Issue of relevance

July 06, 2017


ALTAF Hussain may have successfully resisted everything the British police could throw at him, but his increasing irrelevance in Karachi has left him looking for friends in powerful places.

MQM London has recently organised a series of meetings in Washington with Altaf Hussain’s current favourite, Nadeem Nusrat, meeting prominent political figures including former presidential hopeful, Senator John McCain, Californian Congressman Dana Rohrabacher and Congressman Ted Poe of Texas. In a speech to Congress, Poe indicated that he had also received a letter from the World Mohajir Congress, which he put onto the congressional record.

“Pakistan army and intelligence agency ISI,” the letter said, “is mainly using this military aid — American military aid — to kill innocent Mohajirs, Baloch, and Pashtoons. The double game of Pakistan’s security establishment with U.S. administration must come to an end, which has put lives of US and NATO soldiers in danger in Afghanistan.”

Some US politicians are listening to Altaf’s MQM.

It may not be the first time the MQM has tried to make this pitch in Washington but some US politicians are listening. “Pakistan is no friend of the US,” said Congressman Poe, “They are on the wrong side of the war on terror.” Poe has also introduced a bill calling for an end to Pakistan’s status as a major non-Nato ally.

Nadeem Nusrat’s encounter with Dana Rohrabacher took the form of a three-hour dinner. After chairing a congressional hearing on Balochistan in 2012, Rohrabacher introduced a resolution in the US House of Representatives calling on Pakistan to recognise the right of the Baloch to self-determination.

For years, US officials have, in private, seethed about American troops in Afghanistan being killed by violent jihadis who find sanctuary in Pakistan. And with yet another US surge in Afghanistan now a possibility, the issue of Pakistan’s stance is bound to re-emerge. In the past, despite occasional public outbursts of anger, the US has kept its aid flows to Pakistan intact.

Even if Pakistan was considered a most unreliable ally, its geostrategic importance meant Washington believed it had little choice but to maintain relations with Islamabad. US officials lived in the hope that they would eventually get results from applying pressure on Pakistan to ‘do more’ about the violent jihadists.

This time Altaf Hussain’s diplomatic initiative comes as President Trump’s White House is considering a sharp change in the American attitude towards Pakistan. Mr Trump has appointed Pakistan experts who have gone on record criticising the alleged ISI sponsorship of violent jihadis.

Lisa Curtis, now senior director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council, has contributed to reports that have suggested that if Pakistan fails to make a clear break with groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, it should be considered a state sponsor of terrorism.

The emerging Trump administration policy on Pakistan reflects the good relationship between the American President and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Mr Trump may have flattered Nawaz Sharif in the two leaders’ first telephone call, but few doubt he has much more in common with fellow nationalist Narendra Modi. It is little surprise that the MQM’s outreach to American politicians was widely covered in the Indian press. The PTI agency, the Economic Times and the Indian Express all picked up the story. 

The Times of India also wrote about the meetings, focusing on Nusrat’s session with Senator John McCain. “The MQM leader asked questions regarding the US military aid to Pakistan despite its close ties with the Haqqani Network, the Afghan Taliban and gross human rights violations by Pakistan army in Karachi and Balochistan,” the paper said, quoting an MQM statement. Senator McCain said the US was concerned about Pakistan’s ties with the Haqqani network, adding that the ISI should cut its links with such groups. Since then, Senator McCain has visited North Waziristan and praised the Pakistan Army. But he also stuck to his insistence that more be done about the Haqqani network.

Which brings us back to the MQM. As his authority in Karachi weakens Altaf Hussain knows he has to stay relevant. The various investigations into the MQM in London mean that even if the British state has protected him, UK officials are now much more cautious in their dealings with the party — which leaves the United States, a country with a long history of backing groups that are pretty marginal in their home countries but who know how to say the right things in Washington.

The key issue now is what line Trump takes on Pakistan. Six months into his administration that policy is still being determined and the MQM is doing its best to get its voice into the debate.

The writer is a British journalist and author of Pakistan: Eye of the Storm.

Published in Dawn, July 6th, 2017