Opinion: US blocks aid but Pakistan still backs Hafiz Saeed. Why?

New Delhi, Delhi, IndiaWritten By: Vikas KhannaUpdated: Jan 02, 2018, 08:42 AM IST
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Hafiz Muhammad Saeed is a Pakistani Islamist militant, who is a co-founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba and the chief of Jama'at-ud-Da'wah, operating mainly from Pakistan. Photograph:(Zee News Network)

The international terrorist Hafiz Saeed has been repeatedly thumbing his nose at the Pakistani establishment as well as at the United States, but Islamabad remains obdurate in not taking any action against him and several other terrorists. On several occasions, the US expressed its displeasure and concern, and nudged Pakistan to arrest and charge Saeed for his crimes. But Pakistan has always looked the other way around. What is that which is preventing Pakistan from booking Saeed at the expense of its fragile ties with the US? 

There can be only two plausible reasons. Either Pakistan is impotent and afraid of the might of Saeed or it is a well-thought-out plan of action to get even with its now estranged ally. Saeed, who carries a $10 million American bounty on his head for terror activities, is a U.N. and United States designated terrorist. Moreover, India has blamed Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) chief for the 2008 Mumbai attack that killed 166 people, including six Americans.

 Pakistan has been at the receiving end ever since the Donald Trump administration took over in January last year. President Trump has been particularly hard on Pakistan since he was on his campaign trail. There is no doubt that there has been a tectonic shift in American policy of late as the US desperation grows because of Pakistan’s failure to rein in militants ensconced in its backyard. 

The ties between Pakistan and the US had started straining during the Barack Obama administration.  It all began with the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by US special forces in May 2011 on Pakistani soil in an operation kept secret from the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif government. The US, which had launched a massive manhunt for Laden, mastermind of the deadly September 11 attacks, was shocked that he was being provided a safe sanctuary by Pakistan whom it considered a strategic ally in its fight against terrorism. Even though, the US chose to maintain a façade of relationship with Pakistan because of its interests in Afghanistan.

 But all that seems to be over now! "We will defeat radical Islamic terrorism when I’m president. We will stand shoulder to shoulder with India in sharing intelligence and keeping our people safe mutually," Trump had said during electioneering. And true to his words, one can notice a paradigm shift in the new US dispensation as far as the battle against Islamic militants is concerned. From here onwards, one can expect a no-nonsense US policy on terrorism which should be a major cause of worry for Pakistan, which continues to host several militant groups hostile to both India and the US. 

Unlike his predecessors, there is an increasing likelihood of Trump seeking to reshape the decades-old policy towards Pakistan by linking US aid to its commitment against terrorism. Today the US administration has announced withholding $255 million in aid to Pakistan.  Though a pittance, the message is loud and clear that the US is dissatisfied with the obstinacy shown by Pakistan in not taking substantive action against terrorist networks that continue to flourish there with the full support of the administration.

 Pakistan has been the recipient of more than $33 billion in aid since 2002. And it has done precious little to rein in militants. The US frustration seems to have reached the point of no return as President Trump in his August address said:  "We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting."  Since then he has dispatched his top diplomatic and military advisors to Pakistan -- Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis – who read out the riot act to senior officials of Pakistan. But thus far, Pakistan does not seem to have been rattled by such warnings.

 On the contrary, not only did it free Saeed from the so-called “house arrest” with the lame excuse that the Lahore court did not merit his detention, it went on to justify his release. To rub salt into the wound, its foreign office spokesperson Mohammad Faisal said that Islamabad was committed to the implementation of United Nations Security Council 1267 sanctions regime on terrorists and had taken several steps in this regard.

 If that was not enough, Pakistan allowed Saeed to open the first office of his political group Milli Muslim League (MML) in Lahore. Saeed has also declared his political ambitions by announcing that his organisation JuD would contest the 2018 general elections under the banner of the MML. Ironically, according to Pakistani government records, the MML is the offshoot of the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and JuD. In fact, Saeed was showered with flower petals as he openly toured several areas in full public glare.

Can it happen in any civilised country that a UN-designated terrorist is allowed to roam free? But anything can happen in a rogue country like Pakistan which even allows a terrorist group to launch its political party and let it contest the elections. The MML-backed candidate had secured the fourth position with 6,000 votes, double than that of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Jamaat- i-Islami combined in a by-election in Lahore's NA-120 constituency last September. The seat had fallen vacant when the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had to resign, following his disqualification by Pakistan's Supreme Court.

It is hard to digest that Saeed would have been allowed to open the office of MML without the consent of the government of the day and that too when the US had expressed its strong concerns and said in a statement that it hopes Pakistan "does the right thing" in not allowing that to happen and added that it "want(s) to make...clear so that everybody knows", that the US has put a bounty of $10 million on Saeed, the founder of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT).  It is an open secret that Saeed has the full backing of Pakistani army which has been at loggerheads with the government.

 The question then arises whether Saeed has the tacit support of the Pakistani establishment or it is too afraid to take action against him as he is being backed by the army. Pakistan Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa came in full support of the Mumbai terror attack mastermind when he appeared before a parliament forum last month and said that Saeed, like every other Pakistani, had the right to raise the Kashmir issue. It is a known fact that the army enjoys far greater power than the elected government in Pakistan and no government can afford to go against the wishes of the army. Whatever may be Pakistan’s reason to prop up Saeed, but one thing is certain. Pakistan is in for a rude shock in the coming months.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)