When the Dawn Leaks scandal first erupted, discussion of one important, perhaps even vital issue slowly fell by the wayside as debate raged over the precise nature of the meeting that had allegedly taken place between the military and civilian leadership. As questions were asked about who had said what, and what had been leaked when, the main substantive point reportedly made by elements of the civilian government during the meeting – that continuing to support, or failing to crack down on, militant and extremist outfits would lead to international isolation – was quickly forgotten as scapegoats were sought to blame for allegedly misrepresenting and fabricating the details of what had happened. Ministers and special assistants were sacked, and the narrative that eventually emerged was that the entire episode had been just another attempt to defame the military establishment.
We will perhaps never know what really happened that day in October. However, as Pakistan continues to reel from the unexpected announcement that it will be placed on the FATF’s grey list in June, one cannot help but be reminded of how, even if the events described by the Dawn Leaks did not happen, the notion that the country could be punished for its problematic relationship with religious extremists was one that was certainly not far from the minds of those who are tasked with representing and defending the country’s interests at home and abroad.
If the arguments being made by the government and other state institutions are to be believed, the FATF’s decision to act against Pakistan is nothing less than the culmination of a sinister plan hatched in Washington and Delhi to put pressure on Pakistan. The United States and India, so the story goes, wish to punish Pakistan for different reasons; the former because it wrongly blames Pakistan for failure in Afghanistan and also because Pakistan is now forging an ‘independent’ foreign policy through alignment with China, and the latter because of its decades-old animosity towards Pakistan and desire to derail CPEC. These accounts of foreign malintent are always supplemented with some standard talking points; Pakistan will not be dictated to, it has done more and lost more than any other country in the fight against terror, and that the actions of the FATF, the Trump Administration, and others will ultimately prove to be counterproductive.
This is all well and good, if it were not for a couple of inconvenient truths that are worth reflecting on. Firstly, both Saudi Arabia and China refused to back Pakistan at the FATF meeting last month, with the former presumably responding to inducement from the United States to not do so, and the latter seeing no point in supporting a failed cause at considerable reputational cost to itself. As is often repeated in the media in Pakistan, and shouted out from every pulpit the government has, Saudi Arabia and China are Pakistan’s best friends but if they could not bring themselves to support Pakistan, it certainly begs the question why.
Similarly, it cannot be doubted that Pakistan has paid a heavy price in its ongoing battle against terrorism and militancy. Tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians have lost their lives to this scourge over the past fifteen years, and billions of dollars of losses have accrued to the economy as well. Yet, the claim that Pakistan is doing all it can to fight terrorism is difficult to accept when characters like Hafiz Saeed, a UN-designated terrorist, continue to operate with impunity, enjoying the full protection and patronage of a state that routinely (and falsely) claims that it is committed to acting against him and those like him.
The reality is that elements within the state have still not understood the tremendous risks that accompany the pursuit of a foreign policy that hinges upon supporting militant proxies in the pursuit of wider regional goals and ambitions. While there is obviously some merit to the suggestion that India, Afghanistan, and others continue to foment unrest and conflict in Pakistan, it is perhaps more important to ask why this is the case and, crucially, what can realistically be done to stop this in the long run. It is no secret that armed groups backed by Pakistan have long operated in Afghanistan and Kashmir, and that is the single biggest reason why peace between the three countries remains an elusive goal (particularly with respect to Pakistan and Afghanistan). If the powers-that-be lie awake at night worrying about ‘encirclement’ through the emergence of an Indo-Afghan nexus, it might make sense to address the problem through negotiation and the building of a more stable and mutually beneficial relationship through, for example, trade, than to continue pursuing the failed strategy of using militants to try and enforce an unworkable political settlement more aligned with Pakistan’s interests.
It is also worth bearing in mind that the reasons for cracking down on militant and extremist organizations that exist within Pakistan have never been purely external. Taking action against these groups is not necessary because the United States or anyone else says so; it is necessary because these groups, and the ideology that fuels them, have proven time and again to be dangerous for the people of Pakistan. Thousands of Pakistani’s have died at the hands of terrorists belonging to these groups, and many more continue to live lives defined by insecurity and fear as the flames of religious dogma and hatred continue to be fanned by these groups and their supporters in society and the government. Inasmuch as there is an urgent need to tackle rising extremism and intolerance in Pakistan, acting against the militant groups that continue to exist inside the country is a necessary part of the process. The argument that groups like the JuD should be exempt from such treatment simply because they are not anti-Pakistan is also fallacious; the same could have been said about the groups that went to form the TTP back in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
This is also why it remains important to continue to back the democratic project in Pakistan. There is ample evidence to suggest that both the PPP and PML-N, during their time in office, have attempted to chart an alternative foreign policy course, seeking to repair ties with India and rebuild them with Afghanistan. The strategic thinking that continues to pursue a failed foreign policy modelled on events in the 1990s must be challenged, and one of the best ways to do that would be to support those political forces that recognize a different approach is necessary.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.