The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an obscure international watchdog, is meeting in Paris this week and is expected to announce whether Pakistan will remain on the watch list Friday, according to the organization’s spokesman. If Pakistan were to be blacklisted, the country’s financial transactions would be subject to greater scrutiny, a move that could discourage investment and further isolate its struggling economy.
The blacklisting could also complicate Pakistan’s relationship with the United States. The Trump administration has pressured Pakistan to crack down on terrorism within its borders as U.S. negotiators work to finalize a peace deal with the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan that would pave the way for the withdrawal of thousands of American troops.
“Pak Authorities have worked very hard over the months & I feel we have made significant progress” in combating money-laundering and terrorism financing, Hammad Azhar, Pakistan’s minister of economic affairs, said in a statement posted to Twitter in late January.
But some opposition lawmakers say the moves are superficial, and they accuse the United States of overstating Pakistan’s progress in return for the country’s role in encouraging the Taliban to strike a peace deal with Washington.
“Nothing has changed at all,” said Mohsin Dawar, a Pakistani lawmaker and outspoken opposition figure, referring to the progress cited by administration officials.
The last time the monitoring body met, in October, the group said it had “serious concerns with the overall lack of progress by Pakistan” to stop terrorism financing. The FATF said Pakistan addressed only five of 27 measures required to avoid being blacklisted. The only other countries that are blacklisted are North Korea and Iran.
Pakistan was placed on the monitoring body’s “gray list” in June 2018, a designation that weakened the country’s economy. While the FATF has no enforcement powers, its decision bruised Pakistan’s reputation at a time when the country was looking to the international community for loans and foreign investment.
The most high-profile terrorism case Pakistan has tackled in recent months has been that of Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the accused mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks that killed more than 160. This month, Saeed was sentenced to 11 years in prison for financing terrorist operations, a step that even critics of the government acknowledge is positive.
The State Department’s senior South Asia diplomat, Alice Wells, called it “an important step forward . . . for Pakistan in meeting its international commitments to combat terrorist financing,” according to a statement posted to Twitter.
James Schwemlein, a former senior State Department official focused on South Asia, said steps such as the conviction of Saeed constitute progress under the narrow parameters set by the FATF, but he said a key next step would be to watch for more successful prosecutions resulting in convictions “and then the government’s ability to stick with upholding the sentences.”
Following the organization’s last meeting, the FATF directed Pakistani law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute “designated persons and entities, and those acting on behalf or at the direction of the designated persons or entities” involved in the financing of terrorism. The directive was one among a handful of orders specifically related to money laundering and terrorism financing.
But the United States wants Pakistan to do more. The Trump administration has taken a particularly hard line on Pakistan’s alleged support for terrorist organizations. As one U.S. official put it in August, the Trump administration wants to see Pakistan take “consistent and irreversible” steps against terrorism, according to a State Department readout of the briefing. In 2018 the United States suspended military aid to Pakistan in an attempt to force the country to eliminate militant safe havens.
Arrests of prominent terrorists do not constitute “consistent and irreversible” steps because of Pakistan’s history of later releasing the same individuals, according to an American official briefed on U.S. assessments of Pakistan’s fight against terrorism. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
“I think what the U.S. is looking for is for Pakistan to not only arrest militants, arrest their leaders, put the leaders on trial, but also shut down the entire infrastructure of these financing networks,” said Michael Kugelman, a Pakistan expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
The United States wants to see Pakistan “create conditions,” Kugelman said, where militants can’t be easily released after arrest and organizations that were shut down can’t be easily replaced by another group operating under a new name.
“FATF is not the body designed to fix these problems,” said Schwemlein. The international watchdog is designed to verify regulatory shifts and legal changes, not dismantle complex terrorist networks, he said. Schwemlein is now a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Saeed, the high-profile terrorist convicted by Pakistan this month, lived in the country openly for years, despite the offer of $10 million from the United States for information leading to his arrest. He was arrested in July, on the eve of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to the White House.
Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said accusations that the country imprisons terrorists only when it is politically convenient and later allows them to escape are “unfounded, baseless and far from reality,” said Aisha Farooqui, a ministry spokeswoman.
This month, Ehsanullah Ehsan, a notorious Pakistani Taliban member with links to the attempted assassination of education activist Malala Yousafzai, “escaped” Pakistani custody.
Dawar, the opposition politician, pointed to Ehsan’s case as an example of how ineffective the government’s response to terrorism in Pakistan is.
“This was such a high-profile case, if [Ehsan] can escape without any hurdle, just imagine what it’s like for someone with a lower profile,” he said.