WASHINGTON - The United States and Pakistan this month started cracking down against armed militant groups, in what analysts describe as establishing a groundwork ahead of the meeting between the U.S. President Donald Trump and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in Washington early next week.
Pakistani authorities in Punjab province Wednesday arrested the head of the Lashkar-e-Taiba group, Hafiz Saeed, who is alleged to have been the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people, including six Americans.
Trump, in a tweet following the detention, praised the “great pressure” exerted over the past two years against the cleric.
Some experts say the move by the Pakistani government just days ahead of Khan’s maiden trip to Washington serves as a goodwill gesture to improve relations with the Trump administration, which has accused Pakistan of failing to rein in extremists operating on its soil.
Marvin Weinbaum, the director of the Afghanistan and Pakistan Program at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, told VOA that Pakistan is hoping its recent moves against armed Islamists could convince U.S. officials that it is playing an effective role in the fight against terrorism.
“Pakistan has campaigned for months to convince the international community that it does not harbor terrorists,” Weinbaum told VOA.
He said Pakistan authorities, in an effort to gain economic leverage from Washington, are stepping up their efforts against militants targeting India, while at the same time influencing the Taliban in Afghanistan to hold peace negotiations with the U.S.
“There is a recognition in Pakistan that despite the rhetoric used by the political leadership, it needs the U.S. on the economic front,” Weinbaum said.
Suspension of aid
Trump last year suspended $300 million in military aid to the Pakistani government, which he accused of giving safe havens to terrorists launching attacks in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has received more than $33 billion in U.S. assistance since 2002, including more than $14 billion in Coalition Support Funds (CSF), which is a U.S. Defense Department program for reimbursing allies that incur costs while supporting the U.S.-led counterinsurgency and counterterror operations in the region.
The United States, Afghanistan and India have accused Pakistan of being selective in its counterterror operations, targeting only those groups that pose a threat to its national security and ignoring others that plan and conduct attacks in India and Afghanistan.
Pakistan has rejected those accusations, noting that thousands of its civilians have died in militant attacks because of its anti-terror efforts with the U.S. The country also said it targets militants indiscriminately.
Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said Tuesday that his country’s efforts to facilitate peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban have led to a “gradual warming” of U.S.-Pakistan relations.
He said Trump’s invitation to Khan underscored the “inherent importance of the relationship” for both countries.
The meeting between Trump and Khan, scheduled for Monday, will focus on counterterrorism, defense, energy and trade, according to a White House statement.
“It will focus on strengthening bilateral cooperation to bring peace, stability and economic prosperity to South Asia,” it said.
Zubair Iqbal, a Pakistan analyst with the Middle East Institute, said the expected meeting between the two leaders and recent actions against militants show both sides are willing to defuse months of tensions.
“The U.S. government seems to have changed its attitude toward Pakistan,” Iqbal said, adding that Pakistan could play a vital role in Afghanistan’s peace process.
Some analysts charge the improved relations between the two countries could also help Khan in his bid to prevent his country from being blacklisted by the global anti-terror watchdog Financial Action Task Force (FATF).
FATF in 2017 placed the country on its “gray list” for allegedly not taking adequate action against terror financing and money laundering in the country. The president of FATF last month told VOA that it was possible that Pakistan could be blacklisted during the global terror financing watchdog’s plenary session in October.
“It is in Pakistan’s interest that the FATF meeting in October does not put it on the blacklist,” said Imran Malik, a Punjab-based defense analyst and retired brigadier. The blacklist, he noted, could hurt Pakistan’s economy.
For its part, Washington has attempted to fix the strained relations with Islamabad by targeting anti-government separatist militants operating in Baluchistan province in southwestern Pakistan, Malik said.
The U.S. earlier this month designated the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) as a terrorist group, vowing to deny the organization access to resources for planning and carrying out attacks. The move was welcomed by Pakistan’s Foreign Office, and shortly afterward, Islamabad filed 23 terrorism and terror financing charges against Jamaat ud Dawa (JuD), Falah-i-Insaniyat and Lashkar-i-Tayyaba, all U.S.-designated terror groups.
These moves by Pakistan could also be seen as “quid pro quo for the U.S. designation of the Baluchistan Liberation Army as global terrorists,” Malik charged.
“The U.S. action has created the right environment ahead of the meeting between Prime Minister Imran Khan and President Donald Trump,” he added.
Weinbaum, of the Middle East Institute, said the improving relations with Islamabad also reflected Washington’s desire to end the 18-year-old Afghan war, and what it considers the role Pakistan could play.
“For the U.S., the priority will be to discuss Pakistan’s role after the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan,” he added. “When the U.S. is ready to leave Afghanistan, it needs to be comfortable that it has Pakistan’s word that it will stabilize the country.”