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Explained: What Imran Khan said, what he meant

This is the first time an elected Pak leader has admitted to the presence of jihadists in such huge numbers. As the international community tightens the screws, Imran may have been sending the world a message

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Mumbai |
Updated: July 26, 2019 7:17:33 am
Explained: What Imran Khan said, what he meant President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in the Oval Office of the White House (AP)

On Wednesday, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan told an audience at the United States Institute of Peace, a Washington-based think tank, that there were “30,000 to 40,000 armed people” in his country “who have been trained to fight in some part of Afghanistan or Kashmir”.

India has described the statement as a “glaring admission”, and demanded that Pakistan take “credible and irreversible action” against terrorist groups.

How is Imran’s statement different from Islamabad’s earlier public positions?

Imran did not reveal a state secret. The presence of jihadists and jihadist organisations is well known in Pakistan, and to the international community.

What is new is that for the first time an elected Pakistani leader, that too a Prime Minister, has spoken about it candidly. Previous leaders have alluded only indirectly or in a veiled manner to the presence of jihadist groups — that is, groups other than the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which carries out attacks on Pakistani targets inside Pakistan and is, therefore, alleged to be a creation of India. For years, Pakistani leaders have been far more likely to complain that “Pakistan is the biggest victim of terrorism”, than to declare that there are up to 40,000 terrorists in their country.

Those in positions of political power and influence, who have previously made bold to talk about jihadist groups in Pakistan, have been removed from office, or sidelined, or hounded. This is because from the time of the first Afghan war, the jihadist project has belonged to the Pakistan Army, and its espionage arm, the ISI, the country’s most powerful organisations. Elected politicians were required only to support the project, or to keep quiet if they opposed it.

Nawaz Sharif was ousted by the judiciary on corruption charges, but his troubles truly began after he started to take on the Pakistan Army for nurturing jihadist groups that had pushed Pakistan into a corner internationally. Dawn, the newspaper that reported one such confrontation, found its circulation restricted, and the reporter dragged to court for treason.

In an earlier instance, after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, then National Security Adviser Mahmud Ali Durrani had to resign after he acknowledged that the attacks were carried out by Pakistan-based militants.

Read | Explained: Reading Trump’s Kashmir offer

Paradoxically, even though the presence of these groups is not officially mentioned, from time to time, Pakistan’s security agencies have been forced to act against them, usually under international pressure.

After the Mumbai attacks, the investigation by the Pakistani FIA concluded that it was planned in Pakistan and carried out by terrorists trained in Pakistan, though even that did not mention their affiliation to the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Several individuals linked to the group and to its front organisation were arrested at the time.

Pakistani politicians openly consort with jihadist groups like Laskhar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahaba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa, but such associations are not questioned or discussed in public, except in the odd media report.

The closest a top Pakistani leader had earlier come to conceding the largescale presence of jihadists in that country was in 2004, when military ruler Pervez Musharraf signed a joint statement with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee pledging not to permit terrorist groups to operate from Pakistan.

Editorial | Imran Khan’s admission, in the US, to armed militants in Pakistan, is an important moment. There will be consequences 

Is there nothing new for India in Imran’s statement, then?

The numbers that Imran has presented are a surprise. NACTA, Pakistan’s nodal counter-terrorist agency, has on its website a list of 40 organisations proscribed under the country’s Anti-Terrorism Act, and another list of 8,307 proscribed individuals. This smaller number is what has been submitted by the Pakistan government to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which is monitoring the progress on Islamabad’s commitments to crack down on terrorism financing.

For India, the numbers are important, but more important is Imran’s admission that the militants fought in Kashmir. It vindicates India’s position on cross-border terrorism in Kashmir from Pakistan.

Imran Khan, Imran Khan to Donald trump, Terrorists in Pakistan, Kashmir conflict, Express Explained US President Donald Trump meets with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan at the White House Monday. (Source: Twitter/Government of Pakistan)

But Lashkar is a proxy for the Pakistan Army, and isn’t Imran essentially the generals’ man in government?

Imran has repeatedly stressed that he has no differences with the Army on any aspect of government policy. But his admission does put the Army in some embarrassment. While Imran blamed previous governments for not telling the truth and doing nothing to rein in the jihadists, there is no getting away from the fact that civilian governments have had zero say in this matter, which has been the exclusive remit of the Pakistan Army.

However, there has been no apparent falling out between him and the Army, at least for now. Imran has returned home to much media admiration for his skilful handling of President Donald Trump, who showered praise and gratitude on Pakistan for its role in the Afghan peace talks. His statements on the number of armed jihadists has not found much space in Pakistani media.

But complications might yet arise. The FATF, which wants to see substantial progress by Pakistan on terrorist financing by October this year, is bound to raise questions about the numbers.

Read | ‘We have ample proof’: Army chief Bipin Rawat on Imran Khan’s Pulwama claim

So, what is the big picture? Who was Imran speaking to, and why?

Imran’s statements came against the backdrop of a general tightening of the screws on Pakistan by the international community. The FATF means business about blacklisting it later this year, if it does not meet commitments. That would mean a squeeze on Pakistan’s access to international lending, a restriction on remittances and banking channels, at a time when its economy is in terrible shape.

During the Pulwama-Balakot episode, Pakistan found no supporters in the international community, and the designation of Masood Azhar of Jaish-e-Mohammed only brought that into sharper focus. There seems to be a realisation in Pakistan that something has to give. Ahead of the June meeting of the FATF, it took some actions to demonstrate it was not reneging on its commitments. Later, it also arrested the JuD leader Hafiz Saeed.

Seen in this context, Imran may have been trying to convey the enormity of the clean-up task that his government had inherited from previous governments, and to underline that it may be impossible to achieve results demanded by the international community within deadlines.

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