Pakistan’s promotion of terrorism and dismal anti-terror record highlighted by the US State Department
Already engulfed in flaming internal strife, the most serious recent manifestation of which is the enduring ‘Azadi (Freedom) March’ ofJamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman (see EFSAS Commentary of 08-11-2019), and debilitating economic malaise that has led the country to near bankruptcy, news over the last fortnight even on the external relations and international image fronts have complotted to deny Pakistan any respite from its myriad, predominantly self-created, woes.
The United States (US) Department of State on 1 November 2019 released its Country Report on Terrorism (Year 2018), which came down heavily on Pakistan both for promoting terrorism and for its sluggishness and selectivity in dealing with terrorist entities. The report emphasized that “Pakistan did not take sufficient action against externally focused groups such as Lashkar e-Tayyiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), which continued to operate, train, organize, and fundraise in Pakistan… Pakistan-based LeT – which was responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks – and JeM maintained the capability and intent to attack Indian and Afghan targets. In February, operatives reportedly affiliated with JeM attacked an Indian army camp at Sunjuwan, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, killing seven”. The report further accused the Pakistani government of propping up “candidates overtly affiliated with LeT front organizations to contest the July general elections”.
Umair Jamal, the Lahore-based correspondent for The Diplomat, in an article on 9 November elaborated on the State Department’s contention. He wrote that “beyond rhetoric, there appears no convincing evidence that could suggest that Pakistan has choked India-focused groups’ operational capability or capacity to act in the future. Arguably, the focus on Pakistan’s part appears to be aimed at placing the group away from the media’s glare and signifying small steps against these groups’ activities as part of the state’s broad plan to defang the organizations”.
On Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan, the State Department report averred that“The Pakistani government pledged support for political reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban but did not restrict the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network (HQN) from operating in Pakistan and threatening U.S. and Afghan forces in Afghanistan… the Taliban and the HQN continued to launch lethal attacks throughout Afghanistan, including against US military personnel. In one of its deadliest attacks to date, HQN – an affiliate of the Taliban – killed more than 100 people after detonating an explosives-laden ambulance in Kabul in January, a week after the Taliban conducted an attack on a Kabul hotel that killed 22”.
Pakistan’s dubious and unhelpful role in Afghanistan was also the prominent theme in another recent report, that of the US Congressional Research Service (CRS), on Afghanistan. CRS is tasked with preparing reports periodically on issues of importance for Congressmen to enable them to take informed decisions. This report identified Pakistan as the most important neighbour of Afghanistan, one which had played an active but negative role in Afghan affairs for decades. The report reiterated that “Pakistan's security services maintain ties to Afghan insurgent groups, most notably the Haqqani Network, a US-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) that has become an official, semiautonomous component of the Taliban. Afghan leaders, along with US military commanders, attribute much of the insurgency's power and longevity either directly or indirectly to Pakistani support”. On Pakistan’s motivations to adopt such a destructive policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan, the CRS averred that “Pakistan may view a weak and destabilized Afghanistan as preferable to a strong, unified Afghan State (particularly one led by an ethnic Pashtun-dominated government in Kabul; Pakistan has a large and restive Pashtun minority)”. Moreover, “Pakistan's security establishment, fearful of a strategic encirclement by India, apparently continues to view the Afghan Taliban as a relatively friendly and reliable anti-India element in Afghanistan. India's diplomatic and commercial presence in Afghanistan - and US rhetorical support for it - exacerbates Pakistani fears of encirclement”. The report, however, warns that “instability in Afghanistan could rebound to Pakistan's detriment”.
The State Department report, meanwhile, also observed that “As a member of the Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering (APG), a Financial Action Task Force (FATF)-style regional body, Pakistan has agreed to implement international standards to combat money laundering, terrorism finance, and proliferation finance. Pakistan criminalizes terrorist financing through the Antiterrorism Act, but implementation remains uneven. In June 2018, the FATF placed Pakistan on its “grey list” for deficiencies across its AML/CFT regimes, specifically citing concerns over Pakistan’s failure to fully implement the UN Security Council ISIL (Da’esh) and al-Qa’ida sanctions regime. FATF noted that UN-listed entities, including LeT and its affiliates, were not effectively prohibited from raising funds in Pakistan, or being denied financial services. Although Pakistan’s laws technically comply with international AML/CFT standards, authorities failed to uniformly implement UN sanctions related to designated entities and individuals such as LeT and its affiliates, which continued to make use of economic resources and raise funds. Pakistan committed to addressing these concerns as part of an agreed FATF Action Plan”.
Pakistan is well aware of the serious shortcomings in the fulfillment of its solemn commitments to FATF. It barely escaped blacklisting by the body at its recent meeting in Paris, and Muhammad Hammad Azhar, the Pakistani Federal Minister for Economic Affairs, candidly postulated on 7 November that the country could continue to be retained on the grey list of the FATF even beyond February 2020, the deadline set for it by the FATF to demonstrate compliance. That Xiangmin Liu, the recently appointed head of FATF, despite being a nominee of Pakistan’s ‘all weather ally’ China, painted an even more alarming picture would have been noted with great concern by Islamabad. Liu did not mince words while warning that “Pakistan needs to do more and faster. Pakistan’s failure to fulfill FATF global standards is an issue we take very seriously. If by February 2020, Pakistan doesn’t make significant progress, it will be put on the group’s blacklist”.
Pakistan, instead of pondering and introspecting over the State Department’s report, was quick to express disappointment over it. Senior Pakistani journalist Ghazi Salahuddin summed up the Pakistani attitude aptly when he wrote, “We are aware of our inadequacies. The point is that we are unable or unwilling to mend our ways and seriously adopt corrective measures”.
Meanwhile, international watchdog Freedom House on 5 November released its Freedom on the Net (FoTN) report for the year 2019 titled ‘The Crisis of Social Media’. This report placed Pakistan among the worst 10 countries in the world in terms of internet and digital media freedom. In terms of regional ranking, Pakistan was rated the third worst country, after Vietnam and China. China was assessed to be the worst offender overall. Freedom House, for the ninth consecutive year, termed Pakistan as ‘Not Free’ in terms of internet use, with the country’s score decreasing from 27 to 26 out of 100 in 2019. The country scored 5 out of 25 for obstacles to access, 14 out of 35 for limits on content, and 7 out of 40 for violation of user rights. In addition to the decline in internet freedom, the report exposed manipulation of elections in Pakistan through coordinated use of hyper-partisan commentators, bots, and news sites to disseminate false or misleading content. The Pakistani government also widely used technical tactics, including intentional restrictions on connectivity and blocking of websites.
The report observed that Pakistani authorities frequently disrupted telecommunication services during protests, elections, and religious and national holidays, often citing security concerns. It also noted that the authorities had enhanced their efforts to silence critical journalists and activists using a range of techniques. Online journalists and activists, especially those scrutinizing the military or intelligence agencies, had testified to the existence of State-sponsored “troll armies” being employed to silence dissent. The report also slammed the ongoing censorship of movements of political dissent, especially in Balochistan and Sindh provinces, and observed that most online writers and commentators exercised a degree of self-censorship to avoid scrutiny by the State. It laid special emphasis on Pakistan’s Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, noting that it and similar laws restricted users’ rights. The report observed that government surveillance and social media monitoring were of key concern during the past year.
The Freedom House report for Pakistan was authored by the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), whose Executive Director Nighat Dad said: “The score this year is the culmination of short-term and regressive policies by successive governments. Years worth of draconian legislation and investment in structures that stymie freedom of expression has led to an environment where the internet in Pakistan is more unsafe and less inclusive”.
What is noteworthy about this Freedom House report is that it brought into sharp focus the duplicity of the Pakistani government’s position and proclamations on the restrictions on communications, including the internet, imposed by the Indian government in Indian-Administered Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). While any such restriction is undesirable, condemnation, when it comes from a country like Pakistan with its highly unenviable track record on internet and media freedoms, comes across as extremely hollow, insincere and motivated.