Pakistan’s liaison with terrorism is at a crossroads
A number of worries have consumed the Pakistani leadership in recent weeks in fields as diverse as economics, international sanctions, ties with benefactors and other nations, and the social media. More germane, though, is the extraordinary fact that the present concerns in Pakistan in all these varied fields lead back in one way or the other to the country’s support of terrorism. They also convey that the disquiet that this notorious support ought to have generated internationally generations ago, has now finally become palpable.
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi on 1 April foresaw that the country would be placed on the blacklist of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) in June, after the organization carried out its review of the actions taken by Pakistan on the specific counter-terrorism and terrorism financing issues mandated by it. He told reporters that “the Foreign Office is calculating the annual loss if Pakistan is pushed in the blacklist by the FATF”, thereby clearly implying that Pakistan was resigned to that eventuality coming to bear. He disclosed that the Pakistan government’s estimation of the damages to the country even if it was retained on the grey list, which it presently is on, was $10 billion per annum. Qureshi’s prediction was not made without a basis. The last review on the implementation of the FATF Action Plan that was held in February took a dim view of the sluggishness and sloppiness of Pakistan’s efforts. Subsequent to that, a visiting delegation of a FATF affiliate, the Asia-Pacific Group (APG) on money laundering, in the last week of March found inadequate physical actions on the ground in Pakistan to block the flow of funds and the activities of terrorist groups. Pakistan, therefore, requires to demonstrate compliance on each of the 16 points identified by FATF at the June review. Not mean task by itself, it has been rendered even more difficult because of the Pulwama terrorist attack perpetrated by the Pakistan-based and backed, and United Nations (UN) proscribed, Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM).
Qureshi also curiously said that because “India is lobbying for this (blacklisting)”, it was likely to happen. What he did not say is more pertinent. The FATF is a reputed international organization, the members of which would not be swayed by Indian “lobbying” alone. If they were unconvinced with India’s contention that terrorism directed against it was emanating from Pakistan, they would not be swayed merely by “lobbying”.
The economic consequences of blacklisting or grey listing by FATF becomes more acute for Pakistan when seen in conjunction with the 3 April statement of the country’s Finance Minister Asad Umar that Pakistan’s basic debts were so sizeable that it was near bankruptcy. He added that Pakistan was “going to the IMF with these massive debts in toe for a bailout”. On the same day, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in its assessment of Pakistan’s economy in the ‘Asian Development Outlook’ for 2019 said, “Until macroeconomic imbalances are alleviated, the outlook is for slower growth, higher inflation, pressure on currency, and heavy external financing needed to maintain even a minimal cushion of foreign exchange reserves. Recurrent crises in the balance of payments require that firms become more export competitive”. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has predicted that the spiraling inflation, currently closing in on double digits, will reach 14 % by the end of this year. Economists expect unemployment to surge to 7.5-8 % by the end of this year.
In well-nigh any other country, it is the Finance Ministry that ought to take the flak for the decrepit state of the economy. The situation in Pakistan is different, though. As senior Pakistani journalist Muhammad Ziauddin averred, the problem does not stem as much from Pakistan’s elected governments as it does from the fact that most of country’s budget is hogged by the military. Ziauddin mentioned that the funds allocated to defense had earlier inter alia been spent to support the Taliban. It is equally pertinent that today it is spent to fund other terrorist outfits, including the JeM.
Reports last week, meanwhile, suggested that China had taken umbrage over diversion of about $171.6 million of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) funds by the Pakistan government to projects to be identified by local legislators under the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals programme. Opposition leader Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman was quoted as saying that “the government committed theft by spending Rs 2,400 crore out of Rs 2,700 crore meant for BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) on other development projects”. This development comes just ahead of the second BRI summit in Beijing. The CPEC is the flagship project of the BRI.
China would, in any case, not be very happy with having to single handedly try to protect Pakistan at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) over the latter’s indefensible record of supporting terror. This is especially so now, as the heat is really on. China has been reduced to coining vague and irrational terms to justify its efforts aimed at stalling the designation of JeM leader Masood Azhar as a global terrorist. Responding to a United States (US) statement of 2 April that it would "utilise all available resources" to ensure that Masood Azhar was held accountable, China, which has stalled Azhar’s designation four times on grounds as flimsy as requiring a consensus between India and Pakistan on the matter (as highlighted in EFSAS Commentary of 19-10-2018), responded on 3 April with the fuzzy “It is only complicating the issue and not conducive to peace and stability in South Asia”. Obviously, China could not possibly believe that shielding a terrorist who has the blood of dozens of civilians on his hands was the proper route to “peace and stability”. It must, therefore, be feeling rather unprincipled and lonely in its veto-wielding UNSC high chair, a situation it has been plunged into on account of Pakistan.
Pakistan’s pariah-like status, meanwhile, was driven in by another South Asian country, Nepal. It first decided to call off a scheduled meeting between the speakers of the parliaments of the two countries. This was followed by the cancellation last week of an important meeting between the Foreign Secretaries of the two countries. Media reports carried a Nepalese official’s explanation for the cancellation, “Nepal looks at India as a friend and its decision to not go ahead with the scheduled dialogue with Pakistan at a time Indo-Pak tensions are threatening to boil over shows the importance Kathmandu attaches to ties with its immediate neighbor”.
Amidst these developments, social media giant Facebook announced on 1 April that it had launched what was essentially a major crackdown on the psychological warfare operations, often referred to as “fifth generation warfare” by the Pakistan Army’s spokesman, of the Pakistani military establishment. Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook's head of cyber security, said in a statement, “Today we removed 103 pages, Groups and accounts for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behaviour on Facebook and Instagram as part of a network that originated in Pakistan. Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found that it was linked to employees of the ISPR (Inter-Service Public Relations) of the Pakistani military”. Gleicher elaborated, “In each case detailed below, the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves, and that was the basis for our action. We are constantly working to detect and stop coordinated inauthentic behavior because we don’t want our services to be used to manipulate people”.
Reports quoting Pakistani sources have revealed that the ISPR has a special media cell that employs hundreds of people, including retired military personnel, to run fake news sites and propaganda pages on the internet. The cell not only targets India, but also seeks to steer the domestic Pakistani political narrative. Representatives of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, who studied the Pakistan Army’s covert social network, revealed, “The pages and groups very largely followed Pakistan’s strategic narratives: the strength of the Army, India’s weakness and wickedness, national pride, and the claim over all of Kashmir. Most pages and groups promoted these narratives directly; a few were indirect, referencing them between more innocuous posts”. As has traditionally been the Pakistani military establishment’s wont, even in situations where it has been caught pants down, the ISPR rejected Facebook’s assertions and claimed that it had no link to the blocked accounts and content.
Pakistan has rarely in its history been confronted with as wide a spectrum of challenges as it faces today as a consequence of its support for terror. It finds itself at a crossroads, with the options before it fairly evident. It can yield to the new reality, see the writing on the wall, and even at this late juncture choose to change course. Alternately, it can opt to continue to use terrorism as a tool to further its political goals, all the while denying that it is doing so even in the face of ever mounting, irrefutable evidence.
The multi-pronged pressure that is being brought to bear upon it of late would indicate, though, that the prognosis for the latter road is not bright at all and that serious danger lurks wayside.