Legion of the Lashkar:  Problems of pressing the ‘delete’ button

Lately Hafiz Saeed and his many outfits — militant and social welfare — have been in the news. The Pakistan government made several moves against Saeed and his men which were widely reported. These moves generated a fair bit of commentary and analyses both in Indian and Pakistani media.

Some analysts thought it was deja vu as Hafiz Saeed has been brought under the terrorism scanner, house-arrested or even arrested several times before by the Pakistani authorities. They argue Saeed will be let free from his present house arrest like before once pressure eases upon Pakistan to act against him. Some writers have attributed Saeed’s house arrest and the reported cancellation of 44 gun licenses to him and his associates as a peremptory measure to stave off possible American sanctions under the new Trump administration.

Some others believe Pakistan is acting under Chinese directions as, they argue, China doesn’t want any trouble in the region that could jeopardise the 50-billion-dollar CPEC project. Ostensibly, the CPEC is being presented as an economic project under which China would build state-of-the-art infrastructure across Pakistan as it seeks access to bigger markets for its high quality, cheaply manufactured goods through the Indian ocean. But, the CPEC has a strong strategic and military side to it as well. The Gawadar port is being readied by the Chinese as a naval base to control the waters in the Indian ocean. Besides, Chinese stakes across the length and breadth of Pakistan, including the part of Kashmir under its control through which CPEC runs, have multiplied manifold. That brings a strong military angle to the project as China would do all to defend its interests in a rather unpredictably volatile region. In this context, it would seem credible that the Chinese are pressing Pakistan to push the pause button on Hafiz Saeed and his Lashkar-e-Toiba, LeT, and wind down his risk-laden operations. But if that is the Chinese thinking, why then would they repeatedly shield another India-specific militant Masood Azhar of Jaish-e-Muhammad in the UN?

There certainly is much more to the current Pakistani moves against Saeed than has been reported. Or, there is nothing to it save some well-orchestrated but false battle cries against the LeT. Behind this playacting, it may be business as usual.

The terror law under which Saeed has been detained mandates setting up an inquiry commission so that trial against him can begin. Till now it has not been done. The Pakistani government has repeatedly rejected Indian and American claims that Saeed and LeT were involved in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. A Pakistani inquiry commission that visited India after the Mumbai attacks recorded that it was not given enough evidence by India that could prove Saeed and LeT’s role in the attacks. In any case, there is no terror case registered against Saeed in Pakistan. So technically not even a charge sheet can be brought against him let alone putting him on trial for terror charges.

If at all any terror charges are brought against Saeed by the Pakistani authorities, it would entrap Pakistan as it would come under increasing international pressure to pursue the case to its logical end. The Pakistan establishment obviously is too smart to fall into this trap knowing the vigorous mission of diplomatic isolation India is pursuing against it. And don’t forget the UN has already designated Saeed’s Jamaat-ud-Dawah, JuD, as a terror organisation. Then there is also a tough global consensus in place to act against such organisations. It seems Saeed’s current detention is a well-thought pretence and purely preventive — preventive not so much for Saeed, but preventive for securing Pakistan’s larger diplomatic, economic and strategic interests.

The curbs on Hafiz Saeed are though significantly different from previous ones where he has been let off many times over without any harm. This time information about these curbs on Saeed was released by the Pakistani army whose spokesman called it a “policy decision taken in national interest.” On the face of it, that wording hints towards a policy shift in Pakistan’s dealings with the LeT. Invoking ‘national interest’ also points to a changed perception where the Pakistani state now sees Saeed as a direct or indirect threat to itself. Embedded in this particular phrasing is a confession as well. The wording clearly implies Saeed and LeT’s  ally status with the establishment until the day gears were reversed. Probably, only apparently.

In any case, it is widely believed that Pakistani army and intelligence agency ISI are the god-fathers of Hafiz Saeed and LeT. And that the group’s militant activities in Indian-controlled Kashmir and India are scripted and directed by ISI. That, however, has never been proved even in  the case of high-profile 2008 Mumbai attack. That either speaks of high stealth with which LeT and its ‘masters’ operate or of its smart tactics to strike at will on targets in Kashmir and India and yet escape unscathed save some transitory pressure.

But considering all aspects of LeT’s daring militant strikes, that probably cannot happen unless the deep state in Pakistan provides a protective net. What else cannot happen are the commando-style, penetrative and extremely successful attacks on military targets in Kashmir or India without professional-grade military training. Apart from a very high degree of military expertise, it obviously requires motivation and intelligence inputs to make such precision kamakazi-style attacks deep inside ‘enemy’ military bases. It would be self-defeating to think the LeT can pull it off all on its own.

But in the context of these curbs, is the Pakistani security establishment calling it quits on Hafiz Saeed and the LeT?

With a new army chief taking over in Pakistan, and CPEC becoming Pakistan’s top priority it may seem so. At least for the moment. The current army chief Gen Bajwa was hand-picked by PM Nawaz Sharif bypassing three other Generals. Gen Bajwa is said to believe in following the civilian authorities on crucial security and foreign policy issues unlike his predecessor. Nawaz Sharif is himself seen as a votary of friendly relations with India and an opponent to using non-state actors for militant activities, at least in India. Afghanistan is a much different and bigger ball game.

In the emerging situation in Kashmir, there is a renewed and intense public sentiment for an armed struggle as the State crushes every peaceful political means of running the resistance. In this tempting context, can the LeT hold itself back from Kashmir? More importantly, can the Pakistani security establishment miss the opportunity, so to say, in the current situation in Kashmir where emotions for azadi and against India are spiraling upwards? It would perhaps be safe to say that the Pakistan state — both the military and civilian components — would put Pakistan’s interest ahead of Kashmir in all their calculations. This is why the Pakistani army is on board over the recent checks on Hafiz Saeed. That is, at least for now.

The LeT is decidedly a Kashmir-specific outfit, but its fighters are known to be in Afghanistan as well. Inside Pakistan, it has significant presence in Punjab and a vast network of social welfare campaigns across Pakistan run through its civilian wings. Pakistani press recently reported the LeT’s induction into Baluchistan and Sindh for several purposes. One among them was to provide safety cover to Chinese workers engaged in the CPEC project. But the LeT cadres’ presence was reportedly resented by the Chinese and had to be withdrawn. That led some analysts to perceive Pakistan government’s actions against LeT as a result of Chinese pressure.

Given the broad footprint that LeT and it’s main social welfare avatar, Jamaat-ud-Dawah, JuD, have across Pakistan, it would be difficult to think Pakistan would launch any large-scale crackdown against LeT or its civilian manifestations. For decades, these organisations have flourished under the patronage of the State. Getting the LeT genie back into the bottle would be the trickiest part. Groups like Jaish-e-Muhammad and LeT, by all accounts of what has been appearing in the Pakistani press, have been raised, nurtured and maintained by the Pakistani establishment (meaning the military and ISI) as  ‘security assets’. Over the decades, the LeT has become too important an asset for the Pakistani establishment to be sacrificed so easily.

If you go back to the December 2015 Pathankot air force station attack, there is an interesting thing to note. The attack was said and largely believed to have been carried out by the Jaish. In fact, even the Pakistan PM’s foreign affairs advisor Sartaj Aziz alluded to it when he told India Today, “One of the mobile numbers provided by India was active and has been located to Jaish’s headquarters in Bahawalpur.” He even said Jaish chief, Masood Azhar, had been put under detention after the attack. But when international pressure mounted on Pakistan to move against Jaish, it made a sly move to change focus and deflect attention from Jaish to protect it. The Muzaffarabad-based United Jihad Council, a Kashmiri organisation, headed by the Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin claimed responsibility for the attack. Nobody though took Salahuddin’s statement seriously, and rightly so. Most observers thought he was being made a fall guy to shield Jaish and LeT.

The Hizbul Mujahideen has neither the military capacity nor the reach to conduct such an audacious and well-planned commando attack. It has never done so before and relied mostly on hit-and-run tactics against Indian military targets within Kashmir. It has hardly ever conducted military strikes in mainland India. The point is that Pakistan’s establishment was willing to sacrifice an indigenous Kashmiri militant group and, by extension, even risk the Kashmiri freedom movement being globally labelled as a ‘terror’ campaign. All this, to save Jaish, a Pakistani Punjab-based Deobandi group of fighters — the military’s security asset. That just about explains how important groups like LeT and Jaish are for the Pakistani establishment in its larger strategic and tactical calculations in the region.

Any large-scale crackdown by Pakistan on LeT would come with its own set of serious problems.

If Pakistan goes after the LeT, as it did against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, TTP and other anti-state militant formations, a severe blowback against Pakistan would be in the wind. That happened during the Musharraf years when Jaish cadres mounted serious attacks on the Pakistani state after Musharraf decided to go after them. Musharraf survived two close calls on his person from the Jaish. The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi was another outfit that also turned on the State. That, LeT would not take the same route if the Pakistani state starts hounding it, would be wishful thinking. And if the Lashkar cadres dissipate as the organisation disintegrates under State pressure, its highly-trained and religiously-motivated men could be picked up by the so-called Islamic State franchises. You can then expect a new wave of ‘terrorist’ violence in Pakistan.

The other problem part of any crackdown on LeT could be even more serious. The LeT fighters, disaffected as they may get with the Pakistani state in the event of a crackdown, may launch attacks on high-profile Indian military targets in Kashmir or India bringing the two countries to a war-like situation or even war itself. Such organisations often see the benefit when opposing states, in which they operate, take on each other. This is the worst-case scenario, but not improbable.

The LeT’s ideological underpinning is also a serious thing to consider.

The LeT’s creedal roots are deep in the Ahl-e-Hadith sect. This sect is fashioned after the Saudi Wahhabi-Salafi creed which strongly believes in a literal following of the Qur’an and Sunnah with no space for cultural, social or regional parameters or incorporating changes in the human condition over time since the Prophet’s (SAW) days. The Ahl-e-Hadith sect sees itself as something of an exclusivist, supremacist Islamist group with strong rejection of other sects within the Muslim fold.

It is this creedal belief that the LeT draws its ideological motivation from. It is widely known that the Ahl-e-Hadith formations worldwide are lavishly supported by Saudi funds to promote the Wahhabi-Salafi interpretation of Islam. 

Now when this is factored into the bigger equation, the LeT can be seen as harbouring visions of a creating a so-called pure Islamic State out of Pakistan which, at the moment, is trying to repackage itself as a Kemalist state-nation variant with a progressive, tolerant and modern outlook. This is in sharp contrast to the Zia era of the 1980s where Pakistan shifted its ideological base to the far right as the country was put through an enforced Saudification at the expense to its own cultural and social realities. The country paid heavily for this in the years to come as a violent jihadi culture took deep roots in the Pakistani society that gained tremendous traction through the CIA-supported Afghan war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s. In fact, Saeed’s rise came during the Zia era when he was picked up by the General for services in the Afghan war. This spawned a dangerous culture of nurturing and using so-called non-sate actors for foreign policy and strategic goals in the region.

Given the make-up of the Pakistani society, the LeT’s vision can easily take hold of the public imagination. The group posits itself on an Islamic utopia, if you will. There is also a thorough disenchantment with legacy politicians among the Pakistani public. That chemistry can make the LeT narrative a very tempting thing to try out. The LeT and other similar groups’ prescription for setting up such a utopia is through their interpretation of jihad which envisages dismantling the current state and social structures through a sustained campaign of remorseless violence.

Past reports in Pakistani and international press reveal that sections of Pakistani army are being sympathetic to the jihadi ideology professed by groups like LeT. That there cannot be a reverse osmosis of this ideology in sections of the Pakistani defence establishment leading to a possible coup cannot be ruled out. Neither can this be ruled out — that the Saudis would offer covert and even overt support for such a Wahhabi-inspired uprising to extend their influence and widen the anti-Iran, anti-Shia Saudi political-ideological base in the region.    

It is in this scenario where Pakistan can find the LeT a hot property if it genuinely takes on it at the organisational level. Such organisations are potentially Frankenstein in nature as groups that have spiralled out of the establishment’s orbit have shown.

For the moment, it looks like the works are  just about some superficial measures against Hafiz Saeed and  some of his close men. With Pakistan launching a fresh operation Radd-ul-Fasaad against militants, an impression is being sent out that no one is being spared under this offensive. Perhaps that’s why Saeed was preemptively put under house arrest so that no one says Saeed and LeT have once again been exempted from this fresh anti-militant operation. The reality, however, seems to point towards a different direction.

The LeT is too important and too big to be dumped so easily. In the recent past the LeT has been used as a bulwark against anti-Pakistan militant groups. There have been reports of LeT cadres being put into ‘service’ in the army’s counter-militancy operation Zarb-e-Azb against die-hard militant formations like TTP. Alongside, the JuD and its sister organisation FIF have been running extensive relief and rehabilitation operations for civilians in the aftermath of Zarb-e-Azb in areas like North Waziristan, FATA and Swat.  Needless to say, under the protective nose of the Pak army.

As one Pakistani analyst, Khaled Ahmed, had rightly noted in a piece in the Indian Express that given the LeT’s military capacity and the size of its civilian-welfare operations, it is “undumpable.” But the question is: for how long? Such irregular militant organisations can go out of control and take on their godfathers even if it means eating from the hands off their original enemy. Problem is these organisations have no ‘delete’ button on them that you can press if they get back on you.

As far as Kashmir goes, the LeT fighters have some presence here. More are expected this summer if the Indian autorities are to be believed. And if a crackdown in Pakistan actually ensues against it, expect many more. But even with the nominal numbers, its fighters often inflict heavy and demoralising fatalities on security agencies here, irrespective of whether they attack or are being attacked.

Question is if the Pakistani government now sees Hafiz Saeed as a “security threat to its society”, as was recently said by the Pak defence minister in Munich, how long can Islamabad afford to shield him and his outfits?

Who is Hafiz Saeed

The rise of Hafiz Mohammad Saeed goes back to the days of Gen Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s when Gen Zia seized power in a military coup overthrowing Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s democratically-elected government. Gen Zia, who brought Pakistan under his own version of Islamic rule, picked up Saeed and inducted him in 1979 as a member of the Council on Islamic Ideology — a powerful body of clerics handpicked by Gen Zia to stipulate on issues of Islam and ‘Islamisation’ of Pakistan. Later, he was given a teaching job at the Islamic Studies Centre,  University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore. The University later sent him to Saudi Arabia in 1982 for specialisation in Islamic Studies and Arabic language at the King Saud University. Before that he had two masters degrees from the University of Punjab.

In Saudi Arabia, Saeed got in touch with Arab Sheikhs who were part of the America-led ‘jihad’ by Afghans against Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. The Sheikhs roped him in for an active role in support of the Afghan Mujahideen. After returning to Pakistan, Saeed raised funds, provided men and material for the Afghan war against the communist Soviets.

In 1987, he founded  a religious welfare organisation Markaz Dawah-Wal-Irshad along with Abdullah Yusuf Azzam who was at that time operating out of Pakistan. Azzam was a Palestinian far-right Islamic scholar. Known then as the Father of Global Jihad, he was the mentor of Osama bin Laden who was then an ally of US. Azzam was a founding father of Al-Qaeda. Markaz Dawah-Wal-Irshad anchored itself in the puritanical ideology of the Wahhabi-Salafi inspired Jamiat-e-Ahl-e-Hadith. In 1990, the Markaz launched the Lashkar-e-Toiba, LeT, in the wake of the armed uprising in Kashmir against Indian rule. This is said to have happened under the patronage of Pakistan intelligence services, ISI, which also oversaw Saeed’s earlier activities. In the later years, Saeed and his LeT focused exclusively on Kashmir.

In the coming years, Saeed founded the Jamaat-ud-Dawah, JuD, an ostensibly social welfare organisation. Saeed denied having any links with the LeT or its members being part of JuD. The JuD has been conducting extensive welfare operations across Pakistan along with Saeed’s other group like the Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation.

Saeed has been named as being part of many high-profile militant strikes in India which he has always denied. The Pakistani government has arrested him several times only to release him later either on court orders or on its own. In April 2012, the US offered a bounty of $10 million on Saeed for his alleged role in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Saeed laughed this out saying, “I am living my life in the open and the US can contact me whenever they want. I am not hiding in a cave.”

Interestingly, Saeed is reported to have helped Pakistani spy agencies in nabbing several top Al-Qaeda men including Abu Zubaidah. These men were then handed over to the Americans for interrogation.   

Saeed has had differences with Pakistani governments over several issues. A Gujjar Punjabi by birth he has been critical of Pakistan for adopting Urdu as the national language and not Punjabi.

Saeed, born in 1948, was the son of a farmer. The family migrated from India to Pakistan in 1948 and lost 36 of its members in the Partition riots. Saeed didn’t see the gore of Partition, but its bloody sadism probably lives in his subconscious.

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