Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Pakistan: PM's reputation on the line in terrorist crackdown

International pressure has prompted Pakistan PM to order a crack down on terrorist groups.

Relatives mourn a victim of the attack by a Pakistan-based terrorist group on the Indian Army Base in Uri
Relatives mourn a victim of the attack by a Pakistan-based terrorist group on the Indian Army Base in Uri
Published 24 Nov 2016 

According to local media and other reporting, Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has directed the head of the military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to crackdown on both the activities of internationally prescribed terrorist groups based in Pakistan that operate against neighbouring countries, and the support networks that operate from Pakistan and service such groups in neighbouring countries.

Sharif issued this directive at a select meeting of senior civil government and military officials in Islamabad on 3 October. Sharif's purpose was to redress Pakistan's increasing international diplomatic isolation due to the nation's alleged lack of substantive action against militant terrorist groups, especially those targeting India and Afghanistan.

The terrorist groups identified included the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba, both of which target India, and the Afghanistan-based Haqqani and other Taliban networks that operate in Afghanistan but have strong historical links to Pakistan.

Details of this meeting were first leaked in the prominent Pakistani English-language newspaper Dawn on 6 October. Officials were briefed that inadequate action against the terrorist groups was the cause of the recent cooling of US relations with Pakistan, and the associated downturn in US military and other aid. It had also directly and indirectly affected relations with other countries and was assessed as the principal reason why Pakistan's recent international representations about India in the UN and Washington (as well as other western capitals) in particular had not gained much traction.

Those representations condemned India for human rights abuses in India-administered Kashmir, especially during the latter half of this year, and sought international assistance in pressuring India to comply with UNSC Resolution 47 and to hold a plebiscite in Jammu Kashmir to enable residents to choose whether to join Pakistan or India (the latter has been the core issue in the troubled Pakistan/India relationship since Partition in 1947).

The downturn this year in Pakistan-India relations has been particularly challenging for Sharif, who has a long-standing commitment to improving the bilateral relationship. Sharif and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi shared this goal and in December 2015 jointly initiated a comprehensive bilateral dialogue to significantly improve the relationship. All issues were to be tabled, including Jammu Kashmir, national security including counter-terrorism, contentious provisions of the Indus Waters Treaty, trade and commerce including direct cross-border trade and reciprocal Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status, transit trade, and culture and tourism. 

However, the dialogue was quickly suspended. The principal causes were two deadly cross-border attacks by Pakistan-based terrorists against Indian military establishments at Pathankot in Punjab province on 2 January, and at Uri in Indian-administered Kashmir on 18 September. Some seven and 18 Indian military personnel were killed respectively during these attacks. The Pakistan-based United Jihad Council (UJC), an umbrella organisation for anti-Indian militant groups, claimed one of its member organisations was responsible for the first attack - India assumed that to be Jaish-e-Mohammad. Lashkar-e-Taiba claimed responsibility for the second attack. Informed observers in both nations judged that the aim of both attacks was to disrupt and indefinitely defer the dialogue.

Despite attempts by both leaders to contain the fallout from these incidents, politically this was not possible. Pakistan countered the suggestion of one-side aggression with the arrest in March of an Indian intelligence officer in Karachi who, Pakistan claimed, confessed to his involvement in supporting dissidents in Baluchistan. This was extrapolated by some as evidence of India seeking to break up Pakistan and re-absorb its provinces into India. Prime Minister Modi cancelled his attendance at the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation conference that was to have been hosted by Pakistan this month; most other members also withdrew and eventually conference was cancelled. There were also tit-for-tat expulsions of alleged spies from respective high commissions, and restrictions placed on cultural issues and tourism.

Militarily, the Uri attack precipitated some limited cross-border artillery and small arms fire by respective armed forces, incurring some military and civilian casualties. However, leaders and officials on both sides moved swiftly and assertively to contain military responses, and to ensure matters did not escalate to more serious conflict. 

One prominent individual who contributed to US pressure on Pakistan, particularly about support to the Taliban, was US Congressman Ted Poe, a Republican from Texas and Chair of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism. On 22 September Poe stated bluntly in Congress that Pakistan should not continue to receive high levels of military and other aid while also continuing to directly and indirectly support the Taliban. Pakistan had to choose whose side it was on, Poe concluded. His comments resonated among both NATO countries whose military forces have suffered casualties fighting the Taliban, and with other near neighbours engaged in fighting domestic terrorists, some of whom have been trained by the Taliban in sanctuaries within Pakistan. US and other stakeholders in Afghanistan have also questioned whether Pakistan has been as effective as it could have been in influencing Taliban acceptance of Afghanistan's reconciliation process. 

One other significant issue to flow from Sharif's directive to the ISI was press speculation about whether Sharif and the civilian establishment were challenging the military's traditional domination of national security issues, including policies towards Afghanistan and India. Sharif has contested power arrangements with the military during his two previous terms as Prime Minister (1990-1993 and 1997-1999). He lost the last round when ousted from office and exiled by General Pervez Musharraf in 1999.

Whether Sharif can reshape his working relationship with the military remains to be seen. Much will depend on his relations with the Chief of Army Staff (COAS). This could be the existing COAS, Raheel Sharif, if his term is extended beyond his current retirement date of 29 November, or his replacement.

Of course there are two sides to the Pakistan-India dispute, and Pakistan has already taken some action against domestically-based Taliban; however, there is a growing international consensus that Pakistan needs to crack down on these terrorist groups, not only for international reasons but also because of the domestic threat they pose. Sharif knows this, and is seeking the power to make the change. He also remains committed to improving relations with India; reportedly he and Modi have not given up on reviving the dialogue sometime in the future. But the challenges Sharif faces in order to do so are considerable. His ability to deliver will be sorely tested and his credibility is on the line.

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