GUJRANWALA, Pakistan (AP) — Terror attacks in Pakistan plummeted by more than 85% over the past decade. It's a welcome statistic for the country, but one that risks being overshadowed by international concern about its efforts to curb terror funding and lingering militant activity that could test any future peace agreement in neighboring Afghanistan.
The tally, put together by Pakistani think tanks, found terror attacks dropped from nearly 2,000 in 2009 to fewer than 250 in 2019, a decline that underscores the long-haul nature of fighting terror.
But a Paris-based international watchdog said in October that Pakistan was not doing enough to stop terror financing. The group meets in February to decide whether the country should be downgraded from a "gray" status to "black," alongside Iran and North Korea, a step that could pose a challenge to Pakistan's economy.
Pakistan's militant groups are often interlinked with those across the border in Afghanistan, so its progress at reining in terror is critical, particularly as Washington seeks to secure a deal with the Afghan Taliban to bring an end to the 18-year war, America's longest.
"The sharp decrease in terrorist violence, which we began to see in 2014, is nothing short of remarkable," said Michael Kugelman, Asia Program Deputy Director at the Washington-based Wilson Center. But he cautioned, "Pakistan is certainly not out of the woods yet."
Last year, the Financial Action Task Force, or FATF, the watchdog that monitors terror financing, said Pakistan had fully implemented only one item from a list of 40 measures to curb terror financing and money laundering. The other 39 measures were either partially implemented or overlooked entirely.
If Pakistan is blacklisted, every financial transaction would be closely scrutinized, and doing business with the country would become costly and cumbersome. Pakistani officials say they are working to meet the task force's demands and expect to avoid a blacklisting at the crucial meeting in Paris in February.
This month Pakistan's economic affairs minister held a preliminary meeting with an FATF regional affiliate to make a case for removal from the gray list.
Pakistan's military and intelligence have long been accused by Washington, and by Pakistan's neighbors, of supporting some terrorists while attacking others. Over the past two decades, successive U.S. administrations have pressed Islamabad to crack down on terror. Pakistan cites its more than 4,000 military casualties since the 2001 start of the so-called war on terror — higher than the U.S. and NATO deaths combined — as proof of its commitment.
Over the past decade, Pakistan has been home to an array of militant groups with multiple and sometimes overlapping motives. Some have targeted the government or unleashed horrific bombings and attacks on the country's religious minorities. Others are connected to anti-U.S. organizations in Afghanistan or have focused their attacks on Pakistan's historic rival India, particularly in the disputed region of Kashmir.
Since early last year, Pakistan has banned 66 organizations declared as terrorist or terrorist-supporting groups and listed an estimated 7,600 people under its anti-terrorism act.
In a surprisingly tough ruling, a court last week handed prison sentences of more than 55 years to dozens of extremists who destroyed cars and storefronts protesting the acquittal of a Christian woman on blasphemy charges.
Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan promised "zero tolerance" for extremists after several attacked a Sikh shrine this month in southern Punjab province.
Yet extremist groups and ideologies still find fertile ground in Pakistan.
Pakistan-based organizations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba or Jaish-e-Mohammed, which claimed responsibility for a suicide attack last year in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir, have been banned only to be resurrected under new names.
"Radicalization and terrorism remain very real threats, even if the main perpetrators of terror have become shadows of their former selves," Kugelman said.
Amir Rana, executive director of the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, one of the groups that released a report on the decreasing attacks, said the decline was indicative of the long-haul nature of fighting terror and those who perpetrate it. He said it involves years of surveillance, military counterterrorism offensives and a counterterrorism strategy that seeks to identify and curb funding.
Still, Pakistan has a way to go in making the institutional changes necessary to curb terror financing and the militant groups still operating, Rana said. Fewer than 1% of Pakistanis pay taxes, revenues are routinely undocumented and hawala system of informally sending money around the globe still flourishes, all of which bedevils efforts to curtail terror financing.
Pakistan's success in tackling terror is essential amid U.S. attempts to wind down the war in Afghanistan and withdraw troops.
President Trump has repeatedly expressed a desire to bring home the roughly 13,000 U.S. soldiers still in Afghanistan and in November gave his peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, the go-ahead to resume talks with the Taliban. Last week, the insurgent group handed Khalilzad a seven- to 10-day ceasefire offer, which could pave the way for U.S. troops to withdraw and jumpstart peace negotiations between Afghans on both sides of the conflict.
Khalilzad said previously that any agreement will require the Taliban to abandon terror groups such as al-Qaida with which they have longstanding ties that some analysts say could prove difficult to sever.
Links still bind the militant groups operating between Pakistan and Afghanistan, according to Abdullah Khan, of the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies, which also released a report documenting the declining attacks in Pakistan.
Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent, which emerged in 2014 as a rival to the Islamic State affiliate that set up shop in Afghanistan the same year, might be vastly degraded, yet still has cells in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, as does ISIS.
This month 15 people, including a police official tracking militants, died in an attack on a mosque in Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province, for which the ISIS affiliate claimed responsibility.
In December police raided the safe house of a cell of al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent that had just moved into the Punjab city of Gujranwala from the southern port city of Karachi. They discovered a trove of documents, weapons and propaganda.
A police charge sheet seen by The Associated Press said the five men who were arrested "possessed weapons, suicide jackets, hate material, laptop, printing machine, printing material etc. and funds and receipts to achieve al-Qaida's organizational objectives."
The police document said the cell was sending money to al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent's branch in Afghanistan.
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