe said “Not only is Pakistan an untrustworthy ally, Islamabad has also aided and abetted enemies of the United States for years.” Poe added “It is time we stop paying Pakistan for its betrayal and designate it for what it is: a state sponsor of terrorism”.
The bill was largely symbolic as the Congress was nearing the end of its term and the presidential race was heating up. Yet, it is an emphatic expression of the mood in the Congress. Now with a Republican President in place, who has shown a strong intention of cracking down on terrorism, the spirit of this bill is very much alive.
In a more recent development (6 Feb) a group of ten top level think tanks of Washington DC issued a report cautioning the US government that Pakistan has been allowed to slip through in the past while acting against US interests. The report titled “A New US Approach to Pakistan: Enforcing Aid Conditions without Cutting Ties”, was authored by Hussain Haqqani, Director for South Asia and Central Asia with Hudson Institute and Lisa Curtis of Heritage Foundation. Haqqani was Pakistan’s ambassador to the US from 2008-2011, a critical period, while Lisa Curtis was an analyst in the US security. Other signatories include Bruce Reidel of the Brookings Institution who served with CIA and the State Department as a counter terrorism expert. All of them have profound knowledge of Pakistan and its state policy of terrorism.
The report falls short of recommending declaration of Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism, but does not take the option off the table. It strongly advocates holding Pakistan’s feet to the fire and recommends against “chasing the mirage of securing change in Pakistan’s strategic direction by giving it additional aid or military equipment”.
The CIA and the DIA are aware of Pakistan’s double game including diversion of US counter-terrorism aid to groups like the Haqqani network to target US intelligence personnel in Pakistan. In one case the Haqqani network was paid by the ISI to decimate a CIA establishment in Pakistan near the Afghan border. Some of this information came out in the US last year.
What is China’s position in this scenario? While the Chinese are aware that support to the Uighur separatists comes from Pakistan, they have too much stake in Pakistan to let it down. In fact, the Chinese further tightened the exit-entry points on their border with Pakistan, in January this year. Supporting Pakistan, they put on technical hold a US move backed by the UK and France on February 02, to list Masood Azhar an international terrorist in the UN Sanctions Committee 1267.
Sealing the border with Pakistan in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region was a Chinese read-out to Pakistan of its displeasure that Pakistan was not doing enough to counter what they say are the “three evils” – separatism, terrorism and religious extremism. Pakistan sent its ISI Chief Lt. Gen. Naveed Mukhtar to China quietly in January to assuage their feelings and promised more active measures. In 2008, in the run up to the Beijing Summer Olympics, Xinjiang Party Chief, Wang Lequan had publicly accused Pakistan of harbouring Uighur terrorists.
In the first week of February, China despatched its State Commissioner for counter-terrorism, Cheng Guoping, to Pakistan. The Chinese official media generally skirted the visit while the Pakistani Foreign office issued a wishy-washy read- out, saying all is well between the two countries.
Cheng’s visit to Pakistan was not a tourism visit. There were reports in a section of the Pakistani media that Beijing was putting pressure on Islamabad to take action against Masood Azhar and Hafiz Saeed. Of course, the Chinese foreign ministry denied such reports. China does not want to be seen as a “bad boy” among the Pakistani people, many of whom either support the Jehadis or empathise with them, and see China as their one and only all-weather friend. China wants Pakistan to take action on its own. That is why the Chinese official position remains that the decision to ban or designate terrorist leaders like Azhar should be resolved between India and Pakistan through talks.
The Chinese are getting a little uncomfortable with the Masood Azhar case. According to a Pakistani media outlet which is up front and anti-Jehadi Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Choudhury told at a confidential meeting last year, that the Chinese would still put a hold on Masood Azhar at UN Sanctions Committee 1267, but also asked for “how long”.
While China is a member of the international coalition against terrorism, its track record does not encourage confidence. Its focus remains mainly on the Uighurs who are Muslims of Turkic Origin. Most recently, Beijing posted Chen Quanguo as Xinjiang Party Secretary. Formerly Party Secretary of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), Chen is a known hardliner. With the support of the Communist Party and the central government, Chen has launched a scorched earth policy against the ten million Uighurs living in Xinjiang. Their basic rights have been suspended and every Uighur is seen as a potential separatist or terrorist.
Beijing risks its big power status as a global leader because of its aggressive, assertive and dual policies. Whether it is its “grey” position on terrorism, or on the South China /East China Sea, China is positioning itself against international laws, agreements and opinion.
China says its position on Masood Azhar and against India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) are “small issues,” that should not impact China-India overall relationship. For India, on the other hand, these two issues are a direct threat to India’s security and core strategic interests. New Delhi’s recent demarche to China on the Masood Azhar issue is a slight change in its otherwise passive and accommodative approach to China. India must keep an eye on all engagements where its security is concerned – seeking investments from China in strategic areas like the information technology sector is fraught with danger.
How long the US pressure on Pakistan vis-a-vis terrorism will remain is still an open question. The US has strategic interests in Pakistan. There is the Afghan problem, the Taliban issue and the unhappy possibility of having to cede space to China.
And finally, the Pakistani army and politicians have made Hafiz Saeed a monster threatening to swallow the nation. Islamabad and Rawalpindi are already battling the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). But Hafiz Saeed is much stronger than the TTP, having spread his influence to all corners of Pakistan, with hundreds of thousands of dedicated cadres waiting for their leader’s command. They have also penetrated the Pakistani security and military organisations. Jaish can also join them if needed. An exceedingly gloomy situation indeed. No early solution is on the horizon.
*The writer is a New Delhi based security analyst. He can be reached at e-mail [email protected]