Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government attempted to change the narrative around Pakistan’s support to terrorism last weekend but the effort to build a case against India has continued for more than a year. The release of the bunch of documents that Islamabad has described as a dossier came after its repeated attempts to implicate Indians for terrorism did not succeed. The last one was in September when the United Nations Security Council rejected a proposal by Imran Khan, backed by President Xi Jinping’s China, to designate two Indians as terrorists under the 1267 sanctions committee process. A few months earlier, the UNSC had already blocked proposals to designate four other Indians.
It is in this context that Moeed W Yusuf, Imran Khan’s special assistant on National Security Division and Strategic Policy Planning, switched gears and started building the ground for a public campaign in October when he accused India of perpetrating terrorism in Pakistan. An academic believed to have had links with the Pakistan Army when he was still in the United States, Moeed Yusuf has been big on building narratives after joining the government. Yusuf did complain not so long ago how Pakistan had not been able to set the narrative on Kashmir, a remark that was then seen as an indictment of the foreign office led by Shah Mahmood Qureshi. Last month, he told a news conference that the media should play a role to change the country’s narrative. “Pakistan’s narrative is of economic security and the world has not seen that,” he lamented, claiming Islamabad stood for regional peace. At the same briefing, Yusuf complained about India’s “one-sided narrative” against Pakistan and hinted that Islamabad would launch a counter-narrative.
The ‘dossier’ unveiled at a Press conference by foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and he military spokesperson Maj Gen Babar Iftikhar in Islamabad was Moeed Yusuf’s first step to make an attempt to change the narrative.
By all indications, a Pakistan watcher in New Delhi said, the dossier, which regurgitated old allegations, was a rush job. It had got spellings of Indian intelligence chiefs accused of fomenting trouble in Pakistan wrong. Some basics too.
“The entire dossier is full of such howlers,” he said. “From the estimates of economic costs of terrorism ($126 billion) to reports of terror training camps in India and Afghanistan, from allegations of a special cell to sabotage China Pakistan Economic Corridor to Indian embassies (high commission) and consulates along Pakistan’s border serving as operations centre, the dossier is full of half-baked, fatuous, and asinine assertions which the Imran Khan government believes constitute ‘irrefutable evidence’,” he said.
It also repeats Moeed Yusuf’s recent charge that attempts to link India to the 2014 terrorist assault on an army school in Peshawar, an attack for which the Taliban had claimed responsibility. The Pakistan army had then claimed to have arrested the main executors of the dastardly attack that killed 141 people including 131 children. In August 2015, then Pakistan Army chief Raheel Sharif had confirmed the death sentence given by military courts to seven members of Tehrik-e-Taliban and Tawhid-wal-Jihad group for supporting and collecting funds for the school attack.
To be sure, this isn’t Pakistan’s first effort to tarnish India’s reputation and acquiring some sort of parity with New Delhi by levelling charges of sponsoring terrorism. Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in 2017, did make the effort when she called India the mother of terrorism in south India and accused New Delhi of “indulging in an orgy of slander against Pakistan”. But that campaign sank without a trace.
Indian counter-terror officials said there were four possible explanations why the Imran Khan government decided to amp up its pitch against India at this time.
A counter-terror official said the attempt to put the spotlight on India comes at a time Imran Khan is under tremendous pressure from a resurgent opposition, and economic distress, continuing drift in governance and an economy drowning in debt. Desperate to get the opposition to call off their anti-regime programme, the government has resorted to the time-tested India bogey. Moeed Yusuf did tacitly admit that the government wants the opposition to understand the sensitivity of the matter and not politicise things to a point that India can take advantage.
Secondly, officials said, this was a ploy to divert attention from the rigging that was planned in the Pakistan-occupied Gilgit Baltistan. The India threat could help both shift focus as well as be used as a bogey to contain any fallout of the rigging. Pakistan Peoples Party chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has already accused Imran Khan’s party of carrying out “open and naked rigging” in Gilgit-Baltistan’s elections.
Thirdly, the dossier coincides with the election of the Joe Biden administration in the United States. An official said Pakistan timed the dossier to persuade the in-coming administration that it needs to play a more even-handed role in the region and force India to desist from taking any aggressive action against Pakistani adventurism and export of terrorism.
Fourthly, it would help target and tarnish opposition leaders such as Nawaz Sharif who have been accused of being soft on India and wanting to normalise relations with India.
The dossier is aimed as much at the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’ constituency back home as the international community, a national security planner in New Delhi said. It is a gamble but could backfire on Imran Khan if the campaign collapses like the last one. Because then he will have to explain why he couldn’t sell its narrative to the people and the world.