For many in Pakistan, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed – Chief of defunct Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET) & Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JuD) – is a hero. He is regarded as a credible crusader for the Kashmir cause. He admits his organization’s role in keeping the Kashmir movement alive. His high profiled political activities, including openly eulogizing the Kashmir martyrs of Pakistani origin, have brought Pakistan in conflict with the UN and US sanctions. His free movement has been a major hurdle in starting the stalled bilateral dialogue between India-Pakistan. But finally, in a sudden shift, Pakistan has not only put Saeed under detention, but also named him under the Anti-terrorism Act.
The Government of Pakistan had, in the past, withstood US pressure and Indian media battering for some time now. One wonders what caused a sudden shift in the government policy, which led to the house arrest of Hafiz Saeed along with four other persons. If the detention is “in national interest” and therefore a “national policy”, about which there is no doubt, how come the detention was not considered earlier? If, as claimed that, there were no sufficient evidence for his detention what new facts emerged suddenly for the government to ignore the past court orders squashing similar detentions. Hafiz Saeed was arrested twice in 2001, once in 2002, thrice in 2006 and once in 2009. On all occasions, his detentions were brief.
The Pakistani media has quizzed whether the house arrest manifests a turning point or a meaningful shift in Pakistan’s policy of dealing with alleged terrorists. Have we reached a stage where the government is seriously contemplating a broader review of its policy, part of which is how to deal with people sanctioned by UN as terrorists? If this is the case, it is a sign of wisdom, and political maturity, an act of pragmatism and realpolitik, above all an opportune display of astute diplomacy.
Unfortunately, the timing and developments related to the detention, indirectly or directly, have thrown up many disturbing questions about the pressures the country is facing. The countries interested in the trial of Hafiz Saeed fail to appreciate lack of evidence, which can stand judicial scrutiny. In fact, when he was released on court order in 2009, the Punjab government withdrew appeal against his release from the Supreme Court saying, “we don’t have anything against him”.
Hafiz Saeed had time to address a press conference before detention where he claimed “My detention order has come from Washington and not Islamabad”. The Army’s public-relations wing, the Inter-Services Public Relations, said the action was “in the national interest”. According to the Punjab Home Department notification, “Both JuD and Filah-i-Insaniat Foundation (FIF) are engaged in certain activities which could be prejudicial to peace and security and in violation of Pakistan’s obligations to the United Nations Security Council Resolution.
Media has reported four reasons for his detention: 1) US Assistant Secretary of State, Richard Boucher, threatened Pakistan’s Ambassador with sanctions at a January 11 meeting. This is highly unlikely as US lacks necessary legal process to immediately impose sanctions, as admitted in September 2016 by State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner. 2) Apprehensions that JuD may be serious with its plan to conduct relief operations in Gaza, Syria, Somalia, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar. USA and Saudi Arabia last year declared some individuals connected with Hafiz Saeed as global terrorists and also held discussions in Islamabad with the Military establishment. This sounds more fictional than real. 3) Pakistan detained him to ward off action by the United States by demonstrating its resolve to rein in extremists and 4) China has shown its own concerns about continually putting on hold the UN sanctions against Azhar Masood. In their calculations, JuD could threaten the already fragile law and order situation in Xinjiang by inspiring Chinese Muslims.
With the new US administration and its hostile attitude towards China, the future is fraught with unmanageable threats for Pakistan, which needs both these countries for differing strategic reasons. Unfortunately, Pakistan has a history of caving in quickly while dealing with the US threats. The only exception was when it refused to delay the 1998 nuclear explosions. There is no apparent reason why the government this time is as committed as in 1998 that it would ignore the US warnings dating back to Obama’s last days and assuming renewed urgency under President Trump who according to Christine Fair, “has shown himself to be a loose cannon”.
There are reports from military and civilian circles that China despite its concerns may continue its support at UN for holding up the listing of Azhar Masood as a terrorist. But China is apprehensive about Hafiz Saeed and others like him who can potentially destabilize the region. China wants CPEC to succeed and ensure full protection for Chinese investments in Afghanistan. These goals are likely to be derailed if the like of Hafiz Saeed are allowed to propagate violence as a tool to achieve political objectives.
Misgivings abound that the government resorted to detention in order to “buy time with the new US administration”. Indian analysts call the preventive detention “a hogwash”, a “charade”, an “opportunistic move, and “a mere symbolic step which has come ‘too little, too late’. Top 10 US think Tanks in their report titled ‘A New US Approach to Pakistan: Enforcing Aid Conditions without Cutting Ties’ advised Trump’s administration to “levy costs” on Pakistan for perpetuating terrorism in India and Afghanistan and must quickly formulate a new approach towards the country to prevent it from using terror for foreign policy ends. The advice further says, “The objective of the Trump administration’s policy toward Pakistan must be to make it more and more costly for Pakistani leaders to employ a strategy of supporting terrorist proxies to achieve regional strategic goals”.
India’s response to Saeed’s arrest has been cautious. It has demanded a “credible crack down” on “terrorist organizations involved in cross border terrorism” as proof of Pakistan’s sincerity” in fighting terrorism. A sharp reaction came from Pakistan Foreign Office Spokesperson saying that “Pakistan didn’t need a certificate from India”. The government has said that the crackdown on the JuD is a “policy decision” taken under the National Action Plan – a strategy that was put in place following the December 2014 terror attack on a school in Peshawar. It has also dismissed reports that the decision to arrest Saeed and others was made under external pressure.
Karen Tumulty and David Nakamura quoted military insiders and experts calling President Donald Trump’s arrival on the world stage as well as Chinese pressure as the driving factors for the detention. However, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang signaled that China had not imposed any pressure on Pakistan to put Hafiz Saeed under house arrest. Vice Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping – who is also in charge of counter-terrorism – visited Pakistan for talks on counter terrorism on February 6.
As claimed by Hafiz Saeed, Pakistan may have its own limitations. Therefore, it may be using the detention as a ploy to appease US and China. If this is the case, Pakistan has strayed on a slippery course. Pakistan can manage India. But the expanding India-US partnership is dangerous for a weak country like Pakistan to outmaneuver. India will be in a better position to call for “US stick” against Pakistan and US may gladly oblige if the detention fails to translate into a broader shift in the treatment of extremists.
If Pakistan has put Hafiz Saeed under detention due to perceived US threats or to reassure its staunch ally China but not as a deliberate policy shift, it is inept diplomacy. It must be realized that new regional alignments have only one common strand – the fight against regional terrorism and radicalism.
The author Mian Sanaullah is a former Ambassador, political analyst and Advisor to Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.