Imran Khan is Sitting on a Jihadi Time Bomb, Demanding Evidence Over Pulwama a Mere Excuse

Rather than immediately reassuring India and an increasingly upset international community that Pakistan means business in confronting its terrorist demons, Prime Minister Imran Khan took several days to respond to the Pulwama attack. When he spoke Tuesday, he only repeated the mantra of investigation and the promise of action if India shares “actionable intelligence with Pakistan”.

That the attack was claimed by the Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) should have been enough for Pakistan to act against the outfit. After all, Pakistan condemned the attack and has said over the years that it is part of the international community effort to eliminate terrorism.

The enormous destructive capability of nuclear weapons has often been seen as a deterrent to war. But in the Indian subcontinent, politicians and television personalities routinely invoke the possession of nukes in reckless rhetoric of the type that is now on display in both India and Pakistan following last week’s terrorist suicide bombing in Pulwama.

Promises of investigation and demands for actionable intelligence have become a routine Pakistani response in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, especially against India. They were invoked after the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, the Mumbai attacks of November 2008, and all the attacks in between and subsequently.

Considering that groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which was responsible for the Mumbai attacks, and JeM, which has claimed responsibility for the latest tragedy as well as other operations, operate openly and in full view in Pakistan, the calls for investigation and actionable intelligence are nothing more than excuses.

By now most countries of the world recognise the Pakistani pattern of behaviour, which explains the almost-universal demand for action against JeM and its founder, Maulana Masood Azhar.

The assumption on the Pakistani side, probably correct, is that its possession of nuclear weapons limits the likelihood of a kinetic response by India to attacks by Pakistan-based terrorists.

There is outrage and anger in India but the thinking in Rawalpindi-Islamabad is that a defiant Pakistan has dealt with it before and can get through it again. The frequency of such brinkmanship, however, only produces diminishing returns.

It is true that the demand for use of force on the Indian side is increasing but, in the end, New Delhi will act on calculations, not the pronouncements of evening talk-show warmongers.

It is easier to talk about breaking up or punishing Pakistan than to do it or even to think through consequences of every action and reaction.

Although it is based in Pakistan and operates from a massive headquarters in Bahawalpur, JeM managed to use a radicalised young Kashmiri this time to kill Indian troops.

Once the passions of the moment subside, Indians will have to figure out how and why that happened and what needs to be done to deal with such unfortunate circumstances. But India’s Kashmir problem neither justifies nor mitigates Pakistan’s Jihadi problem.

If Imran Khan and his militarist mentors cared to think beyond their hyper-nationalist fervour, they would realise that terrorist attacks by Pakistan-based Jihadi groups and the response of their target countries cannot be calibrated forever.

Around the same time that JeM orchestrated the Pulwama attack against Indian troops, Iran’s government held another Pakistan-based group Jaish al-Adl responsible for attacks in Iran.

One need not be a supporter of Iran’s clerical regime or ignorant of Iran’s own support to extremism and terror elsewhere to point out the danger to Pakistan of a consensus among its neighbours – and the rest of the world – against Pakistan-based Jihadism.

The United States was unequivocal in its condemnation of the Pulwama incident, describing it as a “heinous terrorist attack by a Pakistan-based terrorist group” and calling upon Pakistan “to end immediately the support and safe haven provided to all terrorist groups operating on its soil”.

It is rare for the US and Iran to agree on most things, but they clearly agree that Pakistan serves as a safe haven and base for terrorist groups.

The United Arab Emirates, a close ally of Saudi Arabia and a friend of Pakistan, also designated Jaish-e-Mohammed as a terrorist organisation a couple of years ago, just as the US and India had done earlier.

France is said to be planning to lead the charge for listing of Jaish’s Masood Azhar as a ‘global terrorist’ at the United Nations Security Council and China has not been outspoken in its support for Pakistan after the Pulwama massacre either. Sanctions by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) over failure to limit terrorist financing continue to loom.

But Imran Khan’s government and Pakistan’s military leadership seem unfazed by the coming storm. The hubris in Rawalpindi-Islamabad is based on Pakistan’s nuclear status and the country being ‘the key to the resolution of the Afghan dispute’.

Its railways minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed – sponsor of Jihadi groups himself, who is known by the nickname ‘Sheedi Tulli’ (‘Sheeda the Bell’ in Punjabi), and who also served in General Musharraf’s military regime – invoked the nukes when he threatened that “bells will forever stop ringing in Hindu temples” if India acts against Pakistan.

And Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Zahid Nasrullah, played the Afghan card when he said that peace talks between the United States and Afghan Taliban militants would be affected if India retaliated to the Pulwama bombing.

Beyond the posturing and bombast, Pakistan’s decision-makers must still consider the long-term outcome of their unending Jihad.

The flaws in India’s handling of Jammu and Kashmir notwithstanding, the intermittent terrorist attacks since 1989 have done nothing to improve the lives of Kashmiri Muslims nor have they advanced the resolution of what Pakistan considers to be the Kashmir dispute.

Groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed might be playing nice within Pakistan while carrying out attacks in Indian territory right now, but they do have a track record of attacks on Pakistani soil as well.

Jaish members conducted suicide attacks on Pakistani officials in Islamabad, Karachi, Murree, Taxila and Bahawalpur to protest General Musharraf’s alliance with the US after 9/11. The group was also involved in attacks on Christian churches, Shia mosques, and diplomatic missions inside Pakistan soon after the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Those who have allowed Masood Azhar to recruit, organise, and train terrorists even after formally banning Jaish in 2002 might find his anti-India and anti-Hindu zeal useful. But as Hillary Clinton rightly pointed out, “you can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbours. Eventually those snakes are going to turn on whoever has them in the backyard.”

If Pakistan is to have a national purpose other than periodically whipping up frenzy against India, a pastime that is unfortunately being imitated in India with increasing frequency, it would act against Jaish and work with India and the international community to prevent future terrorist attacks.

If it does not, its ‘success’ in avoiding serious consequences because of India’s relatively limited choices of retaliatory action will only be a pyrrhic victory. Being viewed as a threat by almost all your neighbours and sitting on the Jihadi time bomb is not a strategy for progress and prosperity. 

Husain Haqqani, director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C., was Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States from 2008-11. His latest book is ‘Reimagining Pakistan’.