Dangerous Liaisons

Pakistan, India and Lashkar-e Taiba

by Graham Usher | published December 31, 2008

For more on radical Islamists in Pakistan, see Graham Usher, “The Pakistan Taliban,” Middle East Report Online, February 13, 2007.

See also Kamran Asdar Ali, “Pakistani Islamists Gamble on the General,” Middle East Report 231 (Summer 2004). Order the issue online.

The day after Christmas, the wires buzzed with reports that Pakistan was moving 20,000 troops from its western border with Afghanistan to locations near the eastern border with India. The redeployment, said Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Qureshi, came in response to “certain developments” on the Indian side of the boundary, one reportedly being that New Delhi might be considering military strikes on militant bases inside Pakistan. Pakistani security officials stressed that these moves were “minimum defensive measures”: No soldiers had been taken away from the theater of counterinsurgency operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, only from “snowbound areas” where the army sits idle. Still, the troop transfers marked another dip in relations between India and Pakistan since the November 26 massacre of over 170 people in the Indian metropolis of Mumbai.

New Delhi avers that the ten known Mumbai gunmen were Pakistani. Washington and London say the ten were recruited and trained in Pakistan, and then dispatched to India, by Lashkar-e Taiba, a banned Pakistani group active mostly in Indian-occupied Kashmir. Lashkar-e Taiba denies the charge. The Pakistani government says any evidence shared with the US and Britain should be shared with Islamabad as well, as part of a joint Pakistani-Indian probe into the killings. Pakistan should act first, answers New Delhi. It believes an urban guerrilla assault as polished as that in Mumbai could not have happened without the input of Pakistani army officers and/or agents of the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), “rogue,” “former” or otherwise.

To test Islamabad’s mettle -- and sever or expose any ISI “link” to militancy -- India demands that all Lashkar bases in Pakistan and Pakistani-occupied Kashmir be “dismantled.” It also calls for action on ten outstanding cases where militants have allegedly launched attacks upon India from Pakistani soil and the prosecution, imprisonment or extradition of 40 Pakistanis and Indians wanted by India for “terrorism.” Until at least some of these demands are met, India is unlikely to share intelligence with Pakistan. “How can you give evidence to those you think have attacked you?” asks an Indian government official.

Pakistan has responded, in increments. It raided an alleged Lashkar camp in Pakistani-held Kashmir on December 7 and banned Jamaat ud-Dawa -- Lashkar’s supposed civilian arm -- after its designation as a “terrorist organization” by the United Nations. India’s other demands are impossible, says a Pakistani source. “We told the Americans -- and through the Americans, India -- that we can prosecute Pakistanis involved in Mumbai. But we cannot extradite Pakistani suspects to India.”

Washington apparently agrees. It wants prosecution of Pakistanis said to be connected to the Mumbai attacks, including Jamaat ud-Dawa “emir” Hafiz Saeed, currently under house arrest in Lahore. But Pakistani action to date has satisfied no one. In the December 7 raid, Pakistan supposedly picked up Zaki ur-Rahman Lakhvi and Zarrar Shah, two Lashkar commanders who India says orchestrated the mayhem in Mumbai. They have since vanished. And Saeed says he will be freed once he appeals to a higher court. “It will rule that Jamaat ud-Dawa is an Islamic charity unconnected to Lashkar-e Taiba,” he says.

This is why India should share evidence with Pakistan, says President Asif Zardari. Privately, he has told “allies” that he cannot move against Lashkar or Jamaat ud-Dawa without the support of the army and the increasingly nationalist opposition in Parliament. And the Pakistani army (and even more the ISI) may be reluctant to act against a group it has historically deemed an “asset” at the diktat of a state it has historically defined as an “enemy.” Nor will an Indian troop buildup on the border alter behavior in Pakistan. It simply binds the military-militant nexus tighter.

The only way the army may give up its use of “non-state actors” to pursue state policies is when it sees groups like Lashkar as a greater threat to Pakistan’s security than India. And for that to happen it is not only the army that must end a policy of dangerous liaisons; India must as well.

Lashkar-e Taiba

Lashkar-e Taiba was founded in the late 1980s as the armed wing of Markaz ud-Dawa wal-Irshad, the original name of Hafiz Saeed’s Islamist organization. Soon after its founding, Lashkar was enlisted to help fight Pakistan’s “plausibly deniable” proxy wars, first in Afghanistan and then in Kashmir, the Himalayan territory claimed by both Pakistan and India since partition and the cause of two of their three wars. Over the last two decades, Lashkar has earned notoriety as the most lethal group fighting in Kashmir, at one time claiming 50,000 men under its command. In December 2001, New Delhi blamed Lashkar for an attack on the Indian parliament, the last time South Asia’s two nuclear-armed states came to the brink of war. The attack -- and India’s charge -- compelled Pakistan and the US to ban Lashkar. After a few months, Markaz ud-Dawa wal-Irshad was reincarnated as Jamaat ud-Dawa, a social welfare organization that Saeed insists has no ties to Lashkar.

Lashkar subscribes to the Ahl-e Hadith school, an austere strain of South Asian Sunni Islam that, like Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, advocates a literal reading of Islamic texts. It assumed its modern shape at the hands of ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam, co-founder of Markaz ud-Dawa wal-Irshad, a mentor to Osama bin Laden and a man recognized as one of the major theorists of militant Islam. In the crucible of the Afghan war against Soviet occupation, ‘Azzam instilled in Saeed and the other Lashkar founders a zeal for “the lost science and art of jihad,” says Pakistani analyst Hassan Abbas. And Saeed applied his zeal to South Asia, not only Muslim-majority Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir, but also those Muslim-minority areas of south-central India that once fell under the writ of the Mughal empire. He told a Lashkar rally in Lahore in 1999: “We will not rest until the whole [of] India is dissolved into Pakistan.”

Saeed’s hostility to “Hindu” India is not only ideological. Born into a conservative Muslim household, he lost 36 family members in the communal slaughter that accompanied partition. “India has shown us the path,” he once said. Such antagonism chimed with the ISI’s regional policies. The spymasters, too, sought to “bleed India by a thousand cuts,” a phrase attributed to the 1980s dictator Zia ul Haq, if not to “dissolve India into Pakistan,” then to force India to cede Kashmir to Pakistan.

There were other reasons why Lashkar-e Taiba became the preferred ISI proxy. Unlike the Taliban -- for whom modernity is anathema -- Lashkar believes that fulfillment of the duty of jihad comes through advanced scientific knowledge as well as military prowess. A visit to Muridke, Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s “educational complex” near Lahore, shows the difference. There are classes of boys (and girls) reciting the Qur’an. But there are also students working in physics, chemistry and computer laboratories. These are not the poor who flock to Taliban seminaries in return for bed, board and faith. They are scions of Pakistan’s urban middle class -- the educated elite.

In Muridke -- at least when foreign journalists visit -- references to jihad are muted. Not so in Pakistan’s southern Punjab belt bordering India, Lashkar’s historical stomping ground. There one can find villages plastered with Jamaat ud-Dawa and Lashkar graffiti proclaiming jihad to “free Kashmir.” At a funeral in Bahawalpur in the summer of 2008, a Jamaat ud-Dawa preacher eulogized “60 martyrs” from the district, mostly killed in Kashmir. Such proselytizing could not happen without the authorities’ knowledge, but is it encouraged or tolerated on the basis of Jamaat ud-Dawa’s erstwhile status as a charity?

In the 1990s, it was encouraged. Lashkar had recruitment centers in every city in Pakistan, overseen by the ISI. In 1999 Lashkar guerillas fought alongside Pakistani soldiers on the Kargil heights in Indian-held Kashmir, the last time the two armies tried to force a resolution of the conflict. In the same year Saeed welcomed the coup of Gen. Pervez Musharraf against the elected government of Nawaz Sharif. Dictatorship is closer to the “pure Islamic state” than the “corruption” spread by democracy, he said, according to a Jamaat ud-Dawa source.

Relations cooled after the attack on the Indian parliament. Musharraf banned several “jihadi” groups, Lashkar among them. Funds dried up and 12,000 fighters were demobilized in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. Six divisions of the army (80,000 to 100,000 soldiers) were moved from the eastern border with India to the western border with Afghanistan, where Pakistan was battling an indigenous insurgency led by the Pakistan Taliban. As Pakistani-Indian relations improved from a state of near war to, in 2004, a peace process, what had seemed to be a tactical feint by Pakistan started to look like a shift in strategy. “Under Musharraf the army moved from a position of hostility to India to one similar to the pro-peace policies of the Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto governments,” said an Indian official. “He helped create a Pakistani consensus.”

But war by proxy was not abandoned altogether, particularly for “pro-Pakistan” groups like Lashkar-e Taiba. Its camps on the frontiers were moved inland or camouflaged as Jamaat ud-Dawa “centers.” Its cadre was also encouraged to diversify, becoming Jamaat ud-Dawa “social workers” rather than Lashkar mujahideen.

This transformation was not simply a “front” for continued Lashkar militancy, as it is often called. Jamaat ud-Dawa runs schools, hospitals and ambulance services in 73 Pakistani cities. In 2007 it tended 6,000 patients, taught 35,000 students and administered 800,000 hepatitis vaccinations, says Saeed. “When it comes to social welfare Jamaat ud-Dawa’s model is Hizballah and Hamas,” says Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistani analyst.

Jamaat ud-Dawa’s most public endeavor occurred after the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, when Lashkar fighters emerged from their lairs in the mountains to serve the wounded. Musharraf praised them as “exemplary humanitarian outfits,” in the words of Pakistani analyst Ilyas Khan. So did US officials, who were impressed by Jamaat ud-Dawa’s “state-of-the-art” field hospitals, until they were informed that the facilities were run by a “terrorist front.” Nudged by India on the alleged link to Lashkar, the US blacklisted Jamaat ud-Dawa in 2006. When confronted with the fact the jihadis had not been demobbed but rejobbed, a Pakistani general was unapologetic: “We won’t disband them. If we did, Kashmir would go cold and India will bury it forever.”

Kashmir has heated up since. Indian monitors say there have been 41 militant infractions across the Line of Control separating Pakistani- from Indian-controlled Kashmir in 2008, an escalation they say must have been directed by the ISI since it came between the close of Musharraf’s military regime and the election of Pakistan’s civilian government in February. Far from preventing the incursions, the Pakistani army provided “covering fire” to the infiltrators, say the Indians. The army denies this. It cites Indian figures showing a 40 percent drop in violence in Indian-held Kashmir in 2008, and the lowest total of incidents in 20 years.

Indian analysts also accept there was no Pakistani prompting for the mass protests that rocked Indian-controlled Kashmir in the summer. These demonstrations were caused by indigenous Muslim alienation from Indian rule. Nor did they follow a Pakistani script: The protesters demanded independence not only from New Delhi but also from Islamabad, and, in contrast to Lashkar, which believes that “military jihad” is the path to Kashmir’s reintegration with Pakistan, they were non-violent, even though more than 50 of them were shot dead by the Indian army.

If the ISI has loosened the lid on Lashkar-e Taiba, it is not because of Kashmir. It is because of Afghanistan.

The Army’s Worries

Islamabad has been worried by India’s influence in Afghanistan ever since the fall of the “pro-Pakistan” Taliban regime in 2001. Pakistani officers point out the Afghan government’s fledgling military is “disproportionately” staffed by officers from the “pro-India” Northern Alliance, the erstwhile Afghan coalition that, with the US, drove the Taliban from power. But worry has become paranoia. In the last year, India has drawn closer to two states the Pakistani army deems hostile to its interests in Afghanistan: Iran and the US.

India denies any mischief. “Our main activity in Afghanistan is building roads,” says an Indian official. That is so. Together with Iran, India is currently laying a road network that, when complete, will circumvent landlocked Afghanistan’s need to use Pakistani ports on the Arabian Sea, outlets Islamabad deems vital to its economic future.

New Delhi is also exerting influence on US policy in Afghanistan, alleges the army. Two examples are cited. One is Washington’s endorsement of India’s claim of ISI involvement in the bombing of its Kabul embassy in July. The ISI pleaded not guilty. But since then the CIA has all but refused to share intelligence with the Pakistani agency, including for operations on the Pakistani-Afghan border. “It fears we will pass any information to the Afghan Taliban,” says a Pakistani officer. The other piece of evidence is President George W. Bush’s decree in July that US Special Forces could enter Pakistani territory in pursuit of al-Qaeda and Taliban fugitives without the approval of the Pakistani government. There have since been 23 US aerial strikes and one ground assault, together killing more than 100 people. The CIA says it is targeting bases whence Taliban fighters are dispatched to Afghanistan and where al-Qaeda is “plotting the next 9/11.” It also says it has a “tacit” agreement about the strikes with Pakistan.

The Pakistani government denies this. The army says the strikes are violations of Pakistani sovereignty and “completely counterproductive” in view of its attempts to rally local tribes against the militants on the Pakistani-Afghan border. And it sees India’s fingerprints all over the US missiles.

To what end would India be meddling in Afghanistan? Two scenarios are bruited by the army. The milder of the two is that India and the Afghan government wish to create such ferment in the borderlands that the CIA and NATO will invade them, wresting back Pashtun territories long claimed by governments in Kabul (which have never recognized the legitimacy of Pakistan’s western border). The worse scenario is that the US and its regional allies actually aim to dismember Pakistan as the world’s only Muslim nuclear state. “India thinks a fragmented Pakistan would reduce the threat level,” says an officer. “The more I talk to the establishment, the more I’m convinced fear and hatred of India is growing,” says a Pakistani analyst. “And now it’s India with America.”

A Regional Solution

Does all this mean that the ISI was behind what happened in Mumbai? Although Indian security officials have claimed as much, the US says there is no evidence to support the charge. Pakistani historian and author Ahmed Rashid has charted the ISI’s liaisons with militant groups in Afghanistan and Kashmir. But he, too, thinks official Pakistani involvement is unlikely. Although many Lashkar cadres accepted the army’s decision in 2004 to wind down the “Kashmiri jihad,” he says, others did not. And these “youngest and most radicalized members joined up with al-Qaeda and the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan. They embraced the global jihad to fight US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and later attacked the Pakistan government.” These are the likeliest suspects in the Mumbai massacres, says Rashid. “In my opinion, [the Mumbai operation was] an al-Qaeda-planned attack using local surrogates to relieve pressure on them in the tribal areas. What better way than to create a conflict between India and Pakistan?”

Other Pakistani analysts agree. Lashkar is no longer just a Pakistani outfit, they say. It has transnational reach, with cells in Indian-held Kashmir, India and Bangladesh. It acts autonomously. And while India has played up the Pakistani origins of the gunmen, it is inconceivable that the Mumbai attacks could have transpired without backup from indigenous forces, Islamist or criminal or both. The devastation wrought in Mumbai is also beyond anything the ISI would have planned or desired, says a Pakistani security analyst. “It may be that Mumbai has a Pakistani militant connection. But it is also quite clear most active militant groups are no longer under the control of Pakistan’s security apparatus.”

What the Mumbai events do underscore is the recklessness of Pakistan’s long-standing policy of permitting militant groups free rein. This is why many Pakistanis hope there will be a serious move against groups like Lashkar-e Taiba. But they also know that the army is unlikely to give up the use of proxies unless what it defines as Pakistan’s security concerns are addressed: In Afghanistan, addressing Pakistani concerns means recognition by the Afghan government of Pakistan’s western border, and acceptance by the US that all operations within Pakistan are the right of the Pakistani army alone. With India, it means serious negotiations to resolve the conflict over Kashmir.

But there is little use in India appealing to Washington to practice coercive diplomacy with Islamabad. In many ways, recent US policy has aggravated the sores that linger in Indian-Pakistani relations. It was the Bush administration’s nuclear agreement with India that convinced the army that New Delhi was now the “strategic partner” of the US in the region, with Islamabad merely a hired gun for the fight with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. And if India is considering “surgical” strikes inside Pakistan, it may be because it sees the US doing the same with impunity. There could be no more fatal equation. “India is not the United States,” says analyst and retired Gen. Talat Masood simply. The Pakistani army would respond to any Indian strike.

A better approach would be recognition that Afghanistan and Kashmir are regional problems requiring regional solutions—and that there are no regional solutions without India, Pakistan and Iran. “We must steer an independent policy toward Iran as a factor of regional stability…. [And] India must eventually resume the arduous search to make Pakistan a stakeholder in good neighborly relations. The US factor complicates this search, which is best undertaken bilaterally,” says M. K. Bhadrakumar, a former Indian ambassador and Ministry of External Affairs insider.

There could be no better response to the terror in Mumbai than a common front of India, Iran and Pakistan against those who would fragment the region by religion or rule it by division.

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