Pakistan's Anti-Terror Moves: Wait, Watch, Verify but Never Trust
Sushant Sareen

For a few days now, a report in the Pakistan daily Dawn has caused considerable interest, and in some cases even excitement, among Pakistan watchers, not just in India but also in other parts of the world. The report talks of the civilian government in Islamabad informing the military ‘government’ in Rawalpindi of Pakistan's growing international isolation and the need to crackdown on terror groups like the Haqqani Network (HN), Jaish-e- Mohammad (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba/Pakistan's Anti-Terror (LeT/JuD) to gain any traction with the international community. According to the report, even China has raised its hands on the issue of the Jaish chief Masood Azahar and made it clear that its ‘technical hold’ on designating Azhar as an international terrorist is becoming unsustainable. If the report is to be believed, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has ‘directed that fresh attempts be made to conclude the Pathankot investigation and restart the stalled Mumbai attacks related trials’. The Dawn report was followed by another report in another Pakistani daily, The News International, which talks of a civil-military consensus on a new three point strategy under which terror groups like JeM and LeT/JuD will be disarmed and their funding stopped, incorporating them in the political mainstream and finding ways to promote the ‘moral and welfare’ activities of these outfits.

Frankly, this is all hogwash and evokes a sense of deja vu. After all, haven’t we all ‘been there, seen that’ before? Which is why the only way to respond to these reports is ‘won’t get fooled again’. Any optimism that the Pakistanis have finally smelled the coffee and are now going to clean up their act is at best highly premature, and at worst, entirely misplaced. At the same time, while these reports need to be taken with more than a pinch of salt, and the subsequent denials by Pakistani officials with even more salt, it is the messaging that is being attempted through these stories that is important if we are not going to be misled yet again by Pakistan’s perpetual perfidiousness. While we should give the devil his due and acknowledge Pakistani prowess in spinning compelling yarns that disarm rest of the world, having been led up the garden path so many times in the past, by now at least India, if not the US and rest of the West, should be able to see through Pakistan's dissimulation, dissemble and deception.

All this is not to say that these stories are completely baseless, because they are not. In fact, the beauty of these reports lies in how they mix fact with fiction to give a spin that leaves everyone stunned. The first ingredient in spinning a story is to get a non-controversial journalist with high credibility. The journalist is then briefed by a high level source(s) and he faithfully reports all that he has heard. Because the journalist is credible, he does try and double-check what he has been told. But even he knows that none of the people he checks with will go on the record to confirm anything. The journalist gets his scoop even though everyone in the game knows that everything reported is all deniable. The message that is sought to be sent to the target audience gets across after the report is published, and no one loses either his job or his head.

The thing with spin doctoring isthat it is effective only if the facts which are going to be spun in the message are rooted in reality. In the case of the Dawn story, almost all the elements in the report have a ring of truth about them. For instance, Pakistan's growing international isolation is hardly a secret. All their hysterics on Kashmir and their entire campaign of vilification against India has fallen flat. Hardly any country has backed Pakistan which has been reduced to waving an OIC statement as proof that it is getting some traction on Kashmir. But even the Pakistanis, at least the sensible, thinking section of the population, knows the OIC’s worth. That there is growing disquiet in rest of the world, especially Western world, with Pakistan's continuing use of terrorist proxies – among others, HN, JeM, LeT/JuD – is also a known fact. China indicating its preference for a change of course by Pakistan and questioning the logic of repeatedly putting a technical hold on UN sanctions against Masood Azhar is also entirely along expected lines because China is concerned about the security situation in Pakistan and wouldn’t like to be seen as endlessly protecting a known terrorist. Again, the bit about the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and Military Intelligence ensuring that their favoured terrorists are not touched by the police is something that has been known for decades. So no great revelation there, except to the extent that it adds more meat to the story (from the point of view of the messaging), and for the sensational fact that it was purportedly flung in the face of the army at a high level meeting in Islamabad. The last also fits in with the general impression of a civil-military tension, even tussle, that has been at play for the last two years and is believed to have become more intense over the last few months.

While there is a lot of speculation that the Dawn story is indicative of the civil-military tension in Pakistan and could be a sort of push back by the beleaguered civilians, what is more likely is that the story was a joint venture of the civilians and the military. It is inconceivable that the civilians would plant such a story to queer the pitch for the military which is already breathing down their neck. And to imagine that Shahbaz Sharif will take on the army is pretty much unimaginable considering that he is the one who has always counselled Nawaz Sharif to not rub the army the wrong way and to kowtow to virtually every single demand of the military. The fact that there is an impending transition in the army with the army chief due to retire in the early November and there are whispers in the corridors of power of a possible extension have only fuelled the speculation about the source of the story. But even if the source was a civilian, chances are that the military was on board on the leak. After all, the army doesn’t come out smelling badly in the story, what with the ISI chief being quoted as saying that the army no longer distinguishes between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists. If anything the message that goes across is that the civilians are taking charge (works well with the West, doesn’t it?) and the army is ready to follow the civilian lead (which of course it isn’t but what is the harm in sending that signal to the international community, especially since nothing will change on the ground in terms of the military’s preponderance in determining the affairs of state?).

While it is entirely possible that all that was supposedly said in the report was actually said in the meetings in Islamabad, the spin that follows is pretty interesting. One, the ISI (and by extension, the Army), made it clear that it’s the ‘military’s policy to not distinguish between militant groups’. Yes, it is utter nonsense but that’s the spin to make the military seem clean. Two, ISI chief and NSA touring provinces to ensure specific actions against terror groups. Once again, an eyewash. The two will certainly go on a tour and a show will be made of a crackdown to show to the world Pakistan’s sincerity, but in reality there will be no real action against the ‘strategic assets’. Three, on Pathankot and Mumbai cases, again a show will be put up of a crackdown but the result will be what it has always been….zilch, zero, zip. A hint of all this is in the Dawn story itself where the ISI chief is said to have expressed ‘concerns about the timing of action’ (haven’t we heard this before both in relation to the India-centric terror proxies or in the context of North Waziristan?), the need to not be seen as ‘buckling to Indian pressure’ (standard tack to convince the international community to impress on India the need to lighten up the pressure and be patient) and ‘not to be seen asabandoning the Kashmiri peopl’ (which effectively means keeping the jihadist option alive to support the ‘Kashmir cause’).

The three point strategy for reining in the terror outfits is also classic dissemble. For one, these groups are already part of the Pakistani mainstream. That is to say that instead of jihadists being mainstreamed into Pakistani politics, it is Pakistan’s polity that has been jihadised. For another, the attempt to portray terror groups as a sort of Sister’s of Charity or a Salvation Army type organisation is just classic Pakistani deception. After all, it is hardly difficult to see the kind of havoc these Pakistani versions of Mother Theresa will wrought on the already jihadised Pakistani society. As for disarming these guys and cutting their finances, how does that fit in with the ‘welfare activities’ that these despicable fellows are supposed to carry out? In any case, we have seen talk of disarming and cutting funds in the past with zero impact. The standard Pakistani line is that don’t make Hafiz Saeed to be such a big guy because he’s a non-entity; but the moment you say that if he’s such a non-entity, what prevents Pakistan from acting against him, the answer is that we can’t open another front or that the blowback from the India-centric jihadis will be uncontrollable, precisely what was the excuse for not acting in North Waziristan for more than half a decade.

The bottom-line is that the stories about Pakistan realising the need to clean up its act are aimed at reducing the pressure that is mounting on Pakistan. The idea is to send a message to both the international community (which is ever so gullible to fall for this time-tested ploy of Pakistan) and India (where the legions of Pakistan lobbyists are quick to counsel lifting pressure on Pakistan) to back off and create some space for the Pakistan government and military to act against the jihadists. Alongside the plea for creating space is the other pet Pakistani ploy – blackmail. Ever since 9/11 the standard Pakistani blackmail has been to ask the US and its allies to ask India to back off otherwise Pakistan will be forced to pull out troops from the Western front with Afghanistan and deploy them on the Eastern front with India, thereby creating huge spaces for the Islamist terror groups to operate freely from inside Pakistani territory. That even when India never adopted a threatening posture, Islamist proxies of Pakistan like the Taliban and HN operated with complete impunity from the western borderlands of Pakistan is conveniently glossed over in this narrative. But now this blackmail is unlikely to work very well simply because if Pakistan pulls out its troops from the Western front, it will lose control over its own areas which it reoccupied with some difficulty, hardly something over which India will lose too much sleep. In other words, if just to keep India at bay, Pakistan loses control over large swathes of its territory, it will be really raise the costs for Pakistan, which is precisely what India wants to do with its new assertive policy. This means that not only is Pakistan’s bluff and bluster no longer working, even its blackmail is not going to yield any dividend.

There is in any case no real incentive for either India or for any other country to create the space that the Pakistanis are seeking. The reason is simple: the moment pressure is lifted, it is back to business as usual in Pakistan. It is therefore imperative that at least India keep up the pressure and not fall for this patented Pakistani dissimulation. The name of the game should be wait, watch, never trust and always verify before reducing the pressure on Pakistan. If after being satisfied India does decide to re-engage Pakistan, it must do so in a carefully calibrated manner rather than going in for the ‘full monty’ of issues as has been the practise in the past. To take anything that the Pakistanis say at face value would be an unforgivable folly because it would tantamount to being led up the garden path, yet again.

Published Date: 12th October 2016, Image Source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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