A stumbling block
Pakistan’s effort to befriend the US takes a hit in wake of mishandling the Daniel Pearl murder case
Pakistan has been in a desperate mode to walk an extra mile to mend its ties with the USA ever since President Joe Biden and his team took charge on January 20. In fact, even before the new dispensation took control, Pakistan had been active in sending feelers to the Biden team to have a changed attitude towards Pakistan. Significantly, Pakistani establishment always felt that Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump had abandoned Pakistan unlike other Republican presidents, and therefore, it's time to reach out to the new administration. The visible motive behind this swift move was to come out of the global isolation that Pakistan was reeling under, counter India to drift it away from the US proximity, dispel any misgivings that the US may have vis-a-vis Sino-Pak relations, use US good offices to repair the worsening ties with Saudi Arabia, and of course, to get financial packages to extricate itself from the economic imbroglio. As part of wishful thinking, Pakistan is also hopeful that the Democrat-led presidency will have a changed and tough policy towards Kashmir.
Pakistani hopes were raised amid these developments, particularly, because of the recent disclosure by the new Defence Secretary-designate, Gen Lloyd Austin, who called for a renewed US cooperation with Pakistan in the light of Afghanistan and for containing terrorist activities. While Pakistan was euphoric with the statement of the Pentagon Chief, conveniently ignoring his cautious warning that Pakistan needed to do more to rein in its terrorists —particularly naming Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). It was perhaps an early initiative by the US to wean away Pakistan from China but Pakistan read it too much.
The euphoria on part of Pakistan was short-lived as Gen Lloyd Austin called up his Indian counterpart, Rajnath Singh on January 27, hoping for a vigorous role of India in the Indo-Pacific region and expressing keenness to strengthen strategic partnership with India. A call by the US Defence Secretary — barely two days after assuming the office — looks significant. Pakistan has silently taken note of it.
In another important move, the new US National Security Advisor (NSA), Jack Sullivan telephoned his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval, almost simultaneously assuring renewed defence cooperation, multilateralism, Quad dialogue etc. Both the NSAs also had a threadbare discussion on robust cooperation on cybersecurity, terrorism, strategy in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.
These happenings being closely watched by Pakistan dealt a severe blow to its short-lived buoyancy because of the recent verdict in the Daniel Pearl murder case by the Supreme Court of Pakistan — upholding the acquittal of the mastermind of the grotesque murder, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, and ordering his release from the prison. Reacting angrily to the judgment in a statement on January 28, White House said that it was outraged by the verdict. The US chief spokeswoman, Jen Psaki described the ruling as an affront to the victims of terrorism and called upon Pakistan to quickly review its legal options. Such reprimand from the US has given a jolt to Pakistan's efforts to warm up to the US. Meanwhile, the family members of slain journalist Daniel Pearl have intensified their efforts seeking US intervention in Pakistan for reversing the judgment which was awarded two to one by a panel of three judges.
The US rebuff has also led to the American Attorney General offering to hold Omar Sheikh on trial in the US itself and taking him into custody for trial proceedings as Pearl was a US citizen. In the meantime, more criticism worldwide is outpouring on this verdict. Most likely, in the face of ongoing US pressure and international condemnation, the latest news indicates that the Sindh government has requested (January 29) the court to hear the appeal urgently. The legal process seems to be moving ostensibly fast under the pressure of US but it is to be seen if Pakistan's legal system, which is thoroughly flawed, punishes a dreaded terrorist for such an inhuman and heinous crime or lets him off the hook few weeks before the FATF takes stock of Pakistan's efforts to contain terror funding and other linked activities. Again, the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken has also voiced his concern on the judgment, underscoring the need for Sheikh's trial in the US. In view of such volte-face by the US, Pakistan's steps to befriend
the new US administration can be on hold, and the initial expectations can be 'on wait' till the guilty are punished, as justice is to be seen to be believed. Omar Sheikh is wanted in India also, hence, Indian agencies and security experts need to keep an eye on the developments rather closely. Also, Indian invisible bodies and diplomacy must step up actions exposing Pakistan for concealing the loopholes of its judicial
system as seen in the most recent top court ruling exonerating a hardened and heartless offender like Omar Sheikh.
International commentators, in the meantime, have also opined that President Biden will have to face a test of faith in multilateral organisations and structures when the FATF meets to review Pak-based terrorists' terror funding problems in February. They also assess that as FATF prepares to review Pakistan's performance, Imran Khan's government is apprehended to go down in the rabbit hole of conspiracy. Already on the backfoot, because Pakistan supported terrorism in cross-border activities, its counter-offensive to prepare a dossier alleging India as the sponsor of terrorism on the Pakistani soil will have no takers. The month that ended only yesterday, saw a spate of terror attacks in earlier part — killing several members of the minority Hazara sect. Such brazen terror assaults in cold blood expose Pakistan's skeletal intelligence and security machinery with complete indifference to the real threats. With the new US Government in place, which is warming up to India already, Pakistan will have to rise to its emerging challenges to prove its bona fide attempts or
continue to face the flak from the international community. This said, there is hardly any doubt that the recent US rebuff on the Daniel Pearl verdict has dampened its enthusiasm which was part of kicking up a hype that was never there or even if it was, it was grossly misplaced.
The writer is a retired IPS officer, a security analyst and a former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Mauritius. Views expressed are personal