Has Pakistan finally turned serious on terror?

The latest set of actions may seem like a big crackdown on LeT only if Pakistan’s history were to be forgotten


Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Recently, Pakistan placed Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks and head of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and its parent political organization Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), under house arrest. Moreover, Pakistan also put JuD and Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation, JuD’s front for charitable activities, on the terror watch list. This would seem like a big crackdown on terrorist organizations that target India only if Pakistan’s history were to be forgotten. Saeed has been placed under such detentions earlier as well to fulfil short-term objectives. The prosecution in Pakistan, however, has never built a robust case against him in a court of law.

Unsurprisingly, India didn’t deem the latest set of actions to be credible enough to prove—in the words of Vikas Swarup, spokesperson for India’s ministry of external affairs—“Pakistan’s sincerity”. There are good reasons for India’s scepticism besides history. For instance, even as LeT and Saeed are under scrutiny, Masood Azhar and his terror outfit Jaish-e-Muhammed (JeM) have—as reported by Praveen Swami of The Indian Express—“emerged centre stage on the jihadi landscape”. The group behind several high-profile terrorist attacks in India, including the 2001 Parliament attacks and the recent attacks on defence establishments in Pathankot and Nagrota, has been openly organizing rallies and raising funds.

What could be behind this differentiated treatment of the two terror groups, widely regarded as Pakistan’s strategic assets against India? And why has the crackdown on LeT, even if phoney, come now? The second question can be answered more satisfactorily than the first. Three new developments may hold the clues.

One, the forthcoming plenary session of the 37-member Financial Action Task Force from 19-24 February may end up putting Pakistan back on the watch list of “high risk and non-cooperative jurisdictions” under its global anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing regime. Pakistan was removed from this list as recently as 2015. But a report by the Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering has raised some serious objections regarding—according to The News of Pakistan—“the financial traffic of JuD”. Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, Jalil Abbas Jilani, was warned by the US assistant secretary of state on 11 January about the fallout of this report.

Two, the travel ban imposed by US President Donald Trump on the citizens of seven Muslim majority countries has led to speculation about Pakistan being included in an extended list of embargoed countries. Even White House chief of staff Reince Priebus has suggested this possibility. The fear of loss of face could have persuaded the Pakistani generals and civilian administration to jettison their differences and act jointly against a major terrorist group to signal commitment. A briefing paper authored by Lisa Curtis of The Heritage Foundation and Husain Haqqani of the Hudson Institute—and signed by other top academics—arguing for tougher measures to be adopted by the US on Pakistan, has been sent to the top echelons of the Trump administration. While this paper has come out recently, Pakistan may have got wind of its preparation and must have taken it seriously given the clout The Heritage Foundation has had with previous Republican administrations.

Three, the change of guard in the Pakistani army from the hawkish Raheel Sharif to General Qamar Javed Bajwa has something to do, many believe, with a change in outlook towards India-focused terror groups. That the Pakistani army was on board with Saeed’s arrest was confirmed by the director general of the Inter-Services Public Relations, Major General Asif Ghafoor. Notably, Ghafoor is one among several new important functionaries in the Pakistani security structure brought in by Bajwa. The core team of Sharif, including the chief of Inter-Services Intelligence, was replaced by Bajwa within days of assuming responsibilities. Some reports have suggested that Bajwa is serious about curbing the activities of groups like LeT and JeM. But more action, especially on JeM, would be needed for those reports to carry credence.

Other than these three reasons, a few experts, including Michael Kugelman of the Woodrow Wilson Center, have suggested that pressure from China could have led to Saeed’s arrest. But this argument is weak: Pakistan may have reasons to differentiate between LeT and JeM based on local dynamics, but it is hard to fathom how those reasons apply to China. And Beijing has obstructed several attempts by New Delhi and Washington to impose sanctions on JeM’s Azhar under the UN resolution 1267 regime.

The man in the eye of the storm, Saeed himself, however, claimed that it is Trump’s friendship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that is responsible for his house arrest. If the US is directly involved, it will be important for Trump not to turn celebratory on such small gains as is his wont. The generals in Rawalpindi have been manipulating US administrations over several decades now. The US too did not mind much all those years because its priorities were different. But a sharp decisive change in Pakistan can be obtained, as Ashley Tellis had argued in these pages, only through a squeeze directed from Washington.

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