Pakistan will have to choose its own path

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Both New Delhi and Washington have launched scathing attacks on Pakistan for providing support to terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Muhammed, the Haqqani network, and the Taliban. The last few weeks have been particularly significant.

First, Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in response to the Pakistan Prime Minister’s speech at the UN, chided Pakistan during her address to the UN General Assembly on September 24, 2017. She said that Pakistan had only succeeded in producing terrorist groups while India had created institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs).

As Swaraj said, “Whereas we produce IITs and IIMs, you (Pak) have produced LeT and Jaish-e-Muhammed. We have produced doctors and scientists, you have churned out terrorists and jihadis. While a doctor saves lives, jihadis kill.” Swaraj’s speech was hailed not only by members of her party, but also by opposition leaders.

The Pakistani Foreign Minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, responded by calling India a terrorist state and the Indian PM a terrorist. Speaking during a TV show, Capital Talk, on Pakistan news channel Geo News, Asif said, “Sushma Swaraj has accused us (Pakistan) of exporting terrorism. (However) one terrorist (in India) is the country’s prime minister himself. He (Modi) has the blood of Muslims murdered in Gujarat on his hands.”

Asif is known for making intemperate remarks, time and again. While defending his country’s position is his right and duty, he certainly has crossed the red line by attacking a democratically elected Prime Minister of a country in such a fashion.

It was not just Swaraj, but also US Defense Secretary James Mattis who had harsh words for Pakistan. In August, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had spoken about withdrawing Non-NATO ally status from Pakistan as well as reducing military assistance. Defense Secretary Mattis reiterated that the US would have to take some tough steps if Pakistan continued to lend support to terrorist groups. While speaking to the House Armed Services Committee on October 4, Mattis said, “If our best efforts fail, President Trump is prepared to take whatever steps necessary … enormously powerful number of options.” Mattis was also careful to reiterate that Washington was willing to work jointly with Islamabad one last time.

It would be pertinent to point out that General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on October 3 that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had relations with terrorist groups.

It remains to be seen how the US finally deals with Pakistan, and whether it takes any tough measures immediately or exercises other options. A number of analysts in India and the US are skeptical about Washington taking such steps, arguing that in the past Washington had also threatened to make Islamabad pay for its role in backing terrorist groups.

Significantly, Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was skeptical about US success in convincing Pakistan to take action against these terrorist groups. He said, “But we still do not know what specific steps the United States will take to convince or compel Pakistan to change its behavior, or what costs we will impose if Pakistan fails to do so.”

For now, even though the PML-N realizes the futility of supporting certain terrorist groups, it is likely to avoid a head-on conflict, given the struggle it is involved in with the army.

Beyond the attacks on Pakistan and potential responses, it is important to note that Asif had made remarks against terrorist groups and accused the US of patronizing such groups. First, while speaking at the Asia Society in New York on September 27, Asif stated, “They are liabilities. I accept, they are liabilities but give us time to get rid of these liabilities because we don’t have assets to match these liabilities and you are increasing them further.”

Asif also did not forget to mention that the US had in the past utilized the likes of Hafiz Saeed, co-founder of LeT  and chief of Jamaat-ud-Dawaah (JuD), and the Haqqani network. Some could view Asif’s remarks against LeT as a change of heart. At the Munich Security Conference in February 2017, Asif had condemned Hafiz Saeed, saying, “Saeed can pose a serious threat to the society.”

Even during his meeting with Tillerson, Asif reiterated Pakistan’s fight against terrorism, and also made the point that Washington has failed to recognize Islamabad’s contribution. Tillerson on his part assured Asif that Pakistan’s apprehensions will not be overlooked. Tillerson also made it clear that Washington understands the relevance of Pakistan’s stability for the overall security and stability of South Asia. He said, “Not just Afghanistan, but it is the importance of Pakistan and Pakistan’s long-term stability as well.”

The dilemma for Pakistan’s politicians from the PML-N (whose strong hold is Punjab) is while they have realized the pitfalls of the dominance of the army, they are also beginning to realize the dangerous impact of religious radicalism. It will be very tough for them to go fully against the terrorist groups, given their past links with such groups including the JuD. On the one hand, the Punjab government has been claiming to have been acting against Hafiz Saeed and other members of the JuD. On the other, Law Minister of Punjab, Rana Sanaullah, has stated that there was no evidence against Saeed in Punjab and the JuD chief, who had been arrested on orders from the Federal government.

It is not just the mindsets of Pakistan’s politicians or the propensity to play to the gallery which has resulted in civilian leaders kowtowing to terrorist groups. Going soft on terrorist groups also arises out of a worry that extreme steps against them will only strengthen the Pakistan army.

While there are sections of Pakistan’s intelligentsia which have begun to criticize groups like LeT, there are also some who are pro-democracy but are in denial when it comes to the damage caused by such terrorist groups. The other problem is that some Pakistani liberals, rather than looking inwards, instead blame the US for all the problems afflicting Pakistan. While it is true that in the 1980s, US policies in Afghanistan and support of the dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq were responsible for Islamization, this is just part of the story, and is not a convincing explanation. Unless this narrative changes, it is likely that Pakistan will only take on those groups which are targeting it while avoiding confrontation with groups fomenting terrorism in Afghanistan and targeting India.

For now, even if the PML-N may well realize the futility of supporting terrorist groups targeting India, it is likely to avoid a head-on conflict, given the struggle it is involved in with the army. This of course would be a big blunder in the longer run. In the short run, US pressure is not likely to work on Islamabad. If anything, increased pressure from Beijing as well as countries like Saudi Arabia may force Islamabad to change its approach towards terrorist groups. While in recent years there have been some clear indicators from both, it is still not sufficient.

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