Is Pakistan willing to give Taleban a seat at the table?
It started as a tweet on the first day of 2018.
Just days before the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) - a global terror financing watchdog - is to consider a plan to rein in terrorist groups that a coterie of countries led by the United States says are operating from Pakistan's soil, Washington's urgings for Islamabad have bared the real intention behind the move.
It started as a tweet on the first day of 2018. United States President Donald Trump lashed out at Pakistan, accusing the country of "lies and deceit" and of giving safe haven to terrorists. "No more!" he wrote. The US State Department took a couple of days to translate the warning into an announcement that the United States would withhold up to $2 billion in aid until Pakistan takes "decisive action" against the Taleban and an aggressive offshoot of the group, the Haqqani network. As The Washington Post reported, that number included $900 million in Coalition Support Funds designated to reimburse Pakistan for fighting militants.
The next month it was reported that the United States, backed by Britain, France and Germany, had put forward a motion to place Pakistan on a global terrorist-financing watchlist with the FATF. Islamabad - which denies assisting militants in Afghanistan and India - reacted angrily to the threats by the US of further punitive measures and had earlier this year put forward a report about the progress it had made in curbing terrorist financing. Although Washington's motion came in before the Pakistan report could be discussed at the Paris hearing in February, Islamabad said it managed a three-month reprieve from the FATF.
Pakistan had been on the FATF watch list from 2012 to 2015. Being put on the FATF watch list again would make it harder for foreign investors and companies to do business in Pakistan and tougher and more expensive for the South Asian nation to borrow money from international debt markets.
As national elections loom in Pakistan, the country's interim government is seeking to head off the US-led move when the FATF next meets in France from June 24 to June 29. Last week it reviewed its new draft action plan for submission to global bodies working on curbing money laundering and terror financing, the Asia Pacific Group (APG) on Money Laundering and the FATF.
"I am confident that Pakistan's existing legal regime is compliant with global anti-money laundering (AML) and counter-terror financing (CTF) regimes," Barrister Ali Zafar, the caretaker federal minister for information and law, told the media. He added that the caretaker government would do whatever was required to make sure that Pakistan was not blacklisted.
Yet, more than Pakistan's action the political posture by the United States will determine whether the FATF accepts the new plan. Handing Islamabad optimism, two high-level officials from the United States spoke with top Pakistani officials.
United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently had a telephone conversation with Pakistani Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. The two leaders discussed ways to advance bilateral relations, said State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert. She said "the need for political reconciliation in Afghanistan, and the importance of targeting all militant and terrorist groups in South Asia without distinction," were also discussed during the call.
Pakistani officials described Bajwa's first direct conversation with Pompeo as "positive and productive". The next day, United States Vice-President Mike Pence called Pakistani caretaker Prime Minister Nasir ul-Mulk to greet him on assuming office and conveyed "good wishes" from US President Donald Trump. An official statement said Mulk and Pence "agreed upon the importance of strengthening bilateral relations as well as pursuing the common objective of achieving peace and stability in Afghanistan".
Just two days before Pompeo spoke to Bajwa, Pakistan army spokesman Major-General Asif Ghafoor noted his country had secured its traditionally volatile regions along the nearly 2,600-kilometre Afghan border, saying ongoing fencing and construction of new forts would boost security and prevent illegal cross-border movements and terrorist infiltration.
Ghafoor said his country would like the US forces to succeed and go back from Afghanistan "with a notion of victory". But the goal is achievable only through political means, because neither side is in a position to win the war on the battlefield, he said. "Whatever leverage Pakistan has (over the Taleban), although it is receding with the passage of time, we will try to use it to help find an amicable solution for Afghanistan," the general said.
Bringing the Taleban which control almost half of Afghanistan to the talking table is what the United States pressure on Pakistan is all about. If successful in doing that, Pakistan would succeed in its FATF tests with flying colours!
Waqar Mustafa is a print, broadcast and online journalist and commentator based in Pakistan