LAHORE: Over tea in Lahore with the man who some see, wrongly he says, as a spokesman for the Lashkar-e-Taiba, one subject dominates the conversation. It's not jihad, not Kashmir, but the economy.
"The first condition to bring peace in Pakistan is prosperity," said Muhammad Yahya Mujahid, spokesman for the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), the humanitarian wing of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which is banned in Pakistan.
"Already people are being killed by price hikes. In such circumstances, we can't afford bomb blasts."
It is an official line from an organisation blacklisted by the United Nations (UN) over its links, denied by the JuD, to LeT, the militant group blamed by the United States and India for the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai that killed 166 people.
But the choice of subject is nonetheless indicative of the extent to which worries about the economy are gripping Pakistan, where even the military cites these before its old obsessions about India and Kashmir.
Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani has begun to talk about the weakening economy as a security threat, as the country battles a Tehrik-i-Taliban insurgency, rising corruption and chronic power shortages. It needs stability for economic growth.
Mujahid, who denies links with the LeT but was described in a UN blacklist as the head of the LeT's media department with an influential role in its central leadership, said Pakistan must find a way to end the frequent gun and bomb attacks.
"We believe security agencies of Pakistan should control the situation through any means, through negotiations, or any means. It is their duty to find a way for peace and, whatever they think is proper to keep peace in Pakistan, they should do it."
With growth forecast this year at just 2.4% and inflation running at 14% and likely to rise further with increasing oil prices, ordinary citizens are far more likely to worry about the economy than the militants who so preoccupy the United States and the rest of the outside world.
Mujahid, who insisted the JuD severed its links with the LeT in 2001, an assertion security analysts dispute, picked up that theme, echoing a complaint frequently made by Pakistanis when he bemoaned the growing energy crisis:
"You get electricity and petrol cheaper in western societies. People are looking for basics - transport, electricity."
Preaching through welfare
The JuD, which follows an Islamic tradition known as Ahle Hadith -- a purist or Salafist faith whose adherents say they emulate the ways of the companions of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) -- has always stressed the need to help the poor.
It runs schools, hospitals, ambulances and dispensaries and argues like many other Islamic groups that a Muslim society purged of modern evils, from corruption to music, would be both fairer and stronger.
"We believe in preaching through welfare," said Mujahid.
"Pakistan should be a welfare state where people could get every basic necessity of life easily."
But JuD has been inextricably linked to armed jihad since its origins in the campaign against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the purification of society it seeks is meant to make Muslims stronger when fighting their enemies.
Analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, author of a book on the army, said that, far from reining in its old militant proxies, the military was building them up, including by setting up camps in the south of Punjab province and in Sindh province.
"I think they (the army) have over the years developed a strategic dependence on these proxies," she said.
Others argue that it does indeed want to close them down eventually, and ascribe a decision by the authorities to allow JuD/LeT founder Hafez Saeed and others to operate openly as a means of keeping control of the group.
"It now seems that Pakistan is indeed anxious to neutralize and if possible destroy extremist organisations and networks, but can't make up its mind how to do it," said Brian Cloughley, a defence expert who has written two books on the Pakistan army.
Home for armed cadres?
As with everything in Pakistan, the same set of evidence can be given different explanations depending on perspective.
Mujahid was insistent that the JuD and its leader, Hafez Saeed, no longer had links to the LeT.
"It is highly deplorable that people in the media still call me a spokesman of the Lashkar-e-Taiba," he said.
But the fact that the JuD is so active despite its UN blacklisting, its members were visible in relief efforts during last year's devastating floods, is cited by some as proof Pakistan will never act against either it or the LeT.
"The JuD is best regarded as the parent group of the LeT, which is its armed instrument," said Ajai Sahni, executive director of India's Institute of Conflict Management.
"The distinction is real, because the JuD also engages in a much wider network of activities, including charitable work... while the LeT's activities are restricted to terrorism and terrorist mobilisation."
But analysts argue the JuD can be used as a front for LeT to collect funds or recruit volunteers for a jihad that it can ill afford to abandon without losing support to other Islamic groups.
"I see it (the LeT) continuing to be aggressive in India and Afghanistan and spreading its social networks in Pakistan," said South Asia expert C. Christine Fair at Georgetown University.
Yet the JuD's humanitarian activities also serve a purpose, since they would provide a useful repository into which to channel LeT cadres, were they ever to be disarmed.
"Interlocutors within and close to the Pakistani security establishment have suggested ... that if the Kashmir issue is settled 'appropriately', then over time LeT could be steered toward non-violent activism," Stephen Tankel, author of a book on the group, wrote in a New America Foundation paper in April.
"In other words, the above-ground JuD and its array of social welfare activities provides a possible means for demobilising its militants," he wrote.
Mujahid said only that the fate of Kashmir should be decided by its people. "We should not talk of Pakistan or India. India should give the right of self-determination to the Kashmiris. A peaceful solution in Kashmir is good for the whole region."
The United States is so far unconvinced of Pakistan's willingness to eventually disarm the LeT, which it described in a report last month as "a formidable terrorist threat".
The army itself has said it cannot take on all militant groups at once, and will give priority to those who are killing its own people. Most analysts, therefore expect the LeT to be the last to be tackled.
But the jihad in Kashmir, which once provided the reason for Pakistani military backing for the LeT, has lost support both among the Kashmiris and in public opinion in Pakistan.
The army's focus is now on domestic stability and the JuD, by talking about the economy, appears to be following its lead.
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