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As Pak anguishes over the BRICS declaration, Khawaja Asif lobbies for change

Vivek Katju | Updated on: 7 September 2017, 23:09 IST

That the Xiamen BRICS summit declaration named Pakistan-based terrorist tanzeems Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammad, the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban underlines the threat these groups pose to the region.

It was the first time that China allowed these terrorist organisations to be named in a BRICS summit declaration. BRICS leaders expressed concern at the violence undertaken by these groups. They also reaffirmed that those, “committing, organising, or supporting terrorist acts must be held accountable”.

An unhappy Pakistan

Pakistan has been thrown into consternation and confusion by China’s agreement to the specific naming of these terrorist groups. The question in Pakistani minds, even if it has not been so articulated, is how their ‘all weather friend’ agreed to a formulation which is obviously embarrassing to Pakistan.

That this has come at a time when US President Donald Trump has peremptorily demanded that Pakistan close the safe havens for the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network and change course on using terrorists for its foreign policy ends or suffer the consequences. The timing has only added to Pakistani unhappiness.

Among Pakistani reactions, that of the present Foreign Minister, and earlier Defence Minister, Khawaja Asif is noteworthy for its candour although expressed indirectly.

Speaking to a popular Pakistani TV channel Asif conceded that Pakistan had to “bring our house in order to avoid embarrassment”. He admitted that, “friends should not be tested”.

This was certainly a reference to China, at Pakistan’s behest, putting obstacles in the United Nations designating Masood Azhar as a terrorist. China is paying a price for helping Pakistan.

Asif also articulated a sentiment that some thoughtful Pakistanis (although Asif has not been known for subtle or deep thinking; indeed his forte is in making gaffe after gaffe) have felt for a long time - that Pakistan paid a terrible price for joining the American bandwagon in 1979 and in submitting to American demands after 9/11.

In this context, Asif said that Pakistan needed to make a complete break from the past.

Going against the official line

There is little doubt that Asif went against the official position. Defence Minister Khurram Dastagir told the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Defence the same day on which Asif made his comments, “Pakistan has taken action against all groups on its soil and only the remnants of some are left”. He also claimed that forty percent of Afghanistan is a safe haven for terrorists.

The Pakistan Foreign Ministry’s official reaction was also given on the same day as Asif’s comments. It sought to turn the attention to groups based outside Pakistan that have also been mentioned in the BRICS declaration - the Eastern Turkey tan Independence Movement or ETIM (the anti-Chinese Uighur organisation especially in Xinjiang), the Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP) which is Pakistan focussed now but was earlier the ISI’s creature and some Central Asian groups.

Pakistan claimed that these groups were causing damage to regional peace from the “ungoverned spaces in Afghanistan”. It also accused the TTP for extremely violent acts against Pakistanis.

Why did Asif go against the official line which, as always, in Pakistan is laid down by the army? The generals are making the point after Trump’s Afghanistan and South Asia policy speech that they will not go along with the US as they did in 1979 and after 9/11 and Asif made the same point. However, the generals never allow any public introspection on the question of the Lashkar and the Jaish which are a vital part of Pakistan’s security doctrine.

Was Asif seeking to embarrass the army taking his cue from the PML(N) leadership? Was this another attempt to go down the Dawn Leaks way? It will be recalled that the Dawn had reported that at a meeting the then Foreign Secretary and now Ambassador to the US Aizaz Chaudry had warned that the Chinese were getting impatient with providing cover to Pakistan on the Lashkar and the Jaish. Shahbaz Sharif had complained about ISI protecting these groups whenever the police sought to take action against them. How the army reacts to Khawaja’s comments will bear watching.

Looking ahead

There are many Pakistani diplomats both serving and retired who realise that Pakistan’s nurture and use of the jihadi tanzeems is counterproductive in the long run. Some thoughtful retired generals are of the same view.

However, the dominant view is in favour of the tanzeems or terrorist groups. Thus the generals will hardly have any interest in introspect as advised by the respected newspaper Dawn to take heed of the BRICS declaration and not dismiss it.

The paper also stated straightforwardly, “In truth, while Pakistan has made significant strides in the domestic fight against terrorism, there is a contradiction at the heart of the country’s efforts to fight militancy, terrorism and extremism: an unwillingness to acknowledge that past policies, and the ongoing selective approach to fighting militancy have contributed to the problem”.

Sensible, if strong, words but, for the generals, seditious, not worthy of reflection.

The Chinese are now trying to assuage Pakistan’s hurt feelings. They of course know that the Pakistanis can do little except be anguished for they desperately need China.

However, on the ETIM while Pakistan cooperates in nabbing many UIghurs, does the ISI also, despite the dangers of alienating the Chinese, maintain contact with some elements of the group? Or does it allow a small ETIM office in Rawalpindi as the host of TV show claimed on Pakistan National TV two days ago? If that is so, it only shows how deep rooted is Pakistan’s nexus with the jihadi groups.

Khawaja Asif will visit China tomorrow. We can expect effusive expressions of everlasting friendship but despite Chinese efforts in providing some balance in the BRICS declaration formulation a drop of vinegar was dropped on Pakistan’s wound caused by the Trump speech. China’s claim that the Lashkar and the Jaish are banned in Pakistan will not reduce the smarting.

First published: 7 September 2017, 23:09 IST