By Ashley Tellis
America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is expected to be more complicated than Vietnam because the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba would remain a deadly threat to Americans for all time. Add to that Pakistan designs of becoming future kingmaker in Kabul
As the search for stability in Afghanistan intensifies, the threat of violence and a wider conflagration is growing. In an effort to secure a dominant position in Afghanistan and blunt India’s rise, Pakistan has mobilised militants and terrorists on both sides of its borders. While the Afghan Taliban fighting US and NATO forces continue to enjoy Pakistan’s support, Islamabad has exchanged its previous policy of supporting anti-Indian insurgencies with that of supporting terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT), which mounted the deadly assault on Mumbai in 2008.
Many Pakistanis today — academics, policy analysts, and even officials — concede that fomenting insurgencies within India has been a main component of Pakistan’s national strategy. But that late admission comes long after Pakistan’s military establishment moved to replace its failed strategy of encouraging insurgencies with the more lethal device of unleashing terrorism.
Flushed with confidence flowing from the success of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan during the 1980s, Pakistan sought to replicate in the east what it had managed in the west, namely, the defeat of a great power larger than itself. Using the same instruments as before — radical Islamist groups that had sprung up throughout Pakistan — Pakistan’s ISI pushed into J&K for the first time in 1993 with combat-hardened aliens tasked to inflict large-scale murder and mayhem.
Through this act, Pakistan’s traditional strategy of fomenting insurgencies finally gave way to a new approach, namely, fomenting terrorism (an instrument that most Pakistanis still refuse to acknowledge). No longer would Pakistan rely on dissatisfied indigenous populations to advance Islamabad’s interests; rather, vicious bands of Islamic terrorists, most of whom had little or no connection to any existing grievances with India, would be unleashed indiscriminately to kill large numbers of civilians.
Of all the terrorist groups ISI has sponsored over the years, the LeT has been especially favored because its dominant Punjabi composition matched the primary ethnicity of the Pakistani Army and ISI; and its puritanical Salafism undergirded its willingness to engage in risky military operations throughout India. Many in ISI are deeply sympathetic to LeT’s vision of recovering “lost Muslim lands” in Asia and Europe and resurrecting a universal Islamic Caliphate through the instrument of jihad.
Although Pakistani propaganda often asserts that LeT is a Kashmiri organisation moved by the Kashmiri cause, it is nothing of the kind. The 3,000-odd foot soldiers are drawn primarily from the Pakistani Punjab. Indian intelligence today estimates that LeT maintains some kind of presence in twenty-one countries worldwide with the intention of supporting or participating in what its leader Hafeez Saeed has called the perpetual “jihad against the infidels.” Consequently, LeT’s operations in and around India, which often receive the most attention, are only part of a large pastiche that has taken LeT operatives and soldiers as far afield as Australia, Canada, Chechnya, China, Eritrea, Kosovo, Oman, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Spain, the United Kingdom, and even the US.
Given the organisation’s vast presence, its prolific capacity to raise funds worldwide, and its ability to conduct militant activities at great distances from its home base, LeT has become ISI’s preferred instrument for its ongoing covert war with India. This includes the campaign that Pakistan is currently waging against the Indian presence in Afghanistan and against US counter-insurgency efforts in that country. Active LeT operations in Pakistan’s northwestern border areas involve close collaboration with al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, and Jamiat al-Dawa al-Quran wal-Sunna. Thanks to these activities and others worldwide, Washington has now reached the conclusion that LeT represents a threat to America’s national interests second only to al-Qaeda and in fact exceeds the latter by many measures.
Based on this judgment, President Barack Obama has told Pakistan’s President Asif Zardari that targeting LeT would be one of his key conditions for a renewed US strategic partnership with Pakistan. Thus far, however, the Pakistani military, which still rules Pakistan even though it does not formally govern, has been non-responsive, preferring instead to emphasise the threat India supposedly poses to Pakistan — thereby implicitly justifying ISI’s continued reliance on terrorism — while demanding further US assistance. Such a demand is intended to inveigle the US into Pakistan’s relentless competition with India. The military’s dismissal of Obama’s injunctions regarding LeT are driven at least partly by its belief that all US warnings are little other than special pleading on the behalf of India.
Since assaulting India has become a quite satisfying end in itself, the Pakistani establishment has no incentive whatsoever to interdict this group. To the degree that ISI has attempted to control LeT, it is mainly to prevent excessive embarrassment to its sponsors or serious crises leading to war. But outside of these aims, the Pakistani military has no interest in dismantling any terrorist assets that it believes serve it well.
Military leaders in Rawalpindi have thus not only failed to understand that American concerns about LeT derive fundamentally from its own growing conviction that the group’s activities worldwide make it a direct threat to the US, but they also continue to harbor the illusion that their current strategy of unleashing terrorism will enervate India, push it out of Afghanistan, and weaken US stabilisation efforts there. Such a strategy is designed to make Islamabad the kingmaker in determining Kabul’s future. This too promises to become one more in the long line of cruel illusions that has gripped Pakistan since its founding.
Source: The Pioneer, New Delhi
The writer is senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace