The government has taken the first step in fulfilling its promise of retrieving what it claims is over $200 billion in stolen money from Pakistan stashed in offshore bank accounts. This might be a noble pursuit but the question is whether the current government will be able to achieve what NAB and FIA have been unable to in the last two decades. For starters, the first cabinet meeting has revised the estimate of how much stolen money it will bring back – from $200 billion to Rs80 billion, or under $0.8 billion. The revised estimate is less than 0.8 percent of the claims that were being made in the election campaign, and could be taken to understand that the ‘promise’ has already been broken.
The reality was that the $200 billion was always a controversial figure which had little to no basis in any concrete data, since none was available. This should have meant that the first task was to establish how much money has actually been laundered out of the country. This would require Pakistan to sign new banking treaties as well as enforcing the ones the PML-N signed in its last two years in power. The government’s own adviser on the matter, Shahzad Akbar, has refused to promise a timeline – and for good reason. Securing international cooperation has remained a challenge.
With a high-powered task force in place which includes NAB, FIA, FBR and intelligence agencies, one would think that they are up to the task. But the failure of a similarly constituted JIT in the Sharif family case to find any evidence of money laundering in half a year does not bode well. What new tools will be available to this committee to ensure that it will be able to obtain the information and evidence it needs? Currently, it seems the only new tool to be introduced is whistle-blowing. Informers will be given an astonishing 20 percent of the looted wealth recovered. The rule apparently already exists in the rule book but has not been invoked.
The amount on offer for whistle-blowers is questionable on many accounts. How can a portion of illegal money be handed over to another individual? The mere fact that the government is able to gather evidence of the offshore accounts of a certain Pakistani also does not mean that the full amount will return to the country. In all likelihood, all that will be possible is to impose fines and taxes – and perhaps make the individual serve jail time. The promise of going after 100 so-called ‘big fish’ will be the important one. If it is fulfilled, there is a chance that the task force will be a success story.