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EFSAS Commentary

Disregarding a history of betrayal, China’s belligerence, and terrorism, the US’ ongoing courtship of Islamabad is risk-prone


Ignoring the painful lessons and betrayals of history, the present defiant challenges being mounted to its dominance by China, and a future in which Islamabad is more likely to sit in China’s camp than that of the United States (US), Washington, it would appear, is convinced of the wisdom of reigniting its tumultuous, but for the past few years near-frozen, relationship with Pakistan. The US is, therefore, going about systematically restoring ties with Islamabad, its war-on-terror ally and adversary, both at the same time. The wild-goose chase that Pakistan had sent the US military on for a decade looking for Osama bin Laden in the caves of Afghanistan while sheltering the Al Qaeda leader right under Rawalpindi’s nose seems to have been forgotten by Washington, as also the terrorism sprouted by Pakistan that took hundreds of US lives in Pakistan, Afghanistan and far beyond. Using US taxpayer’s war-on-terror money to finance terrorist groups such as the Taliban and the Haqqani Network to attack and kill US troops in Afghanistan may be as convoluted as it gets, but that was sadly the well documented and widely lamented reality of how the relationship played out for much of the first 2 decades of this century.

Even as a New York court last week pulled up Pakistan’s largest bank for financing the terrorism of the same Al Qaeda that had carried out the 9/11 attacks in the US that killed thousands of innocent Americans, the carpets were being dusted and laid out at the State Department and the Pentagon to welcome warmly General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Chief of the same Pakistani Army that is charged with creating, overseeing and directing the actions of the country’s many terrorist assets. It is unclear why the US, despite being the self-appointed custodian of democracy, continues to pander to military leaders from Pakistan and in the process allows the Generals to cement their authority back home. Meanwhile, the likes of Robin Raphel, a veteran of the Pakistan beat in the State Department who has stood strongly behind the country through the years, have again begun featuring in the news for putting out study group recommendations that advocate some US engagement with Islamabad. Donald Blome, the US Ambassador to Pakistan, has also been in the news for a high-visibility message-laden visit to Pakistan-administered Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) that he undertook this week.

The Washington D.C. based study group comprised, in addition to Raphel, a dozen scholars and former US Ambassadors to Pakistan such as Ryan Crocker and Cameron Munter. Husain Haqqani, the US-based former Pakistani Ambassador was also a part. The group warned American policy makers that they could not afford to walk away from a country that involves three key regions – South Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East – and has borders with China and Iran and is close to Russia. Noting that “public opinion in both the US and Pakistan acts as constraints on bilateral relations”, the group also claimed that “attitudes toward India at both the elite and popular levels in Pakistan will, at best, change slowly”. They argued that the way to counter Pakistan’s growing reliance on China was through the US continuing its engagement with the South Asian nation. They opined that investment and climate cooperation were key to the engagement, and that by promoting investment from US businesses and others the US may “help build Pakistan’s capacity for transparency and compliance” with regard to Chinese loans and lessen Pakistan’s reliance on China. Referring to distrust over Afghanistan, the group said that “Instead of allowing existing differences to define the partnership, it may be time to recognize that both sides need to understand the other’s interests so that they can then find a way to work on areas of mutual concern”. The group concluded that “While Pakistan and the US often fail to see eye-to-eye when it comes to Afghanistan, China, or India, they do share mutual interests in seeking stability in the region, combating the problem of extremism and averting armed conflict in nuclear South Asia”.

The superficial and wishy-washy nature of the study group’s recommendations seemed to suggest that the real intent was the message that it conveyed, and not really the contents. The arguments put forward, such as the contention that engaging with Pakistan would prevent it from getting even closer to China, and that it would help combat terrorism and extremism, are tired and archaic, and have been in circulation for several years. They have also time and again been proved untrue and counter-productive. Selling the threat of nuclear war breaking out in South Asia has also been an old favourite. Also, one prominent member of the group, Husain Haqqani, separately told India Today magazine this week that he thinks there is a long way to go before Americans start considering Pakistan relevant again. He elaborated, “There is a trust deficit among the Americans due to Pakistan's questionable role in Afghanistan where the country was seen to be supporting the Taliban takeover in August last year”. He also aptly added that “Pakistan’s only little relevance right now is due to its geographical location and the issue of terrorism, and only those Americans who are interested in these matters would take Pakistan seriously”.

As these recommendations were being publicized and General Bajwa was doing the rounds in the corridors of power in Washington D. C., the respected Pakistani daily Dawn reported on 29 September that Pakistan’s largest bank, Habib Bank Limited (HBL), was facing secondary liabilities in a terror financing case in the US in which the plaintiffs had alleged that the bank had aided and abetted Al Qaeda terrorism and joined in a conspiracy to launch attacks that had killed or injured 370 people in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2019. According to the New York district court order issued on September 28, the plaintiffs alleged that the attacks were planned, authorized and committed by Al Qaeda, sometimes in conjunction with one or more other groups, including Lashkar-e-Taibah (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM), the Afghan Taliban, including the Haqqani Network, and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. As per the court order, the bank faces the liabilities under the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act as a party that “aids and abets, by knowingly providing substantial assistance, or who conspires with the person who committed such an act of international terrorism”.

Elaborating on the modus operandi, Judge Lorna G. Schofield said HBL “placed terrorists or those linked to terrorists on a ‘whitelist’ or ‘good guy list’ of people ostensibly pre-cleared for reduced scrutiny of their transactions (and) engaged in tactics, such as ‘wire-stripping’, that shield the identities of parties to transactions”. The order stated that the plaintiffs had presented sufficient facts to infer that the bank used its New York branch “to further (al-Qaeda’s) terrorist goals”. The Judge added, “The complaints give rise to a reasonable inference that defendant knew its customers were integral to al-Qaeda’s overall campaign of terrorism, carried out directly and by proxy. That is sufficient to allege the general awareness element. The complaints allege that defendant took deliberate steps to help customers evade international sanctions regimes, and in doing so incurred business risk that ultimately led to defendant’s expulsion from the US”. She said that the allegations were sufficient to show that HBL “joined in a conspiracy to commit the attacks”. However, she turned down the plaintiffs’ claims of primary liability because none of the alleged banking services provided by HBL “were themselves acts of international terrorism”.

HBL responded with a statement that said that the allegations against it were “meritless” and that it would contest them vigorously. The statement said, “The public record is clear that HBL is unwavering in its commitment to combating the financing of terrorism, and - as has been well documented - its extensive global implementation of anti-money laundering compliance controls has been highly successful and lauded by regulators around the world… HBL has made investments in management and resources to strengthen its AML and CFT protocols by partnering with global experts in this field. The bank seeks to adhere to the highest standards of compliance with international and country laws and regulations”.

The bank’s protestations, however, clearly come across as unconvincing when the fact is taken into account that HBL had in 2017 agreed to pay a fine of $225 million — the largest ever imposed upon a Pakistani bank by regulatory authorities — for various violations of New York’s regulatory provisions. The bank had even agreed to surrender its license to operate a branch in New York, and to unwind its operations there. The branch had been operational since 1978. In a strongly worded release issued at the time, the Department of Financial Services (DFS) of New York State had castigated the bank strongly and asserted that “DFS will not stand by and let Habib Bank sneak out of the United States without holding it accountable for putting the integrity of the financial services industry and the safety of our nation at risk”. HBL had become the target of an enforcement action by DFS for 53 separate violations allegedly committed between 2007 and 2017.

This most recent development would not come as a surprise to many, given that Pakistan has over the years become so closely associated with sponsorship of international terrorism that people know the country for little else of significance. It would have come across to most as behaviour that could easily be associated with a Pakistani bank. Decades of breeding and exporting terrorists has led Pakistan to such disrepute. The US knows this very well even as it hosts General Bajwa.  

It may not be out of place to surmise that whether for realpolitik or for messaging purposes, or a combination of both, the Pakistan chapter has been reopened by the US. Gratitude towards Pakistan for contributing to the 31 July killing in Kabul of Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri by the US would have played a vital part in encouraging the Joe Biden Administration to overcome the pain of betrayal and extend a warmer shoulder to Pakistan than it has done in the last few years. The exit of the maverick former Prime Minister Imran Khan after his bizarre accusations of a US plot to de-seat him would also have contributed. The idea of balancing India, which has been carving out its own path on issues such as the Russia-Ukraine war, may also have figured in the US thinking when the reversal of the Pakistan policy was being contemplated. Critics of the reversal, however, would argue that it only makes the US appear more accepting of repeated betrayals, and that the US may be missing the wood for the trees.

Given that Pakistan has over the past decade all but become a vassal State of China, the emerging world power that is openly challenging the US in multiple theatres, the new US bonhomie with Pakistan is only laying the ground for another colossal betrayal.