China’s disapproval of Pakistan’s hosting of anti-India terror organisations has prompted Islamabad to quietly start working on plans to disarm these jihadist groups, amid an unusually public row between the civilian government, the all-powerful military and the media over the policy shift.
Pressure has been mounting at home and abroad for action against terror groups Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba after two attacks on Indian military bases this year, the last one in September in which militants killed 18 Indian soldiers in the troubled Kashmir region.
The government is yet to make an official announcement about expanding a nationwide counterterrorism operation, launched against Taliban insurgents and sectarian groups in 2014, to encompass India-focused jihadis. Pakistani officials have so far been telling foreign diplomats that anti-India groups have been spared because the government fears sweeping action would prompt these militants to join the Taliban insurgency.
National security policy and decision-making is a sensitive subject in Pakistan, in part because it is considered the domain of the military, which has directly ruled the country for nearly half its 69-year history and continues to exert enormous influence.
The Pakistani news media also exercises great discretion on national security matters, partly under pressure from the authorities, and has echoed government policy during the recent eruption of hostilities with India along the de facto border in Kashmir, part of which is claimed by China.
The silence was broken last week by Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English-language newspaper, which reported that Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry had told a meeting of civil and military leaders that China had “indicated a preference for a change in course by Pakistan” on its handling of anti-India jihadist groups.
Chinese authorities also apparently “questioned the logic” of blocking India’s application to the United Nations Security Council to declare Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar a global terrorist, the country’s top diplomat reportedly told the meeting chaired by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
China itself placed a three-month “hold” on the application in April and extended it for a second time last month to protect Pakistan from a likely subsequent Indian application seeking to declare it a terrorist state for failing to prevent jihadist groups from launching attacks from its soil.
China is Pakistan’s closest diplomatic ally, leading defence supplier and top foreign investor, and its views are deeply respected in Islamabad.
But security experts said China’s support for Pakistan might have limits, even if it had strengthened during Pakistan’s tensions with India.
“India and China share a concern about terrorist groups in Pakistan. New Delhi worries about the anti-India groups while Beijing fears the Taliban outfits that threaten Chinese investments in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” said Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, a Washington think tank.
“In this regard, China would be shooting itself in the foot if it were to reflexively oppose Indian efforts to target terror groups in Pakistan.”
Without naming either state, China’s deputy minister for foreign affairs, Li Baodong (李保東), appeared on Monday to criticise both Pakistan and India over Azhar, the Jaish-e-Mohammed leader. “There should be no double standards on terrorism nor should one pursue its own political gains in the name of counterterrorism,” Li said in Beijing.
More proof of the diplomatic blowback facing Pakistan was provided by members of parliament tasked by the government to lobby politicians and think tanks in the West.
Rana Mohammed Afzal, a member of Sharif’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party, complained that his efforts in France came to naught because of complaints about the activities of Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a group responsible for the terror attack in Mumbai in 2008 that killed 166 people.
Saeed has been acquitted of involvement by Pakistan’s courts.
“The efficacy of our foreign policy speaks for itself when we couldn’t curtail Hafiz Saeed,” Afzal told a parliamentary committee on foreign affairs this month. “Which eggs is Hafiz Saeed laying for us that we are nurturing him?”
His remarks fed perceptions that the government and the military are at odds over action against the jihadist groups.
In its report, Dawn cited unnamed participants of the high-powered October 3 meeting as saying the foreign secretary’s advice on China’s reservations triggered an exchange of charges between the government and Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.
The government denied the news report and ordered action against the writer, Dawn assistant editor Cyril Almeida, who was barred from leaving the country. “Puzzled, saddened. Had no intention of going anywhere; this is my home, Pakistan,” Almeida tweeted late Monday. The paper has stood by Almeida.
Security analysts close to the military and the ISI, speaking on television, said proposals had been submitted to the government for decommissioning groups like Jaish and Lashkar. Preliminary measures would include the enforcement of existing legal bans, retired Lieutenant-General Amjad Shoaib said. The next phase would focus on the de-radicalisation of their members, and the final phase would see the recruitment of “able-bodied” former militants into Pakistani paramilitary units.
Sharif is expected to approve the plan at a meeting of the government’s national security committee, including the military leadership, on Tuesday.
Tom Hussain is an Islamabad-based journalist and Pakistan affairs analyst