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Pakistan says it is on the road to major change, but few are fully persuaded

Pakistan says it is on the road to major change, but few are fully persuaded
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By Martin Howell

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Something very significant is under way in Pakistan, the government in Islamabad would like you to believe.

A small group of foreign journalists, Reuters correspondents included, was given Pakistan's new narrative by Prime Minister Imran Khan, its army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and other top government officials and generals during a visit to the country earlier this month.

Some of the comments of the officials were for publication, others were not, but the message remained consistent.

In summary, Pakistan says it is tired of conflict, opposed to extremism, open for peace talks and clamping down on corruption. It also insists it is run by politicians, with the military partnering rather than dominating.

That all sounds good. There is just one problem – around much of the world many with a close understanding of the situation remain highly sceptical.

In New Delhi, the view even beyond the more hawkish elements in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government is that the world has seen and heard these kinds of promises before, only for Pakistan-backed Islamist groups to attack India. That is just what India says happened on Feb. 14, when a suicide bombing killed 40 paramilitary police in India-controlled Kashmir and brought the two nuclear powers close to war.

This was underlined by comments to Reuters from Indian foreign ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar for this article.

"Pakistan should take immediate, credible, irreversible and verifiable action against terrorists and terror organisations operating from territories under its control," he said.

"Pakistan follows an identical script after every terror attack in India where 'action' is taken to deflect the international pressure before returning to the normal situation of providing support and sanctuary to terror groups in the territories under their control."

Certainly, Pakistan's positive talk has no chance of resonating in India while Modi's ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party continues to stir up patriotic fervour during the nation's 39-day general election, which ends May 19. Votes are counted May 23.

NEEDING FRIENDS

Islamabad urgently needs friends.

Pakistani officials say India has been lobbying to get it put on the blacklist of the Financial Action Task Force, which monitors whether countries are doing enough to prevent money laundering and terrorism financing. If that happened it could lead to sanctions, cripple Pakistan's banking relations and badly hurt its trade.

The country is also close to securing its 13th bailout by the International Monetary Fund since the 1980s as it tries to tackle large budget and current account deficits, and faces a soaring inflation rate triggered by high oil prices and a weak Pakistani rupee.

But Pakistani officials claim the changes they are talking about are much more than a cosmetic makeover to head off the IMF.

Khan's government says it is suing for peace on all fronts.

In Afghanistan, Islamabad has been key in getting the Taliban around the table for talks with the Americans.

And Khan, in the face of rising tensions following bloody attacks by militant groups, visited Tehran and agreed last week to set up a joint rapid reaction force for the border area with Iran.

Since taking office in August, Khan has also consistently offered talks with Modi, and Pakistani officials are hopeful that the Indian leader will eventually say yes if he wins a second term in office.

NORTHERN IRELAND LESSONS

The Pakistan authorities insist they are cracking down on armed militant groups on its soil, saying extremism is the biggest threat it faces. Officials talk of a Northern Ireland-style peace and disarmament process, plus state regulation of the 32,000 madrasas, or Islamic schools, in the country that can easily become breeding grounds for militants.

"For the future of the country - forget outside pressure - we will not allow armed militias to operate," Khan told the journalists. And the government has "the total support of the Pakistani army and intelligence services in dismantling them", he added.

Not only that, but its military chiefs insist they report to the prime minister - rather than the other way around as is often assumed by foreign diplomats and the media.

The military chiefs say they want to bring 100 million Pakistanis out of grinding poverty, and that engineering a big increase in spending on education is critical to that.

During the trip, the journalists were taken to an impressively modern-looking army school complex and, separately, a rehabilitation centre for teenagers showing militant tendencies. Those were both in the Swat Valley, which was overrun by the Taliban and other militant groups only 11 years ago.

The image of unity, though, was shaken only a few days after the trip when Khan announced a major reshuffle of his cabinet, including the replacement of his finance minister Asad Umar, who had been at the helm of the IMF talks, and the appointment of retired Brigadier Ijaz Shah as Pakistan's new interior minister. Shah, a former spy chief and close ally of the country's last military ruler, has long been accused of deep ties to militant groups.

Given such moves, it isn't difficult to find specialists in Pakistan policy who still believe that the army pulls the strings. A senior security source in Pakistan told Reuters the government was taking "no serious action" against anti-India militant groups.

"The cabinet shuffle in Pakistan is a setback for the image of 'new' Pakistan," said TCA Raghavan, who was India's high commissioner in Pakistan in 2013-2015. "It shows an inability to carry even the cabinet along on the economy."

He also said the appointment of Shah was a setback for any reset. "Poachers don't turn gamekeepers easily," he said.

Shah's office did not respond to a request for comment, but in an interview with the BBC after his appointment he said he was a civilian politician who retired from the army a long time ago.

One other ministerial change was the moving of information minister Fawad Chaudhry to the less high-profile post of science and technology minister.

It was Chaudhry who had been the journalists' main guide for the visit.

So, if it really is transforming, Pakistan clearly has a lot of convincing still to do. One trip for foreign journalists is only a start.

(Reporting by Martin Howell; Additional reporting by Saad Sayeed and Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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