Grappling with strategic reorientation – Fahd Hussain

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THE suicide attack in Quetta this week is a rude reminder that terror still stalks the land. With America planning to withdraw from Afghanistan by September this year, there are genuine fears that another round of instability could be returning to our western border. Are we ready to grapple with these challenges while struggling to deal with the self-generated domestic chaos that continues to swirl around the political landscape?

This question has gained fresh relevance as Pakistan reviews the regional matrix while attempting to realign its strategic focus with the demands of geo-economics. There is fresh impetus to lower the tensions with India, reappraise the bond with Saudi Arabia, recalibrate relations with Iran and rebalance the equation with China and the United States. It is an ambitious agenda by all measures and it is rooted in a calculus, officials say, to adjust to, and take advantage of, new dynamics shaping up in the region and beyond.

In these three years, Pakistan has made significant headway in streamlining various processes to curtail terror financing.

This agenda may have germinated out of a series of developments that have unfolded on the domestic front in the last few years. The Pakistani state’s relationship with home-grown militant groups since the 1980s has undergone various phases, and few would argue that any or all of these phases produced long-term beneficial outcomes. However, the rise of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in late 2007, and its ensuing reign of terror for the next five to seven years forced the state to readjust many of its long-held beliefs. The result was a slow but sure shift away from any association with militant groups. While many experts will argue this shift is far from conclusive, most acknowledge that a fundamental change has already taken place.

One manifestation of this change may be the state’s significantly reduced appetite for groups that were once considered ‘assets’. While the TTP had become the sworn enemy – and after the harrowing APS massacre in 2014 hunted down mercilessly – other militant groups that had not challenged the state per se, and were considered by some as ‘kosher’, also began to subsequently feel the heat. In the years following the APS tragedy, the so-called jihadi organisations experienced the shrinking of the traditional space they had enjoyed.

The TTP reminded us this week that it is alive and kicking, but the overall threat level today is far lower compared to the last few years. Two recent and relevant developments portray this trend: The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and India.

The FATF sword hung perilously over our heads for a good part of three years. Pakistan was accused of having a lax approach towards cracking down on terror financing and money laundering, and as a result faced the threat of being blacklisted by the organisation. This could have had devastating consequences for the economy. However, since this February, the blacklisting blade has inched away. Officials say we may still remain in the grey list in the upcoming June FATF meeting, but we will most likely be off the critical terror-financing watch list. The white listing will follow perhaps another six months down the line.

In these three years, Pakistan has made significant headway in streamlining various processes to curtail terror financing, building the capacity of numerous financial and law-enforcement institutions and legislating laws necessary for enabling the government to crack down on terror financing and money laundering. The state got its act together, forced the creaky governmental systems and unresponsive departments to get moving, and achieved results.

The balance sheet of these results, according to FATF officials, is that Pakistan has fulfilled 24 out of the 27 specific requirements asked of it. The bulk of these relate to tightening the noose around those organisations designated as terrorist groups by the UN. The individuals from these proscribed organisations are placed on the Fourth Schedule.

In the initial days there was a lot of mistrust about the effectiveness of the action against these groups but now, after the acknowledgement by FATF, there is a grudging acceptance that Pakistan has indeed made these proscribed entities dysfunctional. This means their financial back is broken and all funds available are monitored, their offices are sealed shut, charities and other sub-organisations run by them have been taken over by the state, and their overall operations degraded and for all practical purposes disbanded. Even their social media presence is said to have been curtailed.

Fulfilling FATF requirements has forced Pakistan to do a system upgrade aimed at dismantling a structure that it had at one point either helped create, or looked the other way while others built it up brick by brick. However, it is interesting that senior officials say the strategic change in policy towards militant organisations had begun before the FATF issue surfaced. FATF in essence provided a framework for the policy that had begun to take shape in response to changing dynamics.

The recent thaw between Pakistan and India is also seen as part of this larger policy umbrella. India’s ‘cross-border terrorism’ mantra has also become subdued, even though New Delhi launched a concerted effort against Pakistan at the FATF. The backchannel between the two neighbours has led to a ceasefire at the LoC which is seen as a major step forward in reducing tensions and fears of a wider conflagration.