Pakistan: two questions, multiple realities

A year after the Mumbai attacks, two questions have persisted: was the Inter-Services Intelligence or any other “elements” of the Pakistani state complicit in the attacks? If the ISI, which nurtured the Lashkar-e-Taiba to wage a proxy war in India, has cut itself off from the group as claimed and was not involved in the attack, what stops Pakistan from cracking down effectively on it?

There are no certain replies to these questions, only multiple realities, and how each side perceives and interprets them.

In the weeks after the attacks, the Pakistan government, under immense international pressure and scrutiny, took several steps. A raid on a Lashkar camp at Muzaffarabad led to the arrest of commander Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi. This is possibly also where Abdul Wajid, whose alias has been shown as Zarar Shah, was picked up. Both are the alleged masterminds of the attacks.

Next, it placed Hafiz Saeed, LeT founder and leader of its front organisation, Jamat-ud-dawa, under house arrest. It also detained some 70 JuD activists across the country. In Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province, the government sealed some JuD offices. This came after the designation of the JuD and Hafiz Saeed by the Al Qaeda/Taliban sanctions committee of the U.N. Security Council.

The Punjab government took over the administration of the Muridke campus of the JuD, located 45 km from Lahore, to keep operational some of the welfare activities started by the group.

The government also launched an investigation into the planning of the Mumbai attacks in Pakistan. The probe named the LeT as the group behind the attack. The government made multiple arrests, registered a case and put seven people, including Lakhvi and Abdul Wajid, on trial.

Analysts and officials in Pakistan feel that all this only goes to show that no state “elements” could have been involved in the Mumbai attacks. The government could not have taken any of these actions without the consent of the ISI and the Army. Even the investigation by the Federal Investigating Agency, they say, would not have been possible, but for the assistance provided by intelligence agencies.

There is a real worry within the military and the intelligence agencies, these analysts say, that if there is another attack of a similar nature in India, it could trigger an India-Pakistan at a time when its forces are tied up battling the Taliban on the western borders. This, they say, is a “nightmare scenario” that the Pakistani authorities are trying their best to avoid.

‘Strategic asset’

“Some corners of the establishment may still hold the view that the LeT can be used as a ‘strategic asset,’ but there is a lot of internal thinking on this, lots of questions are being asked internally about this. My information is that in the majority view, they are now seen more as a liability,” said Amir Rana, author of A-Z of Jihad, and head of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies.

But the government’s reluctance to go all the way against the LeT is all too obvious. After six months of house arrest, Hafiz Saeed is a free man, and the government says it cannot act against him unless New Delhi provides “concrete evidence” linking him to the Mumbai attacks. Saeed does keep a lower profile than before, but still leads the Friday prayers at the JuD’s headquarters, Jamia Al Qudsia, at Chaudburji in Lahore.

All the others JuD activists have been released. The organisation has not yet been banned, but now operates under the name of Falah-i-Insaniyat and was noticed in relief operations among the internally displaced from the Swat Valley during the military operations there.

As the arrests of David Headley and Tahawwur Hussain Rana in the U.S. have shown, the LeT also retains operational capabilities. The two men are said to have been in communication with an unnamed LeT operative, and though they were arrested for an alleged terror plot against a Danish newspaper, they were also said to be planning an attack on the National Defence College in New Delhi.

Further, the arrest of a former Major for his links with Headley and Rana are bound to raise questions on the LeT’s continuing links, if not with the military as an institution, but with sections within it, especially because the Major retired only two years ago.

After the attack on the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, the Pakistan military acknowledged, for the first time, that the Pakistani Taliban, which it is battling, had found allies among the Punjab-based jihadi groups — known as anti-India groups, or ‘Kashmiri’ groups that came up with state backing — to carry out terrorist strikes in the heartland of Pakistan.

It is now accepted within the military that Al Qaeda, the Taliban and their allies among the Punjabi jihadis operate as a syndicate. But while the military has included the Jaish-e-Mohammed, along with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Sipah-e-Sahaba, in this syndicate, the Laskhar-e-Taiba is still not considered part of it.

In a background briefing for journalists last month, senior military officials warned against India’s “propaganda” of trying to conflate the LeT with Al Qaeda “for its own ends”.

Even with the Jaish, the extent of the rupture with the establishment is unclear. In a briefing after the GHQ attacks, the military spokesman said it was “splinter groups” and “individuals” who had broken away from the main group and joined up with the Taliban. The implication seemed to be that there was no problem yet with the main group.

Indeed, an October 16 report in The News, which was not denied or contradicted yet, said the military flew down the leadership of the Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Sipah-e-Sahaba to negotiate with the GHQ attackers during the siege. From the JeM, it was Mufti Abdul Rauf, the younger brother of Maulana Masood Azhar and acting Ameer of the group. But jihad-watchers in Pakistan say there are good reasons for the reluctance to go all out against the Punjab-based jihad groups.

Especially with the LeT, one reason widely cited is that the security establishment does not want to risk a backlash from a group that has refrained thus far from anti-Pakistan activities and is still seen as closest to the establishment. The JuD has a network that reaches deep into every tehsil of Punjab, and the military does not want to be forced into opening yet another front in the country’s most stable, prosperous and politically important province.

Arresting Hafiz Saeed is also seen as out of question. It is claimed that it would lead to factionalism within the JuD, and the creation of hard to control “rogue” or splinter groups. In fact, Saeed’s hold over the organisation is already said to have weakened from the time of the 2002 ban on LeT. Even the Mumbai attacks are held to be the handiwork of a “rogue” group.

Plus, analysts say, India’s attitude since the Mumbai attacks has led to a corresponding hardening of anti-India attitudes here, not just within the establishment or government, but also among ordinary people, and any move against Hafiz Saeed or JuD/LeT could set off a political backlash about “appeasing India”.

It seems that the maximum that Pakistan is prepared to do to address Indian concerns is prosecute the seven men, including the LeT commander Lakhvi, who face trial for their suspected involvement in the Mumbai attacks. Those questions, though, will not go away.

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Printable version | Sep 28, 2020 2:18:27 AM |

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