Consortium Against Terrorist Finance Oct. 25, 2016, 3:24pm

It took only three days for the Pakistani government to mobilize against prominent journalist Cyril Almeida for his article in the popular Dawn newspaper in early October, a piece Islamabad claimed “risked the vital state interests.” Subsequently barred from leaving the country, Almeida claimed that rifts within the Pakistani government had developed over the sponsorship of terrorist groups. While the travel ban on Almeida was lifted, the well-respected columnist’s story and recent developments in Pakistan’s relations with its neighbors have spurred an internal debate over Pakistan’s delicate position in the world. Faced with the severe costs of growing international isolation and diminished superpower support, Islamabad has undertaken measures that may indicate a gradual drawing back of their long-term covert support for terrorist groups.

Almeida, who is the assistant editor of the major English-language Dawn newspaper, also writes a weekly political column for the newspaper. On October 7th, Almeida reported that the Pakistani civilian government, led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry, clashed with top generals and the intelligence agency, led by ISI Director-General Rizwan Akhtar, over the country’s support for terrorists. In an “unprecedented warning”, according to the Dawn report, members of the civilian government claimed that Pakistan faced increased international isolation if the military continued to interfere in civilian law enforcement efforts to bring down Jaish-i-Mohammad, its leader Masood Azhar, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Haqqani network, jihadist groups that are known to attack Pakistan’s neighbors in Afghanistan and India. The Prime Minister also called for new attempts to bring the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai attacks and the 2016 Pathankot attacks on an Indian military to justice.

Only a few days after the release of his report, Cyril Almeida took to Twitter to break the news of his travel ban. The Pakistani journalist claimed that he was “puzzled, saddened” upon learning that his name had been added to the Exit Control List often used to stop suspected criminals from escaping justice by fleeing the country. Following the designation, the editor-in-chief of Dawn, senior journalists, and Amnesty International emerged in support of Almeida in denouncing the government’s move.

Almeida’s allegations, based on the off-the-record reports of unnamed government officials present at the meeting, further substantiate claims of ISI support for terrorists – this time from senior Pakistani officials themselves. According to the Dawn report, it was Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who accused the security establishment, by directly addressing General Akhtar, of working behind the scenes to set those arrested by the civilian authorities free.  The report also comes during a time of tense relations between Islamabad and its neighbors. Following the deadly September attacks on an Indian army base in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, claimed by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group, India has increased diplomatic pressure to isolate Islamabad and has even allegedly crossed its line of control in Kashmir to attack militant camps within a mile inside Pakistani-held territory. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif condemned India’s attacks by describing them as “unprovoked and naked aggression.”

Since entering de-facto Pakistani territory last month, New Delhi and the international community have intensified efforts to isolate Pakistan. India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Bhutan’s boycott of the South Asia Summit in Pakistan has not only threatened the validity of the summit, it has also humiliated Pakistan and highlighted regional discontentment with Islamabad’s policies. Prime Minister Modi’s label of Pakistan as the “mother ship of terrorism” at a Brics summit and his direct pleas for an alignment of Indian and Chinese views on terrorism may add to Beijing’s doubts over the logic of keeping its hold on a UN ban on Jaish-i-Mohammad leader Masood Azhar.

China has offered near-total support for Islamabad as it prepares to invest $46 billion in the country as part of its plans to create a China Pakistan Economic Corridor. Having dealt with immense international isolation, led by the U.S. and India, Pakistan has shifted to China for support while India has swayed closer to the U.S. Yet even China, Islamabad’s leading defense supplier, top foreign investor, and loyal ally, has its limits in its support for Pakistan. In addition to reports that Beijing’s leaders are reconsidering their hold on a UN ban on Azhar, Chinese leaders also see the Taliban, a long-time affiliate of Islamabad, as a threat to their investments in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The recent attack along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in Quetta targeting Pakistani security forces, claimed both by ISIS and a breakaway faction of the Pakistani Taliban, will likely reinforce Beijing’s concerns over the possibility of militants threatening their huge investments. Indications of a change in the Chinese position on Pakistani policies constitute a serious warning for Islamabad.

For now, international isolation of Pakistan seems to be working. Last week, the Taliban’s Doha-based political commission met in Pakistan with government officials about possible peace talks with the Afghan government. A western official familiar with the Taliban’s meeting in Pakistan referred to the gathering as a Pakistani “initiative to escape U.S. and Chinese pressure”, both of which have an interest in reigning in the Taliban. Furthermore, if Almeida’s Dawn report is to be believed, the ISI is not only reassessing its support for terrorist groups historically used as tools against Afghanistan and Pakistan, but is also considering measures to counter these groups in recognition of international pressure from both the U.S. and China. Lastly, Pakistan was forced to indefinitely postpone the 19th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit, a move that brings attention to Pakistan’s role in restricting cooperation in the region.

Cyril Almeida’s article struck a nerve with the Pakistani government. While Pakistani officials have been insistent in their repudiation of the claims in the report, international isolation appears to be taking its toll on the country. With its global image, strategic positions, and major Chinese investment projects at stake, Islamabad seems determined to project a more favorable global image, starting with exerting its influence over the Taliban. However, the international community should be wary, Pakistan is unlikely to abandon its long-term ties to terrorist groups, largely seen as strategic tools against Pakistan’s rival neighbors, any time soon.

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