Pakistan Hits Back Against U.S. Accusations in Terror Stalemate

  • PM Abbasi says terror groups are in Afgahnistan, not Pakistan
  • Hardline religious protests expose government’s challenges
Shahid Khaqan Abbasi Photographer: Asim Hafeez/Bloomberg

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi rejected U.S. accusations that the country provides sanctuary to militant groups and said attacks in the region were originating across the border in Afghanistan.

In an interview in Islamabad last Friday as a right-wing Islamist group choked the capital and officials marketed the country to international bond investors, Abbasi said Pakistan would act against terrorists found within its borders, including the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network. 

Yet his administration has been shaken by weeks of hardline religious protests and has come under harsh criticism over a court decision to release accused terrorist Hafiz Saeed, underscoring the difficulty Abbasi’s government faces in dealing with extremist elements in Pakistan. On Monday, Zahid Hamid stepped down as law minister after the little-known Tehreek-e-Labaik party demanded his resignation for overseeing changes to a reference to the Prophet Muhammad in a lawmakers’ oath, viewed as blasphemous.

The turmoil showed the government’s struggle to restrain right-wing groups, including those suspected of having the backing of the military. Abbasi said there were “some extremist elements among the protesters.”

Cross-Border Attacks

Islamabad and Washington are at loggerheads over Donald Trump’s demands in August that Pakistan take tougher action against terrorists operating within its borders -- part of a U.S. attempt to bring resolution to the 16-year war in Afghanistan.

Both Pakistan’s government and military protested that the U.S. didn’t recognize the thousands of Pakistani servicemen and civilians who had died in the war on terror. The army also started fencing its porous and disputed border with Afghanistan in an effort to contain attacks, a move that prompted a furious response from Kabul.

“We have asked them to share any intelligence about the Haqqani network, we will take action,” Abbasi said. “The attacks however are being made from across the border, we have pinpointed even the sanctuaries of the attackers. Cross-border infiltration from Afghanistan is the order of the day.”

U.S. Pressure

American officials have kept up the pressure. General Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, met with Pakistan army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa two weeks ago following Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s trip to Islamabad last month. Both urged Pakistan to take action against militants.

Still Pakistan has failed to stop insurgents crossing into Afghanistan, even as it has made progress against those who attack its own soil, U.S. General John Nicholson, the top commander in Afghanistan, told reporters on Tuesday.

“There is no room for them to take a tough stance here, because Pakistan is the country which is fighting the war on terror,” Abbasi said. “Somebody gives us intelligence and we will act upon it. It is our war, not theirs.”

Pakistan has long been accused of covertly supporting outfits that strike Afghanistan and India. Having fought multiple wars with India, Pakistan’s security establishment fears domination by its arch-rival and having a stable pro-Indian administration in Afghanistan.

‘At Odds’

“With the U.S. and India claiming that Pakistan is an originator of terror, and Pakistan reluctant to meaningfully crack down on terror groups, the two sides will inevitably be at odds,” said Shailesh Kumar, a senior South Asia analyst at Eurasia Group.

When asked if Pakistan would move against Taliban leaders who have allegedly lived for years in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta, Abbasi said “we will act against them if they really exist.”

Abbasi reiterated that Trump’s troop increase and support to Afghanistan will end in failure and urged the Afghan government and the Taliban to agree to peace talks.

“We have assured them of whatever assistance we would be able to offer, but things are quite fragmented on that side,” he said. “Pakistan has tried twice, but the talks have been sabotaged.”

Mumbai Attacks

The U.S. also escalated its criticism of Pakistan last week after a high court in Lahore ordered the release of Saeed from house arrest. India and the U.S. accuse Saeed of masterminding the 2008 Mumbai attacks and claim he is the leader of terror outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba, charges Saeed denies. The White House warned his release may damage bilateral relations.

“The court, a three-judge bench, has released him saying there are no charges against him, the country has a law you know,” Abbasi said. “Prosecute him internationally if there is substance to these charges -- these are accusations only. No evidence has been provided by India.”

However, India says it has provided evidence to Pakistan. Indian foreign ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar didn’t respond to requests for comment.

For Pakistan, Saeed is still “an important asset” as the U.S. pushes India into Afghanistan, according to Shamila Chaudhary, a former White House and State Department official who’s now a fellow at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. “Why would the Pakistan military allow for the imprisonment of one of its most influential proxies against India when it needs it the most?”

— With assistance by Anthony Capaccio

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