Among the many jihadi outfits that were spawned by a malevolent mix of Cold War opportunism and presidential zealotry during the Zia years, the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) has the most intriguing pedigree. Its founding leader Hafiz Saeed was a member of the Council on Islamic Ideology created by Zia. He was a popular lecturer of Islamic studies at the University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore but became increasingly radicalised following a sojourn in Saudi Arabia, where he had been sent by the government for higher studies. The organisation which he founded as Markaz al Dawa al Irshad became the prime organisation for preaching the Salafi (Wahabbi) school of thought in Pakistan and continues to this day to be a formidable force.
The ISI may have been seduced into supporting Saeed’s organisation during the 1990s because of their focused, and somewhat misplaced, stance on the Kashmiri jihad. When doing research on madrassas in Pakistan some years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the enormous complex of the Markaz near Muridke. The sheer scale of the complex with hectares of crop fields, aquaculture ponds, training buildings and schools, surrounded by fortified walls and watch towers suggested some level of state support for the organisation. While international pressure forced the overt training infrastructure to be dismantled, the organisation morphed into Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and continued with its activities. To this day, the Pakistani state and the international community remain unwilling or unable to dismantle the JuD. Yet the existence of the JuD is currently the most significant stumbling block in improving relations between India and Pakistan. There are several reasons for this impasse. First, the JuD has followed the model of Hamas as a militant organisation that also has a very powerful charitable wing. During Pakistan’s recent natural disasters, it mobilised its activists to help people in need and this has won the organisation much grass-roots support. With this, it is extremely difficult to dismantle an organisation and castigate its leadership. For this reason it is impossible to find witnesses to testify against any of the JuD leadership with regard to their connections to particular terrorist acts. Following the dismissal of the case against Hafiz Saeed in the Lahore High Court, Justice Asif Khosa famously said: “In the name of terrorism we cannot brutalise the law.”
Furthermore, as noted by Steven Tankel in his authoritative new book on the LeT titled Storming the World Stage, (Columbia University Press, 2011) Pakistan is so embroiled in a struggle against anti-state jihadis (such as the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan) that it does not have the capacity to deal with all outfits simultaneously. Tankel notes towards the end of his book that “Dismantling Lashkar must be a gradual process in order to avoid provoking a major backlash that could destabilise the country.”
India needs to appreciate this sensitive internal reality within Pakistan and should not make the arrests of JuD officials a prerequisite for substantive movement in the peace process. Indeed, moving forward with a serious peace effort internally within Kashmir, as well as with Pakistan would be the most potent way of eroding the militant strands of the Lashkar.
Targeting the JuD will also not serve much purpose. Indeed, its charitable arm could provide an important means of ‘repatriating’ the jihadis towards more socially beneficial functions once there is comprehensive regional peace. At the same time, it is important for the religious parties to do some soul-searching as well and consider the results achieved by their militancy. With current power differentials and global norms against violent extremism, the Kashmiri jihadis are far more likely to achieve success through non-violent civil disobedience. The Mumbai attacks have done nothing to further the cause of Kashmir. Often Pakistanis blame India for intervention in Balochistan — we need to consider that Indians view us in the same way vis-à-vis Kashmir. Amidst all this, the West has to realise that both India and Pakistan have a nefarious record of covert intervention that is a legacy of the Cold War modus operandi mastered by the US and the Soviets. Instead of futile blame games, there needs to be greater effort made to address the genuine internal grievances of ethnic minorities within both India and Pakistan — such an approach would most directly delegitimise the subcontinent’s vigilante Lashkars.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 20th, 2011.