Challenging times ahead for Pakistan | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 29, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:12 PM, August 29, 2017

Challenging times ahead for Pakistan

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The most immediate uncomfortable truth is that it is virtually impossible to separate Pakistan's domestic security concerns from its external ones. Not because they can be dismissed as the result of foreign interference but because they are often the legacy of past policies.

Pakistanis with good reason point to US and Saudi policies dating back to the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, if not earlier. That is beyond doubt. It however is also an argument that conveniently allows its proponents to distract from the fact that Pakistan was and is a full partner in the execution of those policies, not simply either the victim or the poorly acknowledged facilitator. Pakistan is and was the ultimate arbitrator of its history and shares equal responsibility for the consequences of its decisions.

Similarly, there is no doubt that Pakistan is located in a volatile part of the world. It shares borders with Afghanistan that has been in the throes of war and insurgency for decades, Iran, and an increasingly nationalist India. It is a stone's throw from the Gulf and is one of two regional nuclear powers. Having said that, Pakistan's legitimate security concerns are as much a function of its geography as they are problems of its own making.

There is equally no doubt that Pakistan has suffered significantly and continues to suffer from political violence. And indeed, Pakistan has done much to crackdown on militant groups. The political divide emerges over the question whether the Pakistani crackdown is comprehensive, targeting without qualification all militant groups, irrespective of who they are and what their goals are. It doesn't. Pakistan, to its credit as well as to its detriment, makes no bones about this. In fact, this approach has become so deeply engrained that it is difficult to reverse, will not be changed by US sanctions, and ultimately will come to haunt Pakistan.

Decades of Pakistani support for various groups in support of its approach to Kashmir, its filtering of much of its threat perception through the prism of challenges posed by India, concern about vulnerabilities that arise from ethnic unrest and neglect in Balochistan, and abetting and aiding of Saudi policies, has created demons that lead their own life. To be sure, US policy, including the prescriptions recently laid out by President Trump do little to help Pakistan work through issues, take a step back, and look at alternative ways of enhancing domestic and external security. In fact, Trump's policies threaten to harden existing differences and exacerbate regional tensions.

"In the short term, Pakistan, which has rejected Trump's allegations of Pakistani support for militancy as scapegoating, is likely to see its escape route as closer relations with China and perhaps Russia. Ultimately, however, Pakistan's relationship to militancy is likely to also complicate its ties to Beijing and Moscow...

One such approach is evident in the case of Jamaat ud-Dawa, a group that is widely viewed as a front for Lashkar e-Taibe, a globally proscribed organisation, and led by Hafez Saeed, who has been designated a terrorist under international law by the United Nations. For much of the past year, Saeed has been under house arrest rather than in prison. Treating Jamaat-ud-Dawa with kid gloves is but one issue that has raised questions about the sincerity and comprehensiveness of the Pakistani crackdown. Yet, a decision by the group to create a political party has sparked debate about how to deal with militancy in Pakistan. Indeed, a successful transition towards pluralistic, political engagement that involves an absolute rejection of violence would significantly contribute to enhancing domestic security and could serve as a model for others.

The chances of Jamaat-ud-Dawa becoming a model case, however, are undermined by the fact that there is little indication that its transition is embedded in broader policies. There is also little indication that Pakistan has the political will to reshape the environment in which, at least tacitly, militancy is allowed to flourish. Decades of Pakistani and Saudi support of various strands of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism has woven that worldview into the fabric of significant segments of government, the military and society. It is a worldview that does not encourage pluralism, tolerance and competitive, political engagement.

Doubts about the comprehensiveness of the Pakistani approach are fed by multiple factors, ranging from the lack of political will to seriously tackle educational reform to failing to even project an image of a state that at the very least goes through the motions of confronting all militancy, to turning a blind eye when it suits the state's purpose. The risks are huge and could threaten what Pakistan sees as a lifeline, its all-weather friendship with China and China's multi-billion-dollar investment in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Reports that Saudi Arabia and Iran are about to exchange diplomatic visits justify a degree of optimism that the kingdom may, at least for now, shelve plans to use Balochistan as a spring plank for efforts to destabilise Iran. The reports are bolstered by leaked emails that quote Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as saying that he would favour US engagement with Iran. Time will tell.

Nonetheless, Pakistani policy in dealing with the potential threat of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry playing out in part in a crucial, but already troubled province raises similar doubts. For much of the past year, Pakistan has turned a blind eye to the flow of Saudi funds to militants, some of whom are associated with outlawed groups such as the successors of Sipah-e-Sabaha and madrassas in Balochistan that nurture, violent anti-Iranian, anti-Shiite groups. The funds are often channelled through Saudis of Baloch descent.

Pakistan's response to the US Treasury's designation in May of Maulana Ali Muhammad Abu Turab as a specially designated terrorist is a case in point. The response highlighted the murky world of Pakistani militancy in which the lines between various groups are fluid, links to government are evident, and battles in Pakistan and Afghanistan and potentially Iran are inter-linked.

The Treasury described Abu Turab as a “facilitator…(who) helped…raise money in the Gulf and supported the movement of tens of thousands of dollars from the Gulf to Pakistan.” The Treasury said funds raised by Abu Turab financed operations of various groups, including Jama'at ul Dawa, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, the Taliban; and the Islamic State's South Asian wing. A suspension of Abu Turab's membership of the Council of Islamic Ideology pending the outcome of an independent Pakistani investigation would have done much to enhance Pakistan's credibility. The failure to do so says much about the structural problems that underlie Pakistan's security dilemmas.

So does the curious case of Masood Azhar, whose group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, has been proscribed by the United Nations as well as Pakistan. It raises questions about China's approach that frankly I am at a loss to explain. China, at the behest of Pakistan, has for the second time this year prevented the United Nations from listing Azhar as a globally designated terrorist. It strikes me that various justifications put forward, including China honouring a request by the Pakistani military, and seeing Azhar as a way to needle India, do not cut ice given the threat militancy in Pakistan poses to China's vast interests in the country.

In the short term, Pakistan, which has rejected Trump's allegations of Pakistani support for militancy as scapegoating, is likely to see its escape route as closer relations with China and perhaps Russia. Ultimately, however, Pakistan's relationship to militancy is likely to also complicate its ties to Beijing and Moscow amid escalating violence in Balochistan and no end in sight to the militant insurgency in Afghanistan. As a result, Pakistan's refusal to confront its demons could in the final analysis, leave it out in the cold.


Dr James M Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg's Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, and a book with the same title.


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