FATF: grace period?

BR Research September 13, 2019

The clock is ticking. Pakistan has now presented its last stand before FATF’s regional body. The finance ministry sounds optimistic as usual. FATF will hold court next month (Oct. 13-18) in Paris, to determine, among other things, whether Pakistan qualifies to be taken off the grey list or taken down to the blacklist. All manner of speculation will grow in the intervening period – and a month can be a long time.

But from what it looks, Pakistan has set itself up for at least a partial reprieve. The country’s FATF conundrum had roots in both technical and political issues. Since the alarm bell was first sounded in February 2018, the country has made much progress in both dimensions. There is strong likelihood that it will be allowed some more months to comply with FATF requirements, without being will downgraded.

Purely on a technical level, given the short timeframe and real difficulties in making progress on FATF’s 27-point action plan, it looks less likely that Pakistan will exit the grey list. There are strong chances, however, of staying on the grey list, and not falling down to the blacklist, given that the trajectory has been of internal improvement (legal and enforcement) and continued multilateral cooperation.

With AML and CFT laws strengthened over the years, FATF’s focus of reforms has been mainly towards investigation, prosecution and conviction on terrorism-financing cases. On that count, unprecedented action has been taken against banned groups – something which even Indian authorities acknowledged in recent months. To mitigate national risks emanating from AML and CFT weaknesses, Pakistan has also engaged consultants from its multilateral partners to level up risk assessment and compliance.

Diplomatically, the key players also have an incentive not to antagonize Pakistan further and to use the grey-list as leverage to drive more changes. The US hawks may not relent, but eventually decide that they can eke out sustained support from Pakistan if the latter remained on the grey list for another year or two. As for India, it would want Pakistan blacklisted, but its self-interest lies in helping Pakistan further improve its TF framework so that India is also less exposed to threats in a volatile region.

Pakistan has already flagged Indian aggression in this matter. In an op-ed for the New York Times published August 30, PM Khan observed that “while I was making peace overtures, India had been lobbying to get Pakistan placed on the “blacklist” at the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force, which could lead to severe economic sanctions and push us toward bankruptcy”. Already scrambling in Kashmir, Modi government could extend Pakistan an olive branch by not creating too much fuss in Paris.

Many a slip between the cup and the lip! A lot could go right or wrong in one month. The biggest curveball – or googlie, in local parley – remains Donald Trump’s tweets. With the Afghan peace talks in doldrums, it isn’t clear to what extent Pakistan will be able to count American blessings in the coming weeks. Be that as it may, Pakistan needs to present its best defence forward next month and score at least a grace period.

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