politics

Pompeo’s Pakistan Test: A Suspected Terrorist Turns to Politics

Updated on
  • Hafiz Saeed-backed Mili Muslim League to run in July election
  • Military has been accused of legitimizing Pakistani militants
Hafiz Saeed Photographer: Arif Ali/AFP via Getty Images

The Mili Muslim League’s website reads like a regular Pakistan political outfit, offering translations in Urdu and English and promoting the rights of minorities and women. The party’s spokesman even calls for good trade relations with arch-rival India.

Yet it’s backed by Hafiz Saeed, the suspected planner of the 2008 Mumbai attacks who was designated as a terrorist by the U.S. a decade ago.

The MML’s creation, pushed along by Saeed who inaugurated its offices in Lahore in December, has led to fears Pakistan’s military is renewing its push to lend terror groups political legitimacy. Those concerns deepened with a high court decision on March. 9 to approve the party’s registration, allowing it to run in national elections scheduled for July.

Pakistan is at pains to show it is acting against militants as it comes under increasing U.S. pressure. But the court’s ruling presents a challenge to incoming U.S. secretary of state and current CIA Director, Mike Pompeo, who’s vowed a harder line against the country if it fails to show it’s eliminating safe havens for terrorists.

Read more: Pushing Pakistan Seems Obvious But Isn’t Simple: QuickTake Q&A

“We see the Pakistanis continuing to provide safe harbor, havens inside of Pakistan for terrorists who present risks to the United States of America,” Pompeo said on Jan. 7. “If they fix this problem, we’re happy to continue to engage with them and be their partner. But if they don’t, we’re going to protect America.”

There’s “no doubt” Pompeo has taken a tougher stance on Pakistan than Tillerson, Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London said Wednesday. “The agency has always had a unique view of Pakistan, seeing up close both its cooperation with the United States and its extensive support for militant groups.”

Dodging Sanctions

Last month, a U.S.-led coalition of western nations pushed for its addition to the Financial Action Task Force’s terrorism-financing watch list, a move which may lead to sanctions.

Pakistan has long been accused of supporting proxy groups of fighters furthering its foreign policy objectives -- from the claim on the disputed region of Kashmir to the installation of a pro-Pakistani government in Afghanistan. The army has consistently denied supporting terrorists.

Retired Pakistani Lieutenant-General Talat Masood expects Pompeo “will be much firmer” than his predecessor. The “Americans have tried their best,” Masood said. “They have applied lot of pressure on Pakistan and they have seen it didn’t work.”

The U.S. says Saeed’s charities are fronts for militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba. Saeed denies the allegations and in sermons in Lahore he has denounced Islamabad’s moves to seize his organizations’ assets as an American-led persecution.

Describing the allegations as “propaganda,” the MML’s spokesman Tabish Qayyum said the party wants Pakistan to devise a neutral foreign policy. “We want to serve the people regardless of their faith and ethnicity,” Qayyum said in a phone interview on Tuesday.

The MML’s actual election prospects are dim. Religious parties have fared poorly in past elections and the MML has just over 3,100 followers on Twitter. Qayyum said the party’s campaign plans haven’t been finalized, though the MML is more interested in creating a “long-term political movement.”

Still, the court’s move may allow its proxy groups more freedom to operate and raise funds in the open. On March 11, the local Daily Times said army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa told reporters he stood by the judiciary and subversion of its rulings wouldn’t be allowed. The military declined to comment.

‘Cynical Contradiction’

The move has provoked condemnation from New Delhi.

It “completely exposes Pakistan’s duplicity,” Raveesh Kumar, a spokesman for India’s foreign ministry, told reporters. “This is an attempt by the Pakistani establishment to mainstream him, to mainstream this system as a political party.”

In February, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi told Bloomberg he saw no evidence to support claims the military was “mainstreaming” extremist groups. Pakistan’s de-facto finance minister, Miftah Ismail, also said in an interview last week the government will tighten anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism laws, noting it had already done enough to avoid the FATF listing.

Read more: Pakistan Hits Back Against U.S. Accusations in Terror Stalemate

Washington isn’t convinced. The U.S. persuaded Islamabad’s allies, Saudi Arabia and China -- the latter of which is financing about $60 billion of infrastructure works in Pakistan -- to remove earlier objections to Pakistan being placed on FATF’s monitoring list from June.

“Pakistani leaders have said that they are going after terrorism financing, but, unfortunately, there is a cynical contradiction between their words and actions,” said Javid Ahmad, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center in Washington. “If Pakistan ends up on FATF’s grey list in June, it faces being placed on the blacklist and is likely to face economic sanctions, global banking isolation, limiting foreign investments that would have corrosive effects on the country’s teetering economy.”

— With assistance by Kamran Haider

(Updates with analyst comment in ninth paragraph.)
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