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Will Hafiz Saeed Walk free Once More?

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PAKISTAN-LAHORE-MILITANT-LEADER-ARREST by .
Chief of Pakistan's Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) Hafiz Saeed (C, front) leaves after being detained by police in eastern Pakistan's Lahore on early Jan. 31, 2017. Authorities in Pakistan have detained Hafiz Saeed, chief of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), the group accused of planning the 2008 attacks in the Indian commercial center of Mumbai that had killed 166 people, the group's spokesman said Tuesday. (Xinhua/Sajjad) (lrz)

The dilemma that Pakistan faces today is in terms of its decade-long support for terrorists groups like LeT and JuD is now coming home to roost as the world has started asking uncomfortable questions….writes Dr Sakariya Kareem

PAKISTAN-LAHORE-MILITANT-LEADER-ARREST by .
Chief of Pakistan’s Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) Hafiz Saeed (C, front) leaves after being detained by police in eastern Pakistan’s Lahore on early Jan. 31, 2017. (FILE)

Speaking in New York at the end of September this year, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khwaja Asif made an honest confession when he said that “They [the militants] are a liability and it will take time for Pakistan to work its way through that.” He added that “Saeed, LeT, they are a liability, I accept it, but give us time to get rid of them; we don’t have the assets to deal with these liabilities.”

This confession came at a time when Pakistan was facing its toughest foreign policy test in recent times that of US President Donald Trump threatened to cut off Pakistan from all American aid. That threat has temporarily receded as the US and Pakistan have since agreed to resume their formal conversation.  But the dilemma that Pakistan faces today is in terms of its decade-long support for terrorists groups like LeT and JuD is now coming home to roost as the world has started asking uncomfortable questions.

That is perhaps why transactional President Donald Trump has moved from turning the heat on Pakistan while announcing his new strategy for South Asia to thanking Pakistan for rescuing a number of hostages including one American-Canadian from the hands of the Afghan Taliban. The hostages included an American woman Caitlan Coleman, her Canadian husband Joshua Boyle and their three kids. This episode once again demonstrated the troughs and waves in US-Pakistan relations as President Trump thanked Pakistan for its good deed and called for restarting the bilateral dialogue. However, the basic dilemma for Pakistan continues to be that it still has to deal with the liabilities that it has created and nurtured in the last several decades. This includes the likes of Hafiz Saeed, the founder of the Lashkar-e-Toaiba (LeT) and head of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and mastermind of the attacks on Mumbai in 2008.

PAKISTAN-LAHORE-MILITANT-LEADER-ARREST by .
Chief of Pakistan’s Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) Hafiz Saeed (C) leaves after being detained by police in eastern Pakistan’s Lahore (Xinhua/Sajjad) (lrz)

The case of JuD chief Hafiz Saeed is illustrative of this narrative in that he continues to be at the forefront of Pakistan’s anti-India campaign. Whatever his early origins, it is clear that Pakistan nurtured Hafiz Saeed for a very long time and the ISI was instrumental in directly supporting the LeT. Today, Pakistan is caught in a cleft stick in dealing with this person who has a US$ 10 million bounty on his head.

Coming to recent developments one witnesses a strange spectacle in Pakistan as the Punjab Government has not added the charges of terrorism against Hafiz Saeed in its efforts to keep him under detention under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA). Saeed however, continues to be under detention under the Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance under which he can get bail, if sought. This entire exercise seems like a deliberate move by Pakistan’s ISI to get Saeed out from house arrest. Hafiz’s house arrested ends on 24 October 2017. Under Pakistani law, the government can detain a person for up to three months under different charges. Pakistan now perhaps feels that it does not need to continue with the charade of Saeed’s detention as it has successfully pulled off the caper of “rescuing” Western hostages from the Taliban.

Hafiz Saeed’s house arrest this year was prompted to avoid sanctions by the UN’s body on terror funding, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which has been conducting a review of Pakistan’s actions. Since 2002, when the LeT was first designated as a terror group by the UN Security Council’s Taliban/al-Qaeda sanctions committee, Pakistan has done precious little to bring Saeed to the dock. It may be a mere coincidence that terror charges against Hafiz Saeed were dropped at a time when the US President has openly praised Pakistan for cooperating in the release of American hostages. Also, the US and Afghanistan have only just revived talks with Pakistan on reining in the Taliban. The next round of the FATF, which is due to be held at the end of October 2017, must send a tough message to Pakistan.

There is another aspect of Pakistan’s dealing with terrorist individuals and entities that merits attention here. The Interior Ministry in Pakistan recently withheld registration of a Hafiz Saeed-led political party, the Milli Muslim League (MML) ostensibly under international pressure. The MML is likely to continue operating unofficially, and last month one of its leaders contested a by-election in Lahore as an independent candidate. The MML is also actively running a campaign for its candidate contesting another by-election on 26 October 2017 to be held in Peshawar.  It is no secret in Pakistan that the ISI wants to politically mainstream organizations like the JuD by bringing them into politics. This would serve the purpose of ensuring that these groups don’t attack the Pak state and as also ensures the entry of the religious right into Pak politics, a mission that began during the reign of President Zia ul-Haq.

If one goes through the text of a recent media interaction given by ISPR spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor one finds a few interesting gems on the Army’s views on terrorists. Ghafoor says at one point that the integration of terrorists into the country’s politics would be based on seeking a ‘constructive role’ for the terrorist-linked groups, although he did not admit that the military role would have a hand in any such strategy.  Ghafoor also said that Pakistan had only supported these groups and had no links. Is that so? Perhaps he has not read the book ‘The Bear Trap’ by Mohammed Yousaf!

At the end of the day, Pakistan’s true colours will be revealed when the US resumes providing aid to Islamabad, albeit conditionally. Let’s face it, putting conditions on the provision of CSF funds is not new and is required by Congress under US law. Therefore, the only thing new will be if President Trump imposes sanctions on Pakistan. That unfortunately is unlikely to happen as long as the Generals rule the roost in Pakistan. It is they who are on hand to convince the American generals that they still have a hand on the till in Afghanistan. Otherwise there is no reason for the revival of the QCG process in Muscat. That of course, is another story in itself!