Fear­ing wider en­try ban or less U.S. aid, Pak­istan curbs Is­lamist mil­i­tants

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY PAMELA CON­STA­BLE pamela.con­sta­ble@wash­post.com Haq Nawaz Khan in Pe­shawar con­trib­uted to this re­port.

is­lam­abad, pak­istan — To U.S. and in­ter­na­tional of­fi­cials, Hafiz Mo­ham­mad Saeed is a ter­ror­ist who or­ches­trated a bloody ur­ban siege that killed 166 peo­ple in In­dia in 2008. But to his many de­vout fol­low­ers in Pak­istan, he is a cham­pion of Is­lamic val­ues and Kash­miri in­de­pen­dence from In­dia.

To U.S. and in­ter­na­tional of­fi­cials, Shakil Afridi is a coura­geous man who helped the United States track down and kill Osama bin Laden in 2011. But to many Pak­ista­nis, he is a traitor who sold his ser­vices to a Western ad­ver­sary of Is­lam and should re­main in prison.

Therein lies the co­nun­drum fac­ing Pak­istani of­fi­cials to­day as they scram­ble to fore­stall puni­tive ac­tions by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion — and ease pres­sure from other for­eign part­ners, in­clud­ing China — with­out pro­vok­ing tur­moil at home, es­pe­cially among Mus­lim mil­i­tants the state has long cod­dled as prox­ies against In­dia.

Sud­denly con­fronted with a U.S. pres­i­dent who has de­clared war against Is­lamist ex­trem­ism and has ex­pressed lit­tle in­ter­est in the long his­tory of po­lit­i­cal ac­com­mo­da­tion and se­cu­rity al­liances be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Is­lam­abad, of­fi­cials here are seek­ing a mid­dle ground that may no longer ex­ist.

The dis­ar­ray was ev­i­dent in clash­ing pub­lic state­ments by two gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials con­cern­ing the en­try ban im­posed by Trump last week on all visi­tors from seven Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­tries.

White House aides sug­gested last week that the ban might be ex­panded to in­clude Pak­istan and other coun­tries with ter­ror­ist links. On Satur­day, Pak­istani me­dia out­lets quoted a White House spokesman telling the BBC that there are “no im­me­di­ate plans” to add Pak­istan, Afghanistan or Le­banon but warn­ing that this could change if the coun­tries stop com­ply­ing with U.S. re­quests for in­for­ma­tion.

For­eign Min­istry spokesman Nafees Zakaria, at a news con­fer­ence Thurs­day, noted def­er­en­tially that “it is ev­ery coun­try’s sov­er­eign right to de­cide its im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy.” He said Pak­istan looks for­ward to con­tin­u­ing its “long-stand­ing and co­op­er­a­tive re­la­tions” with Wash­ing­ton.

But In­te­rior Min­is­ter Chaudhry Nisar, speak­ing at a sem­i­nar, de­clared bluntly that “no so­lu­tion from Amer­ica and the West can be im­posed on our re­gion” and that the West should stop “blam­ing Is­lam” for the world’s ills. “The ten­dency to la­bel ev­ery man with a beard and ev­ery woman wear­ing hi­jab as a po­ten­tial ter­ror­ist should cease now,” he added.

In the past week, Pak­istan has taken steps to tighten le­gal nooses around both Saeed and Afridi, con­fin­ing the fire­brand cleric to house ar­rest and deny­ing travel doc­u­ments to the im­pris­oned doc­tor’s fam­ily. To­gether, these moves send a dou­ble mes­sage: The gov­ern­ment is se­ri­ous about rein­ing in a high-pro­file Is­lamist mil­i­tant with a U.S. bounty for his ar­rest, but it is also se­ri­ous about keep­ing an al­leged traitor — whom Trump once vowed to set free — be­hind bars and un­der wraps.

The crack­down on Saeed and his group, which has been al­lowed to func­tion freely for the most part, is seen by many here as a hasty con­cil­ia­tory ges­ture to the new ad­min­is­tra­tion in Wash­ing­ton. But Pak­istani of­fi­cials in­sist it was the prod­uct of long in­ter­nal de­lib­er­a­tion — and fur­ther proof of a per­ma­nent shift from of­fi­cial tol­er­ance for ex­trem­ists who once served as Pak­istan’s de­ni­able agents in In­dia and Afghanistan.

“Pak­istan is not merely an as­pi­rant for co­op­er­a­tion with Wash­ing­ton, it is a se­ri­ous and cred­i­ble part­ner,” Tariq Fatemi, a se­nior aide to Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif, said in an in­ter­view Fri­day. He said Sharif’s gov­ern­ment, with strong sup­port from the army, is de­ter­mined to clear the coun­try of all mil­i­tants. “We will kill them or drive them out,” he said. “Any will­ing­ness to look the other way is no longer there.”

Some an­a­lysts said that while Pak­istan is con­cerned about the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion ex­pand­ing its ban or cut­ting off aid, it also faces other sources of pres­sure to clamp down on ex­trem­ists. One is China, Pak­istan’s gi­ant neigh­bor and ma­jor eco­nomic part­ner, which does not want its in­vest­ments, es­pe­cially the planned $46 bil­lion China-Pak­istan Eco­nomic Cor­ri­dor, or CPEC, threat­ened by vi­o­lence.

The other is an in­ter­gov­ern­men­tal watch­dog agency, the Fi­nan­cial Ac­tion Task Force, which mon­i­tors money laun­der­ing and ter­ror­ist fi­nanc­ing. The group, which can black­list coun­tries that don’t have enough safe­guards in place, has re­port­edly raised new alarms about “gray pay­ments,” or money be­ing fun­neled as char­i­ta­ble do­na­tions to or from mil­i­tant groups in Pak­istan, in­clud­ing Saeed’s.

“There is a lot of spec­u­la­tion about what Trump might do, but I think we are see­ing a con­flu­ence of other fac­tors,” said Amir Rana, di­rec­tor of the Pak­istan In­sti­tute for Peace Stud­ies. “The fi­nan­cial is­sues are the most ur­gent. The CPEC has in­jected a lot of hope and op­ti­mism into the coun­try, and every­one wants to make sure it suc­ceeds.”

Some com­men­ta­tors say that to prove it is se­ri­ous about curb­ing Is­lamist ex­trem­ism, the gov­ern­ment must stop send­ing mixed sig­nals to such groups as Saeed’s as well as to hard-line sec­tar­ian move­ments, which are of­ten banned but then al­lowed to re­group un­der new names. Saeed once headed a mil­i­tant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, that was ac­cused by In­dia of stag­ing the Mum­bai siege. Now he heads two other groups that claim to be char­i­ta­ble and ed­u­ca­tional but are also fiercely anti-In­dia.

Fatemi said that the gov­ern­ment also in­tends to counter ex­trem­ist ideas with per­sua­sion, reg­is­ter­ing rad­i­cal sem­i­nar­ies and “bring­ing them into the main­stream” through a Na­tional Ac­tion Plan es­tab­lished by Sharif. “We are go­ing to bring about a ma­jor shift in the think­ing process of peo­ple on the fringes,” he said.

But that mes­sage is not so easy to spread in an im­pov­er­ished coun­try of 180 mil­lion peo­ple, about 80 per­cent of them Mus­lims. To­day, more than 2 mil­lion youths are study­ing in sem­i­nar­ies, and groups like Saeed’s en­joy wide pop­u­lar­ity. The cause of Kash­miri op­pres­sion has been a na­tional ral­ly­ing cry for decades, and many Pak­ista­nis have been taught to be­lieve that In­dia, Is­rael and the United States are mor­tal en­e­mies of Is­lam.

Among the few Pak­ista­nis who ex­press hope for sym­pa­thy from the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion are the rel­a­tives of Afridi, who has been in prison for six years on charges of abet­ting Is­lamist mil­i­tants. His fam­ily says it be­lieves the real rea­son was his role in lo­cat­ing bin Laden by con­duct­ing a med­i­cal sur­vey in the city where the al-Qaeda leader was found and killed by U.S. Navy SEALs.

This week, Afridi’s rel­a­tives and at­tor­neys said the gov­ern­ment had re­fused to re­new iden­tity doc­u­ments for his fam­ily mem­bers and placed their names on a list of Pak­ista­nis who are banned from leav­ing the coun­try. In an in­ter­view, his younger brother, Jamil Afridi, 55, said he hoped that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion would come to the doc­tor’s aid.

“My brother did noth­ing wrong. He was a true Amer­i­can hero who helped the United States elim­i­nate the world’s most­wanted ter­ror­ist,” Afridi said. “I con­grat­u­late Pres­i­dent Trump and I am op­ti­mistic about him, be­cause he said he would help free my brother once he was elected to of­fice. He is a man of ac­tion who does what he says.”

CAREN FIROUZ/REUTERS

A se­nior aide to Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif, above, said Sharif ’s gov­ern­ment is de­ter­mined to clear the coun­try of all mil­i­tants.

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