April issue 2019
The February 14 suicide bombing in Pulwama, claimed by Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), led to military skirmishes and an aerial dogfight between Pakistan and India later that month. New Delhi accused Islamabad of harbouring the terrorist group, while the latter claimed that it was not providing a safe haven to any terror outfit.
While war drums continue beating in India ahead of the upcoming general election, Prime Minister Imran Khan continued to offer talks for peace, as exemplified by the release of the arrested Indian pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. PM Khan also vowed to take action against any group involved in the Pulwama attack if New Delhi provided “actionable evidence.”
Once the dust settled, the Pakistan government initiated a crackdown against JeM and other proscribed outfits across the country; 44 members affiliated with banned groups were taken into custody on March 5.
Among those arrested were the senior JeM leaders, Abdul Rauf and Hamad Azhar. The former, the second-in-command, is JeM Chief Masood Azhar’s younger brother, while the latter is Masood Azhar’s son. Azhar himself is in custody in a military hospital.
In addition to the crackdown on JeM, a major factor in the action was the increasing international pressure against terror groups, as epitomised by the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) directions to act against terror financing and money-laundering in the country. Pakistan was formally grey-listed by the FATF in June last year, with the terror-financing watchdog setting conditions on Islamabad to get its name off the list, failing which, it will be blacklisted.
Government officials who have participated in the meetings with FATF reveal that action against groups affiliated with Hafiz Saeed has been a regular demand. Masood Azhar and the JeM were also mentioned in last month’s FATF meeting in Paris, which took place in the aftermath of the Pulwama bombing.
The FATF has given Islamabad a 10-point agenda under which the Hafiz Saeed-linked Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation (FiF) were formally banned. The Interior Ministry has also taken over the seminaries and offices of JeM and JuD across the country.
Sceptics question the sincerity of the latest crackdown against militants, given that many such operations have been launched in the past. The government maintains that the counter-terror measures are being taken under the National Action Plan (NAP).
On March 22, PM Khan said there is no room for jihadi culture and jihadi outfits in Pakistan. He further said that the NAP should have been implemented long ago.
Meanwhile, the opposition parties remain critical of the government’s policies. On March 20, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Chairperson, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, said that he does not trust the government’s operations. “The government is hiding the militants so that Indian jets don’t strike them down,” said Bhutto Zardari, inviting backlash at home.
Amid action against JeM in Pakistan, China vetoed the blacklisting of Masood Azhar as a “global terrorist” at the United Nations. This is the fourth time, and the third successive year that Beijing has blocked the move.
Muhammad Amir Rana, Director Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), reveals that there were grounds for China vetoing the move to blacklist Azhar. “There are technical grounds to block the blacklisting of Azhar and JeM,” he says, “because the UN resolution requires evidence that the outfit is linked to Al-Qaeda. And since there is no clear affiliation between the JeM and Al-Qaeda, the move can easily be vetoed,” he said.
“However, [China’s move] shouldn’t be seen as encouragement for Pakistan to continue to shield militant groups. The government claims that it is now taking action against all militant groups without any discrimination – let’s hope they follow through on their word.”
While there are technical grounds for vetoing the move to blacklist Azhar, China’s move is seen as evidence of strong diplomatic ties with Pakistan. Experts also say that Bejing’s move is as much in support of Islamabad as it is against New Delhi, given Indian support for the Tibetan spiritual leader, Dalai Lama.
“I believe Pakistan has been able to convince China that Masood’s alleged involvement in the Pulwama [attack] was played out of proportion by India, to gain international support. Therefore, the aim behind China’s support for Pakistan at the UN is political and diplomatic,” maintains Umair Jamal, an International Relations professor at FC College and a correspondent for The Diplomat.
“[This] perhaps offers more credence to Pakistan’s apt diplomacy in the recent crisis with India and prevents the latter from further point-scoring,” he adds.
China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Beijing’s largest ever overseas investment, means that China itself is a stakeholder in Pakistan’s security matters. Security analysts cite CPEC as a game-changer for not just the Pakistani economy, but its security policy as well, given that Islamabad can ill-afford putting CPEC-affiliated projects in jeopardy. Hence, China’s veto is being seen as a move to give Pakistan the time to sort out the militant groups in the country, especially those that are Kashmir-bound.
“The Kashmir-bound militants are critical to the army’s planning, because they are now trying to internationalise Kashmir along with Afghanistan,” notes military scientist Ayesha Siddiqa, author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy.
Siddiqa also maintains that declaring Masood Azhar a “global terrorist” at the UN won’t make much difference. “What difference does it make? Hafiz Saeed is a globally-designated terrorist and he’s still roaming around [in Pakistan],” she says.
Security analyst Aoun Sahi believes detaining the leadership of militant outfits, even if carried out without discrimination, won’t have any long-lasting impact. “These organisations need to be stopped from radicalising society, especially the youth. There needs to be a proper plan to control the activities of these groups,” Sahi says, adding that there is growing international pressure against militant groups functioning in Pakistan. “China has asked Pakistan to take action against banned organisations. [Furthermore] the FATF has played an important role in this regard as well.”
A FATF delegation arrived in Pakistan on March 25 for a three-day visit. The delegation observed Islamabad’s counter-terror progress as per the instructions provided by the watchdog and the global standards against terror-financing. The decision on Pakistan’s future on the FATF grey-list will be taken later this year. n