The financial constraints due to continued support for Jihadis is something that Pakistan will not be able to ignore

by Ayesha Siddiqa

One of the highlights of the recently held Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit at Bishkek was the brief meeting between India’s Narendra Modi and Pakistan’s Imran Khan after much suspense.

Narendra Modi didn’t seem eager to speak to his counterpart unless there was credible evidence on forward movement on terrorism. Imran Khan, on the other hand, would have appreciated a friendly gesture but could not make any dramatic move himself due to the high political cost of such an act unless there were chances of reciprocity. His emphasis at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit was not counter-terrorism, which Islamabad claims it is already taking action against. The news of 13 terror training camps being shut down in Pakistan’s Kashmir has generated a lot of excitement in Indian media. The action, if it has happened, is not out of fear of some possible Balakot-style retaliation, as some would like to imagine, but more out of concern for the international community putting financial restrictions on Pakistan.

The fact that in May this year, even Pakistan’s all-weather friend China finally withdrew its opposition to placing Jaish-e-Mohammed’s head, Masood Azhar on the UN’s terror list was a signal that things couldn’t go on the same way as in the past. Furthermore, with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) breathing down Pakistan’s neck, there are adjustments that Islamabad would have to make in its Jihadi policy.

However, the basic question is will the pressure bring a substantive 180-degree turn in Pakistan’s existing policy? And what are the elements that would make the change possible?

The Economic Pressures

If one were to learn from history, nothing works better than economic reality. The former Soviet Union collapsed because it couldn’t sustain the growing cost of militarisation versus the US. It’s for the first time that Pakistan has felt the pressure of economic stagnation, especially its military, due to financial distribution policies of previous civilian governments and mounting pressure from lack of relatively generous money supply from old and new international patrons. The economy does not show promise since the new government of Imran Khan took over last year. Added to this, there is pressure from the FATF for Pakistan to comply with regulations for money laundering aimed at cutting down terror financing.

Given its poor economic performance, which is due to various domestic reasons, Islamabad revised its GDP growth rate from 5.8 per cent under the Nawaz Sharif government to a lower level of 5.2 per cent. According to multilateral aid donors such as the World Bank, the growth rate will plummet further to around 3.4 per cent.

Although the IMF has provided help by promising US$ 6 billion for the next three years, the implications of the aid package and American direction regarding the money supply doesn’t give much hope. Given Pakistan’s poor tax-collection infrastructure and lack of political will to tax the rich, additional taxes are likely to increase internal restlessness and instability. Even after shutting down top leadership of the big parties and clamping down on media and dissent, the Imran Khan government may not have the perfect recipe to deal with public unrest. Baring Imran Khan’s constituency, the military and the new middle class, the general public appears unhappier with the cricketer-turned-politician as compared to when he got elected.

The Trump administration is also keen to use its financial leverage to pressure Pakistan to curtail the jihadi network, and to convince Islamabad to release Shakeel Afridi, the medical doctor, who was initially sentenced to 23 years in prison for being part of the operation to track Osama bin Laden.

Old Wine, New Bottle

The pressure so far has some impact as many of the jihadi foot soldiers are being advised to lay low. Nonetheless, there is no visible change in the overall policy that would tantamount to Pakistan abandoning its various proxies like the LeT and JeM. As far as closing down camps is concerned, such action was taken even under Pervez Musharraf but later discarded as the international pressure was not sustained, and Pakistan could get back on its feet to pursue its earlier policy.

A problem that the Pakistani military establishment faces but doesn’t realise pertains to the fact that given its clamp down on the media and independent voices, there is no reliable source in the country that could vouch for a credible clean-up operation to have taken place. The use of international and national media by organising visits to terror training camps and associated madrassas to prove that ‘action taken’ is an old trick that has been played before. No one is free to write about jihadi groups barring those who have a relationship with the state. There are even rumours of targeting a total of 5,000 people including dissidents. The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), which is raising a voice for its survival within the country, is domestically being maligned, with members being called traitors. The same goes for those that draw attention towards the Punjab-based terror groups.

Solution To The  Jihadi Problem

The short to medium-term approach adopted by Rawalpindi is to convince the world that it should be given time to mainstream the Jihadi groups. The argument is that since these groups have roots inside society and could hurt the state by carrying out attacks inside, a better option is to divert their attention and efforts towards other activities like welfare and social work, or even politics.

This trick is being tried with the LeT but has not worked with the JeM, an organisation that is very clear about its focus on Jihad. This does not mean that the Jaish or its leader is out of control of the authorities. The fact that the security agencies shirk from even arresting Masood Azhar visibly for domestic consumption and demonstrate control of the Jihadi leader indicates the problem is deeper, if not out of control.

But the argument that the Jihadis will bite back and so, should be mainstreamed is problematic. Allowing the JeM to continue proselytising about Jihad on a regular basis or letting the LeT mingle in society with no control over its ideological message is a dangerous formula.

The notion that Jihad is entirely driven by poverty is a fallacious argument. While poverty is a contributor, it is in no way a key driver of Jihadism in Pakistan. The suggestion is certainly not to kill all Jihadis but introduce a more transparent and verifiable system of counter-terrorism and counter-violent extremism that defangs the trained Jihadis over a period of time without affecting the society any further. Letting these groups spread their message in the name of religion is an old tactic, not a solution. In any case, the political use of Islamic militants, be it the ahl-hadith, the Deobandi or the Barelvi type is highly toxic.

The financial constraints due to continued support for Jihadis is something that Pakistan will not be able to ignore. However, this is a tool that will work only if it is played effectively and cautiously.

Given the pressure, the international community, especially China could convince Pakistan to rethink its options. Beijing has already sent its diplomats around Europe to ensure that the states did not blacklist Pakistan in the next FATF review. While blacklisting Pakistan may not produce the necessary results as the fear of it, this may be a moment that Pakistan should be encouraged to make use of an international benefactor to guide it through a strategic shift in policy. For India, the aim should not be annihilation of a state or society for ideological reasons but to maximise benefits and get a deal rather than drag on the process for too long.

The author is research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London and author of Military Inc