Is Pakistan Finally Getting Serious About Cracking Down on Violent Extremists?

Indian Muslims burn posters of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, center, and Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar, during a protest in Mumbai, India, Feb. 15, 2019 (AP photo by Rajanish Kakade).

The Editors World Politics Review Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Pakistani authorities announced last week that they had arrested 44 people affiliated with violent extremist groups. Among those taken into custody, according to Pakistan’s interior minister, were two relatives of the founder of Jaish-e-Mohammed, the terrorist group that claimed responsibility for the attack in Kashmir last month that killed 40 members of India’s security forces. But it is too early to know whether this means Islamabad is finally taking meaningful steps to crack down on the militant organizations it has long harbored, cautions Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center. In an interview with WPR, he explains the true motives behind last week’s crackdown.

World Politics Review: How significant is last week’s wave of arrests targeting extremist groups?

Michael Kugelman: The arrests are significant in that they represent a large-scale crackdown on Pakistani terrorist organizations that, in some cases, have longstanding ties with the Pakistani state. But what’s most significant is the scale of the crackdown—it’s been quite some time since Pakistani authorities acted against so many militants, and their facilities, in one fell swoop.

That said, we should be very cautious in our assessment at this early point. Pakistan has frequently staged these crackdowns in the past, only to ease up later on. Militants, including top leaders, have previously been detained, only to be quietly released after a period of time. Islamist charities linked to terrorist organizations are often shut down, but new charities, with different names but the same troubling terror ties, sprout up to replace them.

Islamabad has taken some robust, irreversible steps to crack down against certain terrorist groups, such as the Pakistani Taliban, that stage attacks inside Pakistan. But when it comes to groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed, which are based in Pakistan but don’t stage attacks there, authorities give them a slap on the wrist at best, sometimes even offering open support. This is because these groups are useful state assets that help push back against Pakistan’s neighboring rivals, India and Afghanistan. If Islamabad wants its latest crackdown to be taken more seriously, it will need to show that it is taking sustained and irreversible steps. These might include pursuing tough legal action against terrorist leaders that prevent them from being released, cutting off terrorists’ access to financing, and engaging in a wholesale shutdown of these terrorists’ facilities, from training centers to schools. If such steps aren’t taken, this latest crackdown will be just like the others: cosmetic, temporary and ultimately unconvincing.

WPR: To what extent should this move be seen as an effort by Pakistani authorities to reconcile with India amid ongoing tensions in Kashmir?

Kugelman: This move should be seen less as an effort to reconcile with India and more as a response to growing international pressure on Pakistan to rein in the terrorists on its soil. Ever since the start of this latest Pakistan-India crisis, which was sparked by an attack by Jaish-e-Mohammed on Indian security forces in Kashmir, many key countries around the world have issued tough public statements calling for Pakistan to crack down on terrorist groups.

Pakistan is feeling added heat from the pressure of international organizations, particularly the Financial Action Task Force, the Paris-based financial watchdog that in 2018 placed Pakistan on a “gray list” of high-risk jurisdictions for not doing enough to prevent the funding of terrorism. If the financial task force doesn’t see improvement, it could move Pakistan to its black list, a major economic blow that would make it very difficult for the country to conduct business overseas and secure international investment.

The stakes are high, because Pakistan is also going through a major financial crisis. With its economy so fragile right now, it can’t afford the risk of more punitive measures. In that context, these big steps against terrorists can be seen as Pakistan’s attempt to get the international community off its back in order to pre-empt any further risks to its economy.

WPR: What challenges will the government face as it seeks to widen its crackdown on militants and extremists? What will it take to succeed?

Kugelman: For several decades, Pakistan has used these terrorist groups as asymmetric proxy forces to push back against India in ways that its conventional security forces cannot, because they aren’t as strong as India’s. For Islamabad, letting go of that policy means losing a potent tool to hit out at a bitter enemy. For New Delhi, the hope was that by launching air strikes across the Line of Control, the countries’ contested border in Kashmir, it could demonstrate its willingness to retaliate against attacks by Pakistan-based terrorists, forcing Pakistan to reconsider its support for those groups. But for India to get the type of reaction it wants from Pakistan, it would need to use a more muscular show of force, risking an escalating conflict that provokes a nuclear exchange. Additionally, the clumsiness of India’s messaging after the air strikes—there was confusion about what exactly was hit and where, and a refusal to provide details—has undercut some of the resolve that India sought to project.

Pakistan could also face blowback as a result of broadening its crackdown on terrorist groups, which could respond with force against their state patrons’ efforts to dismantle them. This is why Pakistan’s longstanding policy of harboring certain terrorist groups amounts to playing with fire. Providing a safe haven to these groups is fine as long as their sights remain trained on India, but they would have no problem turning their guns on Pakistan should authorities turn against them. It’s a quintessential case of the “Frankenstein’s monster” dilemma.

The article appeared in the World Politics Review on 13 March 2019

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