Pragmatic | What about Lashkar-e-Taiba?

US mustn’t ignore the threat posed by the Lashkar-e-Taiba .

In the off-the-record briefing of 20 selected Pakistani journalists by the Pakistan Army Chief, General Kayani and DG of ISI, Lieutenant General Pasha after the US forces killed Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan, General Pasha is reported to have stated this about Pakistan’s conflicting interests with the US.

Pasha said he had made clear to Washington that if the U.S. were deemed to be acting against Pakistan’s interests, “We’ll not help you — we’ll resist you.”[Time]

And these Pakistani interests are, as Stephen Tankel explains:

The Pakistan army views the Taliban and the Haqqani Network as the best, and perhaps only, tools for shaping a better outcome in Afghanistan, where it fears Indian influence will translate into encirclement. Notably, neither the Taliban nor the Haqqani Network is involved in the insurgency currently raging inside Pakistan, and the army is leery of action that could alter this reality.

In short, the army sees other countries reaping the benefits were it to act against these militants, while Pakistan would be left to deal with the costs (both domestic and geopolitical). No amount of money is likely to change that calculus in the near term and neither side [Pakistan or the US] should pretend otherwise.[Link]

Even if there is no congruence between US and Pakistani strategic interests, increased pressure in the aftermath of the Osama bin Laden killing means that Pakistan might, on the face of it, pretend to stop actively supporting — mind you, not act against — these two groups. This school of thought will gain prominence among Western strategic analysts, as some analysts (perhaps with the good offices of US lobbying firm Locke Lord Strategies hired by Pakistan for $75,000 a month) start sprouting this theory. Anatol Lieven, who is supposedly very close to the Pakistani army, states it openly.

Hard as it may be to swallow, the United States must go on cooperating with the Pakistani state, military, and intelligence services against terrorism directed against the West and not allow this relationship to be destroyed by Pakistan’s sheltering of the Afghan Taliban. In fact, the United States should accept and even welcome continued Pakistani military links to Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the terrorist group alleged to be behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks, while holding to the absolute condition that the Pakistani military uses these connections successfully to prevent further LeT attacks on India and, above all, the United States.[FP]

Lieven further explains why the US should not ask the Pakistan Army to act against the LeT.

So far, however, LeT has not planned or carried out any attacks against the West, even as its activists have gone to help the Taliban in Afghanistan and killed Westerners as part of the group’s 2008 attack on Mumbai. …

The strategy of the Pakistani military seems largely responsible for LeT’s restraint. According to well-informed sources in Pakistan, the military has told LeT leaders that if they do not revolt against Pakistan and do not carry out terrorist attacks against India (for the moment at least) and above all the United States and Europe, then they are safe from arrest or extrajudicial execution. Incidentally, a leading JuD member told me in 2009 that despite its Islamist revolutionary ideology, the group would do nothing to destroy the Pakistani state “because then the Hindus would march in to rule over us.”[FP]

While the earlier quotes were from an essay written just before bin Laden’s death, Lieven goes on to add to his pet theory even in the post-Osama killing scenario.

These officials say that the Pakistani state and Army are now restraining Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and other groups trained by the military to attack India, holding them back from future violence. However, this means that the state has to maintain contacts with these groups and refrain from cracking down on them, despite demands from India and the West. In addition, Pakistani officers say—and here I am afraid that they are right—the popularity of LeT in Pakistani society practically guarantees that cases against its members are dismissed by the courts. The only available measures against LeT are extrajudicial, which is dangerous considering the movement’s widespread acceptance.[Newsweek]

Irrespective of whether US agrees to the grotesque suggestions of Lieven or not, LeT is one jehadi group whose position will remain secure in all Pakistani strategic calculations. Stephen Tankel lays out the reasons:

There are several reasons. First, Pakistan is facing a serious insurgency and LeT remains one of the few militant outfits whose policy is to refrain from launching attacks against the state. The security establishment has taken a triage approach, determining that to avoid additional instability it must not take any action that could draw LeT further into the insurgency.

Second, the Pakistan army and its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) have long considered LeT to be the country’s most reliable proxy against India and the group still provides utility in this regard. LeT also provides potential leverage at the negotiating table and so it is therefore unrealistic to assume support for the group will cease without a political payoff from India in return. As a result, the consensus among the Pakistani security establishment appears to be that, at least in the short-term, taking steps to dismantle the group would chiefly benefit India, while Pakistan would be left to deal with the costs.

Finally, LeT provides social services and relief aid via its above ground wing, Jamaat-ul-Dawa, and its activities in this sphere have led to a well of support among segments of the populace.[Link]

Furthermore, the belief that the army and the ISI, under US pressure, can successfully control the LeT is not accepted by Tankel.

The army and ISI are believed to be putting significant pressure on LeT’s leaders to refrain from overtly engaging in attacks on Western interests abroad. Unless Pakistan wants a showdown with the United States this is unlikely to change. However, this also presumes a level of organizational coherence and control that may be at odds with the ground reality. LeT militants are present on both sides of the Durand Line, meaning not all of them rely on safe haven in Pakistan. Furthermore, individuals or factions within LeT can utilize its infrastructure as well as transnational capabilities to pursue their own operations without the leadership’s consent. Enhanced organizational integration with other outfits heightens the opportunities for freelancing, with former LeT members acting as an important bridge to al-Qaeda as well as other militant outfits.[FP]

There is enough evidence around to show that the LeT remains a potent threat not only to India, but also for the Western targets (Gitmo files, Ilyas Kashmiri linkage, Chicago trials of Mumbai terror attackers). Tankel, again, explains how this could work in the future:

The current threat to Western interests comes from a conglomeration of actors in Pakistan who are working in concert. Thus, LeT need not take the lead role in an attack in order for its capabilities to be used against the U.S. homeland or its interests abroad. Notably, working as part of a consortium enables LeT to earn credit from its fellow militants while also providing it cover, since shared responsibility makes it easier for the group to conceal its fingerprints from the U.S. or other possible targets. Furthermore, the threat comes not only from LeT as a stand-alone organization or from its collaboration with other actors.

Rather, individuals or factions within LeT can utilize its domestic infrastructure as well as transnational capabilities to pursue their own operations. Enhanced organizational integration with other outfits heightens the opportunities for freelancing, thus increasing the chances that some of the group’s capabilities might be used for attacks without the leadership’s consent. Because members who leave do not necessarily cut ties with the group, or may bring elements within it with them, the threat also comes from LeT’s alumni network. Thus, when assessing the dangers of LeT’s expansion in terms of its intent in the medium-term as well as how it might respond in the near-term following bin Laden’s death, one must consider the capability of current and former members both to steer the organization in an increasingly internationalist direction as well as to leverage its infrastructure for these purposes whether or not the leadership approves.[Link]

West is not going to be safer because the US has eliminated bin Laden. Even if the West were to somehow completely destroy the al Qaeda and the Taliban (highly unlikely unless Pakistan stops its support to the Taliban), it will always be under threat from jehadi groups like the LeT. Thus the suggestion made by Lieven — and likely to be repeated by Pakistan army and ISI to the US — to ignore the LeT because the ISI will guarantee that the jehadi group doesn’t target the West, needs to be treated with the contempt that it deserves.

However that is unlikely to happen. Elizabeth Rubin at the NYRB blogs recounts:

In 2010, I had the chance to ask Secretary of Defense Robert Gates about the US relationship with Pakistan. He’d just been to the country to urge its generals to go after the jihadists, the Taliban, and the Haqqani network. I asked Gates how he could possibly consider Afshaq Kayani, the chief of the Pakistani army, an ally. “It’s frustrating,” Gates told me. I waited for more, but nothing came. Your silence says a lot, I said. “Well, I was very specific in a couple of my meetings in looking at them point-blank and saying, ‘Haqqani and his people are killing my troops. I’ve got a problem with that,’” Gates responded. And what did they say, I asked. Gates is all control, but he cracked a small smile as he said: “They listened.”

…Or as an advisor to Ambassador Holbrooke told me not long before Holbrooke died: “We see Pakistan as a flawed ally and the Afghan Taliban as our enemy. The truth is the reverse.”

…Of course at the heart of the problem lies Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. We’d rather our Pakistani army enemy controls it than our Pakistani Taliban enemy. But will we ever know who is who, and can we tell them apart? And so our policy in Pakistan has collided with the Lot equation: How many righteous men must there be for God to save Sodom and Gomorrah, asks Abraham. And when God says fifty, Abraham keeps lowering the number. What if there is just one? How many American, Afghan, Pakistani, European casualties are worth keeping this Catch-22 policy alive?[NYRB]

The US must remember one thing. Osama bin Laden is history now. Greater challenges of jehadi terror lie ahead in the future. The Pakistani military-jehadi complex lies at the heart of those terror threats. LeT, the most powerful and protected jehadi organisation today, happens to be Pakistani state’s most reliable proxy. The US can afford to ignore the LeT — or its masters in Pakistan army — only at its own peril.

explains this further:

These officials say that the Pakistani state and Army are now restraining Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and other groups trained by the military to attack India, holding them back from future violence. However, this means that the state has to maintain contacts with these groups and refrain from cracking down on them, despite demands from India and the West. In addition, Pakistani officers say—and here I am afraid that they are right—the popularity of LeT in Pakistani society practically guarantees that cases against its members are dismissed by the courts. The only available measures against LeT are extrajudicial, which is dangerous considering the movement’s widespread acceptance.[Newsweek]


DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.