The biggest question about Hafiz Saeed’s house arrest isn’t why, but why now?
After all, we’ve been here before.
He was placed under house arrest in December 2008, just days after the Mumbai terror attacks that New Delhi and Washington believe he helped orchestrate. He was detained again in September 2009. In both cases, he was released in relatively short order.
In more recent years, he has essentially lived free in Lahore, holding rallies and hosting journalists, including those from the West.
So why did Pakistani authorities decide to once again place him under house arrest on Monday?
One Pakistani media report points to US pressure, contending that in the last days of the Obama administration, American officials warned Pakistan to rein in Saeed or risk sanctions.
Saeed himself, in a video released shortly after his detention, bizarrely claimed that Pakistan was obliged to act because of US President Donald Trump’s warm relationship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A Saeed spokesman made a similar claim.
Washington, of course, has pushed Pakistan to crack down on Saeed for years, and unsuccessfully so. So it beggars belief to assume that US pressure would suddenly and magically prompt Pakistan to detain Saeed – and particularly at a time when the US-Pakistan relationship appears to be entering a period of drift. Washington is shifting its engagement with New Delhi into overdrive, while Islamabad is cementing its failsafe partnership with Beijing.
It’s also folly to assume the Trump administration was actively pushing Pakistan to move on Saeed. Trump has been in office for less than two weeks, and beyond his rapid-fire issuance of executive orders, his presidency appears frenzied and disorganised – not to mention hamstrung by numerous unfilled senior diplomatic and national security posts.
Bottom line? The Trump administration has too much on its plate to be focusing laser-like on Pakistan.
Enter the dragon
If any external pressure compelled Pakistan to place Saeed under house arrest, it’s more likely to have come from Beijing than Washington.
In a telling yet under-reported development several weeks ago, China’s former consul general in Kolkata published a blog post calling on Beijing to rethink its default policy of blocking Indian attempts to have JM leader Masood Azhar sanctioned by the United Nations.
This all makes good sense when we think about the high stakes of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. For Beijing (as for Islamabad), rapid and sustained progress on this project is a core strategic imperative.
Hafiz Saeed doesn’t pose a direct threat to China, but so long as he walks free he poses a direct threat to India-Pakistan relations.
The last thing China wants as it pushes forward with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is an India-Pakistan relationship on tenterhooks – not to mention on a war footing, as was the case for several weeks last year.
China has long leaned on Pakistan to tackle terror more robustly – and it’s arguably gotten results. Some have speculated that Beijing’s prodding played a role in Pakistan’s decision to launch the Zarb-i-Azb operation.
The anti-state militants targeted in that offensive had not only terrorised Pakistan; they’d also posed a threat to Chinese investments and workers in Pakistan. Chinese pressure may also have helped prompt Pakistan’s Red Mosque offensive.
In short, we should never underestimate China’s leverage in Pakistan, including its ability to get Pakistan to do things it often resists.
And yet the question still remains: Why now? If we assume China influenced Pakistan’s decision to detain Saeed, why didn’t Pakistan act weeks or months ago?
Enter President Trump’s executive order on immigration.
It’s doubtful Trump actively pressured Pakistan to rein in Hafiz Saeed, but it’s likely Pakistan’s detention of Saeed was done with Trump in mind.
We can read the house arrest, at least in part, as an effort by Pakistan to showcase its counterterrorism bonafides to the new US administration, and to dissuade Trump from adding Pakistan to the list of countries that can’t send their citizens to the United States for 90 days. Trump’s chief of staff has suggested Pakistan could be added to the list.
Of course, all this speculating could ultimately be immaterial and Saeed may be released relatively soon.
Unless, that is, China has the ability to get Pakistan to go beyond token gestures when it comes to addressing anti-India militancy, and unless Pakistan chooses to do some big-time signaling to Washington by keeping Saeed in detention for an extended period.
Alas, given Pakistan’s core strategic interests and the value the authorities seem to accord to Saeed as a key asset, I wouldn’t count on either scenario materialising anytime soon.
This article first appeared on Dawn.