In a dramatic turn of events after the Pathankot airbase attack, the Pakistani government claims to have arrested members of the outlawed Jaish-e-Mohammad. Following a high-level meeting of top military and civil leadership yesterday, the statement issued by the Prime Minister's Office said that, acting on "actionable intelligence" provided by India regarding the attack on the Pathankot airbase, the offices of the banned militant group are being traced and sealed.
But the statement issued by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's office raises questions over the efficacy of such bans on the militant groups in Pakistan where they are soon reincarnated them with a different name to continue their operations right under the government's nose. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahaba, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad are some of the appalling examples of the state's failure to apprehend such groups after banning these groups and the people associated with them. After the attacks on the Indian parliament back in December 2001, allegedly carried out by the JeM, the government of Pakistan banned the militant group in January 2002. 14 years after the group was banned, the government of Pakistan admitted that the offices of the banned group are being traced and sealed only now. The very fact that the JeM was able to operate offices despite a ban leaves a lot to be desired on the part of the state of Pakistan.
Many in Pakistan believe that the government is also under pressure from American officials to take swift action against the outlawed JeM. Five days ago, US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to PM Sharif on the phone, who assured the US that Pakistan is carrying out investigations in a transparent manner to bring out the truth in the Pathankot terror incident.
Hours after the high-level huddle of senior civil and military officials concluded in Islamabad yesterday, media reports revealed that the banned JeM chief Masood Azhar was taken into "protective custody" and questioned over the Pathankot attack. While a federal minister and a former general confirmed on a television talk show last night that the law enforcement agencies have only taken Masood Azhar into protective custody, Pakistan's Foreign Office today expressed ignorance about the supposed house arrest of the JeM. It's pertinent to note that the officials have neither confirmed nor denied the arrest of Masood Azhar since the government finds itself in a damned if you do, damned if you don't conundrum. However, sources close to the JeM chief have confirmed that he has been detained by the Pakistani authorities. While the confusion persists over the JeM chief's arrest, its existence is not without a few reasons.
One of the reasons behind the prevailing confusion over the JeM chief's arrest is that the government of Pakistan is wary of a possible demand from the Indian government to handover Masood Azhar to them for further investigations. A confirmation in this regard can land Nawaz Sharif in hot water. The government is also mindful of a backlash from the likes of Jamat-e-Islami and other right-wing parties who protested sharply against PM Narendra Modi's surprise surprise visit to Pakistan on Mr Sharif's birthday.
The other reason behind the confusion persisting over the arrest of Maulana Masood Azhar, one of the Afghan jihad veterans, is that he enjoys close ties with the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan would be walking on a tight rope if officials confirm his arrest and end up straining their ties with the Afghan Taliban where Pakistan is trying to regain some sort of strategic control.
Last but not the least, a confirmation of the arrest of JeM chief Masood Azhar will incite groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, now known as the Jamat-ud-Dawa and headed by Hafiz Muhammad Saeed which apparently enjoy state patronage.
For Pakistan, the real challenge is to make sure that action against the outlawed JeM us converted into prolonged and consequential measures to prevent the militant group from resurfacing stronger. The state of Pakistan needs to shun its policy of good and bad militants. To permanently seal offices of the militant groups and successfully prosecute those responsible for cross-border terror attacks, a great deal of evidence will need to be gathered. For this purpose, both the countries need to work together and make coordinated efforts to combat terrorism. India's acceptance of Pakistan's request to send a Special Investigation Team to probe the Pathankot air base attack is an encouraging development in this regard.
There is a silver lining amidst all the confusion. Both countries have agreed to reschedule Foreign Secretary level talks. Whatever the terrorists intended to achieve with the attack on Pathankot airbase, the governments of India and Pakistan appear to have thwarted with their restraint and mature response.
(Ali Salman Alvi is a freelance columnist and a political activist. He keeps a keen eye on Pakistan's socio-political issues and global affairs.)
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