Home alone

Hafiz Saeed's house arrest comes ahead of an inter-governmental meeting

Home alone
When the historian looks back at Pakistan’s counter-terrorism effort, will President Donald Trump’s arrival in the White House be taken as the turning point that compelled Pakistan to take a fresh look at its national interest and conclude that failing to act against individuals such as Hafiz Saeed, whom the world accuses of terrorism, is no more an option?

Hafiz Muhammad Saeed is the alleged mastermind of coordinated attacks on Mumbai in 2008 that killed more than 160 people. He was placed under house arrest in Lahore after being taken into custody from the headquarters of his religious charity, Jamaat-ud-Dawa on Monday.

Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor told journalists at a specially convened press briefing that the action against Hafiz Saeed and four of his associates was a “policy decision” taken by the “state institutions”, implying that it was a collective decision of the civilian and military leadership to finally act against the man against whom the Establishment, for years, could not find a reason to act against. The Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Falah-e-Insaniat were also put under observation. This action, though a belated one, is certainly welcome.

What remains to be seen is how seriously this action will be taken forward or whether the move was just emergency troubleshooting to preempt sanctions and isolation by the new US administration. People are skeptical because a similar exercise was undertaken in December 2008 when Hafiz Saeed was put under house arrest after the Mumbai attacks, but was out within six months through a court order and since then the state has looked the other way, ignoring all international pressure on the pretext that there was legally nothing against him in the country.

For years, he was allowed to move about freely, holding rallies and collecting funds despite having been designated a terrorist by the UN and US and carrying a $10 million bounty announced by the US for information leading to his arrest. More lately, Hafiz Saeed was being propped up as an alternative to the sectarian-cum-religious element in Balochistan that fell out of favour with the Establishment for crossing the proverbial red lines.

For now the only official word is that the new policy is to restrain Hafiz Saeed and the likes and that there was no foreign pressure to take action and that Pakistan acted as an independent and responsible country by moving against the cleric in its own interest. Maj. Gen. Ghafoor would not go into what made the Pakistani state re-examine what served national interest. But, that is unlikely to satisfy the queries.

Some of recent developments linked to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) provide a clue. The FATF is an intergovernmental body set up in 1989 to chase up on threats to the international financial system from money laundering and terrorist financing among others. It was being feared, and according to some accounts the US had conveyed this to Pakistan, that the upcoming FATF plenary and working group meetings in Paris from Feb 19 to 24 could take action against Pakistan for not fully complying with UNSC Resolution 1267. Pakistan was taken out of FATF’s monitoring process in February 2015 after a commitment that it would fully implement UNSC Resolution 1267. Hafiz Saeed was listed by the UN on December 10, 2008 for being associated with Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Al Qaeda and for “participating in the financing, planning, facilitating, preparing or perpetrating of acts of activities by, in conjunction with, under the name of, on behalf or in support of” both entities. Jamaat-ud-Dawa was mentioned in the UN notification as an “alias of LeT”. The freedom of movement and action he enjoyed here and the activities of his organization prima facie put Pakistan in violation of the UN sanctions.

Any action by FATF or its International Cooperative Review Group (ICRG) would have not only been embarrassing for Pakistan, but could have led to serious implications for the country as far as its financial dealings with the rest of the world were concerned.

One reason for taking the expected FATF move more seriously was Trump’s aggressive policy. Through an executive order the new US president has banned the entry of people from seven Muslim countries and there has been talk of that list being expanded to include Pakistan. Furthermore, the vibes from Washington suggest that the Trump administration would be stricter with Islamabad over terrorism.

More importantly, China, which Pakistan uses to hedge against international pressures, has for several months now been quietly telling leaders in Islamabad that it was increasingly finding it difficult to sustain its position on groups such as Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM). Beijing repeatedly blocked India’s effort to list JeM chief Masood Azhar. After failing to have Masood designated, India began reaching out to other members of the UN Security Council to explore alternatives and it was during these discussions that the FATF/ICRG option came up.

This emerging international scenario may explain why it was in Pakistan’s interest to be seen as taking action on international concerns. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had told Pakistani envoys months ago: “We will have to align and synchronise our national interests with the interests of the rest of world.” Recent developments may just have forced the other stakeholders to agree with the prime minister and the logic behind his call to address others concerns.

The government may be doing well to deny that external pressure forced its hand. Acknowledging it may outrightly make it appear incompetent, but more importantly extremists in the country would interpret the move as submission to foreign powers and one that compromises the Kashmir issue. This is something Hafiz Saeed tried to do immediately after his arrest. He tweeted: “India and enemies of Pakistan are against CPEC and [the] stability of Pakistan. They consider us a hurdle #OurcrimeKashmir”.

He has, at the same time, through his Twitter account, tried to reach out to the hands that patronized him all along by going over what he felt was his role in promoting “national cohesion” in Balochistan and Sindh. At least for now his pleadings are expected to remain unanswered because, to quote the ISPR director-general, the arrest has been a “policy decision”. Maj. Gen. Ghafoor said more details of action against Hafiz Saeed would be announced in the coming days.

Having said that, the house arrest is unlikely to satisfy the world. The Mumbai terrorist attack trial has continued to progress at a snail’s pace. There would also be questions about the future of the Haqqani Network.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad and can be reached at mamoonarubab@gmail.com