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EFSAS Commentary

Marriage with China, affair with US: Pakistan’s next double-game?


On Wednesday 17 July 2019, Pakistani authorities arrested the notorious mastermind behind the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, Hafiz Saeed. He is one of the founders of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), an internationally designated terrorist organisation that has alleged ties to the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, and operates from Pakistan. 

LeT’s extensive network has led international organisations and governments to believe that there are tangible financial and logistical links between LeT and other radical terror groups in the region such as Al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and Jaish-e-Mohammed. In 2006, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) listed LeT in the Al-Qaida sanctions list for “participating in the financing, planning, facilitating, preparing or perpetrating of acts or activities by, in conjunction with, under the name of, on behalf or in support of”, “supplying, selling or transferring arms and related materiel to” or “otherwise supporting acts or activities of” Al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. In 2008, the US Department of Treasury imposed sanctions on four LeT leaders, including Hafiz Saeed, and in 2012 the Obama administration announced a $10 million bounty for information leading to his arrest and conviction. 

The arrest took place amid increasing international pressure upon Pakistan to take stronger measures in order to crack down on terrorist organisations based in the country. In late June, Pakistan received a warning from the Paris-based global anti-money laundering watchdog, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), regarding its serious deficiencies in counter-terrorist financing measures. The country narrowly avoided being placed on the FATF blacklist, as it managed to obtain the three votes required to stay on the grey list, courtesy of China, Malaysia and Turkey. India, voted in favour of blacklisting Pakistan, with the support of the United States, the consequences of which would have proven to be devastating for Pakistan’s already fragile economy; in early July, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a $6 billion package to help “return sustainable growth” to Pakistan’s economy. One of the initial conditions for this loan was complete transparency and financial cooperation on Pakistan’s behalf regarding Chinese loans and infrastructure projects. 

Saeed’s role in the LeT’s operational and fundraising activities cannot be undermined. He is indeed facing several terrorism financing and money laundering cases under the Pakistani Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997, as a result of earlier investigations conducted in April on charities such as the Al-Anfaal Trust and Dawatul Irshad Trust. These so-called non-profit organisations have reportedly facilitated the processes and mechanisms behind the financing of terrorist groups and their operations. Aside from using charities as fronts for such activities, the UNSC has linked Saeed to the management and fundraising of ‘terrorist camps’ chiefly located in Pakistan. 

Saeed had been arrested on multiple occasions, and his recent arrest is only the latest in Pakistan’s game of “Arrest. Free. Repeat”, as phrased by exiled award-winning Pakistani journalist Taha Siddiqui. When travelling from Lahore to Gujrawanla, Saeed was arrested on charges relating to terrorism financing, as he is accused of using his so-called charity, Jamaat-ud-Dawa as front for funding terror activities. A couple of days before his arrest, Saeed was granted pre-arrest bail, valid until 3 August, for the meagre amount of 50,000 Rupees ($310). 

India, where Saeed is still amongst the most wanted individuals for his role in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, reacted skeptical regarding the arrest. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted: “This is not the first time that Hafiz Saeed has been arrested or detained. This drama has taken place at least 8 times since 2001. The question is whether this time it would be more than a cosmetic exercise and whether Saeed will be tried and sentenced for his terrorist activities”

Considering the deterioration of US-Pakistan relations in recent years, Pakistan’s decision to arrest Saeed could be perceived as a move to appease the Trump administration before Khan’s maiden State visit to Washington. President Trump was quick to applaud the arrest on Twitter, however, as many critics pointed out, the phrasing of his tweet seemed to suggest that finding Saeed was a difficult task. Contrary to what Trump stated, there was no “ten-year search” for Saeed, as he has been living openly in his hometown of Lahore in Pakistan for decades, writing columns for local newspapers, preaching in Mosques, holding sermons, and hosting rallies, which one would expect the Pakistani authorities would have been aware of. Moreover, Saeed created a political branch of the LeT in 2017, known as the Milli Muslim League (MML), with the intention to put forward candidates in the 2018 General Elections. While the Election Commission did not register the party, Saeed was photographed casting his ballot in Lahore. 

Incongruously, according to President Trump, “Great pressure has been exerted over the last two years to find him”. However, as mentioned above, Saeed’s location was never a secret. His last arrest dates back to January 2017, at a time when Pakistan was pressurised by the US to take stronger action against extremists and terrorists residing in the country and as a result of which Saeed was placed under house arrest for 10 months. Yet, it is interesting to note that at the time, President Trump had not even once made a statement regarding Saeed, and his recent misinformed appraisal of Saeed’s arrest is in utter contrast to the recent past, when in the words of the US President, “the billions and billions of dollars” supplied by the US to Pakistan in order for the latter to combat homegrown terrorism did not prove effective; the US President further contended that “at the same time they [Pakistan] are housing the very terrorists we are fighting”

Judging by precedent, it seems likely that placing Hafiz Saeed under judicial custody, which in Saeed’s case translates into preventive custody, is a superficial step aimed at appeasing international actors while he remains at a safe distance from police investigative powers and enjoys the protection of the State. 

The Trump administration might appear to believe that the pressure it has exerted on Pakistan in an attempt to soften Islamabad over the last year is what is paying dividends now with the country goading the Taliban to the negotiating table. The reality is quite the opposite. Quick to seize on President Trump’s prematurely stated desire to withdraw from Afghanistan, Pakistan’s decision to facilitate the talks has more to do with the country’s keenness to drive the US out of Afghanistan in order to get the Taliban back into the saddle in Kabul. Astonishingly, it seems to matter little to Trump that he himself has only recently publicly accused Pakistan of deceiving the US over the years with sheltering terrorist proxies such as the Taliban and the Haqqani network, and supporting them in carrying out marauding attacks against US troops in Afghanistan. Nor does it matter to him that the Afghan government blames Pakistan, particularly its spy agency the ISI, for keeping the Taliban militarily politically alive throughout these years. 

The foreign policy of Pakistan towards the US and China might differ, yet it is fashioned through a balance of power principle, since the destabilised State of Pakistan requires someone to play as a gyroscope that counterweights the tilted scales and establishes an equilibrium. It is crucial to note that Pakistan has happened to develop an important and strategic role for itself as it appears that it is a fundamental ingredient for China’s rise in the region and beyond, through its provision of alternative energy supplies, transportation routes and national security. Yet, it remains to be seen whether the country will succeed in clearing all its woes, considering the rise of extremism in Pakistan, the support to it by its military establishment, economic malaise and tensions with India along with the growing realization that the world, including the US, have expressed earlier that Pakistan played a ‘double-game’ for decades. 

In this scenario, some may ask whether Islamabad’s marriage with China and, simultaneously, its affair with the US, is Pakistan’s next ‘double-game’.