British royals' visit to Pakistan just latest gambit by London to boost curious, cozy relationship with Islamabad, end its isolation

  • in June, British Airways announced its return to Pakistan after a decade, signalIing a vote of confidence in Pakistan

  • UK media was the shrillest in its coverage of the Kashmir issue, with The Independent leading the charge with allegations of mass arrests

  • Then came reports of a quiet British role in encouraging Washington to host Imran Khan for a Washington visit

There are few things more beloved of the formerly enslaved masses of Asia than a royal visit, especially when said royals, especially the female half, are gorgeous and ooze charm. But that’s what the House of Windsor is best known for, as a kind of better styled extension of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, especially these days when the English leadership seems to be more than a bit rough around the edges.

The visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William and Kate Middleton, couldn’t have been better timed for Pakistan, as it awaited the results of the Financial Action Task Force's ( FATF) deliberations in Paris: according to media reports, the body, in principle, decided to keep Pakistan in its Grey List till February 2020, directing Islamabad to take extra measures for complete elimination of terror financing and money laundering.

 British royals visit to Pakistan just latest gambit by London to boost curious, cozy relationship with Islamabad, end its isolation

Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, escorts Prince William and his wife Kate as they arrive at the Nur Khan base in Islamabad, Pakistan. AP

That issue is central to it in not just in terms of prestige, and financial stability, but more importantly in terms of its ability to continue to wage war using a variety of persons sometimes termed as irregulars, and more usually called terrorists by most of the world. It all depends on which side of the gun you’re on.

The UK it seems, it on the right side on that divide.

Forget the Oxford education, the marriage to Jemima Goldsmith, and the general hell raising that Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan did in the UK in the dim past. British education and hell raising is, after all, part of the past of many an aspiring Asian leader. What is interesting that recently, the UK has been working hard to end the isolation of Pakistan.

First, in June, British Airways announced its return to Pakistan after a decade, becoming the first western airline to break the unofficial ban on flights to the terrorist-ridden country. Though it is not exactly among the top airlines, the move signaled a vote of confidence that remains unshared by the rest of the world. That same month, Army chief General Qamad Javed Bajwa was in London, meeting his counterpart as well as civilian leaders. Not every army chief gets to meet bureaucrats.

Then came reports of a quiet British role in encouraging Washington to host Imran for a Washington visit, which eventually fructified in July, leading to a huge boost for the Imran's popularity in the country. That euphoria in turn set the stage for Islamabad’s outrage following New Delhi’s move to abrogate Article 370.

UK media was the shrillest in its coverage of the Kashmir issue, with The Independent leading the charge with allegations of mass arrests and warnings of rape and murder. Reports by The New York Times paled in comparison to this barrage of negative news from even the saner sections of the British press.

Then came the unprecedented riots outside the Indian High Commission in London, when a mob of Pakistanis were allowed to run amok and vandalise property. That in turn became the subject of the first call between Modi and British prime minister Boris Johnson. Presumably assurances were given, but hardly a good start for a new prime minister and UK-India relations.

The furious warnings of war by Pakistani leadership, suicide attacks and bloodbaths is now part of bilateral lore, alongside the repeated use of the phrase ‘false flag operations’ . This was meant to denote that India would attack Pakistan, using a terrorist attack as an excuse. That term is typically of British origin, used to describe operations by the Nazis, and before that by pirates against British ships.

Admittedly it has then migrated across the Pacific, but it is certainly a term atypical of the Pakistani repertoire. Meanwhile the British were all over Pakistan, including in ‘assisting’ the National Counter Terrorism Authority, and in a far more curious instance, were  funding Pakistan’s anti-terrorism civilian courts which handed down death sentences under very doubtful circumstances.

This seemed to be part of a secretive £10 million programme that the government admitted in UK Parliament was a “ joint project of the Department for International Development, Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence, National Crime Agency, Home Office and the Crown Prosecution Service”. The rest of the document is heavily redacted.

Though Pakistan has always had a primary place in the foreign policy of UK as its particular child in South Asian policy, the precise background to all this began several years ago following the train bombings of 2005. With that incident squarely pointing to terrorists trained in Pakistan, British intelligence and related services have been closely cooperating with their counterparts  including the ISI and the Pakistan Army.

Reportage from that period onwards notes suspicions of British policemen having attended training camps, several incidents of ethnic Pakistanis involved in attacks in the UK, and more questionably, the apparent ‘outsourcing’ of interrogation of suspects to the Pakistani spy agency. This was a clear case of rendition, but served to illustrate the extent of  dependence on Pakistan to prevent terrorism.

It also helped that there was a constant to-ing and fro-ing between Pakistan and UK of more than a million ethnic Pakistanis, most of them Mirpuris, who migrated to the UK in the 1960s after they were rendered homeless after the construction of a dam in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir.

A document from the FCO in 2010 notes the enhanced partnership between the two and areas of cooperation including the Pakistan Education Task Force; the Defence Co-operation Forum (DCF), the Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism, Counter Narcotics and Organised Crime (JWG); the Joint Judicial Co-operation Working Group and the Counter-Proliferation Dialogue. It also notes UK ‘influence’ over the US, EU and International Financial Institutions in ensuring assistance to Pakistan.

This rather curious relationship has since flowered further. On 10 October, the UK charged Altaf Hussain with ‘hate speech’, a terrorist offence, related to an address to his supporters in 2016. Altaf, founder of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) has now sadly decayed, but still remains a thorn in Pakistan’s side in terms of the almost devotional loyalty he inspires among Mohajirs in Karachi.

On the other side of the coin, is the Labour Party’s resolution against India on Kashmir, and its leader Jeremy Corbyn’s tweets on the issue. All in all, a rather cosy relationship between a country that still retains a hankering for the days of Empire, and another that is verging on a complete breakdown as a State.

Stranger still is that this relationship is based on the ability of Pakistan to generate terrorism, which the FATF with its British investigators wants to stop, but without which Islamabad would lose its imperial friends. No mistake, it’s a right royal mess when terrorism become a currency of power and influence.

Updated Date: Oct 16, 2019 20:33:13 IST