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If ‘sanction Pakistan’ is difficult to achieve, UN can go for the Army and Taliban

UN may be a quarrelsome talk shop, but it has a lot of power. The trouble is, sanction is all about politics.

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‘Sanction Pakistan’ is trending on Twitter, with over three lakh tweets. That’s unsurprising. As the dead pile up in Afghanistan under the Taliban onslaught, outrage and fear are spreading within and outside the country. In India, where there is broad public sympathy for the Afghans, many wonder why Pakistan is not designated a terrorist sponsor for the violence next (both) doors. Not to mention that Pakistanis have been involved in major terrorist attacks abroad, including the most recent Paris terror attacks.

That Pakistan is allowed to do all this and more is inexplicable to most. After all, North Korea has been reeling under sanctions since 2006 without even a quarter of Islamabad’s terrorism portfolio. In some parts, this outrage has increased as India takes up the presidency of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) this month. But the cry for sanctions has more to do with the very real fear of another Taliban government than anything else. Sanctions are, however, about wheels within wheels, with more gears and levers than anyone can imagine, particularly with regard to Pakistan.

Also read: Trouble is coming to Pakistan. No matter its double fence on Afghanistan border

Sanctions and such like

First, a thing or two about sanctions. It’s true that the United Nations is generally viewed as an ineffective and quarrelsome talk shop, and the Security Council a platform for posturing. But there is latent power in the body, and that is exercised through Chapter VII, which empowers the UNSC to “determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression” and recommend coercive measures under Article 41 that may include cutting off communication links or economic measures and severing diplomatic relations. This in itself can be pretty frightening for a targeted state. Consider for instance, how such sanctions have completely crippled Iran’s economy.

The real teeth of the body comes from Article 42, which empowers it to use armed force against the state. This was done in the case of Afghanistan in 2009, and earlier for the former Yugoslavia. Either action has to flow from a specific UN Resolution, and from the general principles of international law, which includes a series of Conventions on international terrorism. Now here’s the thing about Chapter VII resolutions. First, they’re legally binding. Second, Article 48 states they have to give effect to these decisions, even if they conflict with their own laws. That’s a lot of power.

The Taliban and sanctions

In the case of Afghanistan, the original sanctions on the Taliban came in 1999, due to its sheltering of Osama Bin Laden, after the Al-Qaeda bombed US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es Salaam.  Resolution 1267 was extensive in banning flights and any economic activity. Later came a slew of ‘successor resolutions’, which among other things, set up the committee to monitor the regime. Such committees are chaired by non-permanent members of the UNSC.  In January 2021, India took over the chair of the Taliban Sanctions Committee and the Counter Terrorism Committee. Notably, for the first time, the Al-Qaeda Sanctions Committee, which is usually twinned with this, was not given to India due to Chinese objections. That committee is the one which lists ‘international terrorists’. The reason for the ‘objection’ is hardly difficult to comprehend. Overall, therefore, sanctions are serious stuff for individuals, entities and countries. The trouble is, it’s all about politics.

Also read: China will need to sift through a long list of suspects attacking its citizens in Pakistan

Getting Pakistan on the mat: Terrorism

The UNSC Resolutions specific to Afghanistan and terrorism bar almost everything. For instance, Resolution 1373, adopted in the wake of the 9/11 inter alia, obliges all United Nations Member States, to take the necessary steps to prevent the commission of terrorist acts, to criminalise assistance for terrorist activities, deny financial support and safe haven to terrorists, prevent their movement through border controls, control issuance of travel documents,  and to “afford one another the greatest measure of assistance in connection with criminal investigations or criminal proceedings” including on trafficking of arms, explosives or other sensitive materials. It calls for adherence to Resolution 1368, which bars provision of “any form of support, active or passive, to entities or persons involved in terrorist acts, including by suppressing recruitment of members of terrorist groups and eliminating the supply of weapons to terrorists”. The resolution also called for states to become party to the International Convention for the Suppression of Financing of Terrorism, which requires states to make sure their financial systems do not allow such activities.

There’s more, but the sum of it is pretty clear. To the impartial observer, it seems all that has to be done is to provide an escort to the Pakistan envoy to the UN, designate it as a state sponsor of terrorism, and then apply sanctions till it sags at the knees. After all, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid was on record to say that Taliban are treated in Pakistani hospitals, and that their families lived there. Research papers have detailed the relationship between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Taliban, with ISI officers often on their shura councils. At present, funerals of Pakistani cadres of the Taliban are being held in Peshawar. As for weaponry, check out this training video. This is not an insurgent group. It’s an army. That means logistics of all kinds, including fuel, ammunition, spares, food and everything to keep it going. No, none of that is available in bulk in any ‘black’ market. It’s an open secret that everyone knows.

The Taliban don’t just have a haven in Pakistan, but are armed, guided and sometimes led by Pakistan. All this is clear. But hold hard. It’s not entirely clear whether the Taliban are ‘terrorists’ still. In 2011, the UNSC split the Taliban away from the ‘Al-Qaeda’ sanctions regime. That doesn’t mean sanctions don’t apply. But following the Doha Accord between the Taliban and the Donald Trump administration, and leaders flying to major capitals – and being photographed with the Chinese foreign minister no less – it’s difficult to see how Pakistan can be sanctioned for supporting an entity that has now been given a virtual state status. It’s not there yet, though. That window is still open, just a little. If the US and others see the Taliban as completely uncooperative and cut the umbilical cord to Pakistan, then that bloody progress in Afghanistan stops. Another thing. It’s still plain and simple aggression, even by proxy. That’s against basic international law.

Also read: On Afghanistan, China should join India — for a change

Sanctions for Al-Qaeda, ISIS

Both the Taliban and Pakistan also remain open to sanctions for their proximity to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The most recent report of the UN monitoring team clearly indicts the Taliban for having a close relationship with Al-Qaeda, sheltering in the Pakistan border regions, and points out its operational links to the Pakistan-based Haqqani network. In addition, the report also notes ties with some 8,000-10,000 foreign terrorists, quite apart from the Islamic State of Khorasan, which has its complement of Pakistanis. All are tied in some way to each other with Al-Qaeda often acting as the mediator. The report also dashes rumours of Al Zawahiri’s death, noting that he is somewhere in the border areas.

Meanwhile, the Afghan government led by Ashraf Ghani states that Pakistanis are among 112 Al-Qaeda cadres killed in Helmand. The interlinkages are too many to be identified here. But there are grounds and more to sanction the Pakistan government , with the easiest being its apparent inability to prevent Pakistanis from crossing over to join the fight, despite  double fencing, ditches and bunds. Meanwhile, a former diplomat posted a telling photograph of cadres sitting near the fence, waiting to cross over from Pakistan to Afghanistan. There’s no lack of proof at all. Just a lack of will.

Also read: Pakistan must stop looking to leverage Taliban, focus on fixing its own economy

A way out

There is, of course, far more detailed evidence linking Pakistan to terrorism in Kashmir. That’s another story. The focus should now be on those fighting with their backs against the wall in Afghanistan. However, it’s useful to point out that the UN itself gives extensive details of Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba in eastern Afghanistan acting as “advisers, trainers and specialists in improvised explosive devices”.

Now consider all of the above. Here is a nation responsible for sustaining an army in one country, terrorist groups in another, and is host to terrorists of nearly every nationality including Chinese. Yet it continues on its merry way, undeterred even by the threat of blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Pakistan knows well that major powers prefer to get Pakistani intelligence agencies on board, and thus stop politically expensive terrorist attacks in their own country. The UK is a prime example of this. Others like the US, pressure the Pakistanis, but not beyond a point for the same reasons.

That may have changed, as Washington faces accusations of having abandoned the Afghans to the tender mercies of the Taliban. Besides, with no troops in the theatre, Washington doesn’t need Pakistani cooperation much. And then there is China. That’s the full stop here. Beijing thinks it can get Pakistan and its proxies to rein in instability in Xinjiang and into China. It can’t, and won’t. That’s not how Islamic terrorist groups work. China also needs to consider not just its billion dollar investments in Pakistan, but also that Islamabad’s external debt to China is some $24.7 bn. Sanctions could kill off any possibility of retrieving that debt. So, its veto at the UNSC is ironically assured by Pakistan’s own recklessness.

But there is one possibility. The UNSC could sanction just the Pakistan Army and its various business houses. After all, the objective is not to punish the Pakistani people; punish those who are driving them into a path of no return instead.

The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant Dixit)

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