Saturday, January 24, 2015

Pakistan’s Jihadist Ban: Boondoggle or a Seismic Shift?

Sushant Sareen, 
Senior Fellow, VIF

For many days now, there have been reports in the Pakistan media – all clearly emanating from the same source but spaced out cleverly to time them with the visit of US President Barack Obama to India – about an imminent ban on two of the most dangerous jihadist terror organisations based in Pakistan: Haqqani Network (HN) and the Jamaat ud Dawa/Lashkar-e-Taiba (JuD/LeT). But to use Arun Shourie’s evocative phrase: while the clatter of plates is loud and clear, there is no sign of food anywhere. Officially, there is only an ambiguously worded, and one daresay misleading, statement of the Pakistan Foreign Office spokesperson who talks of a UN dictated freezing of JuD/LeT accounts and a travel ban on Hafiz Muhammad Saeed which was imposed in 2008! Other than this, there is nothing on ground to suggest that the HN or JuD are facing proscription.

If anything, statements and actions of top officials and the reality on ground suggest that either there is no impending action against these two groups, or else even if some kind of a ban is imposed, it will be only cosmetic. As far as the JuD (or its previous avatar, LeT) is concerned, it has been banned twice in the past, first after the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001 and then after the 26/11 terrorist attack in 2008. But despite the so-called ban, the organisation has grown in strength, resources and influence and has become a virtual state within a state. In the case of the HN, since it is a more amorphous organisation, what is the Pakistani state going to ban?

A member of the federal cabinet has already made it clear that the JuD is a charitable organisation and there is no question of banning it. There are also reports that the Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has assured the JuD that no action is being contemplated but has asked the organisation to keep a low profile. This advice is however being observed more in its violation, what with the JuD taking out mass rallies to protest against alleged blasphemy by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. Officials in the Interior Ministry have also claimed that the JuD is only on a watch list and is not on a ban list. In spite of all this, the Indian media has swallowed the Pakistani disinformation bait.

As things stand, there is no ban on either HN or JuD. If there is no official ban in the next few days, then it will be clear that this disinformation was spread with an eye on the Obama visit. The purpose was two-fold: one, blunt the edges of any Indo-US conversation on or cooperation against Pakistani sponsorship of terror groups like HN and JuD; two, deflect US pressure on to India for reopening a dialogue with Pakistan and make the US lean on India to lower its aggressive response to ceasefire violations by Pakistan on the International Border and Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir.

But if Pakistan does indeed impose a ban then it can mean one of two things: first, it is purely cosmetic like in the past; alternatively, there is an outside chance that this time Pakistan will move seriously to disrupt, dismantle, degrade and destroy the jihadist infrastructure of groups like HN and JuD. India must however resist jumping the gun either to outright dismiss any ban on JuD as an eyewash, or to accept such a ban on face value and proceed on the assumption that Pakistan is sincere in acting against the jihadist terror groups. In other words, if Pakistan imposes a ban on JuD and HN, India may welcome such a step but should then wait and watch how this ban translates on ground before it responds in a positive manner to such a move by Pakistan.

Clearly, if after a ban, there is no action on ground, there will be a sense of déjà vu, and nothing will change either within Pakistan or between India and Pakistan. On the other hand, if the ban is followed by a solid action on ground – to be judged by specific metrics which include trials of JuD leaders and cadres by the newly constituted military courts, destroying the infrastructure and dismantling the organisation, seizing their funds and assets, not allowing them to re-emerge in a new avatar – then it will signal a seismic shift in the Pakistani strategic policy framework. The odds, however, are that in the event of a ban, it will play out as in the past: the JuD will re-appear with a new name, its accounts would have already been emptied and transferred to the new entity as will its infrastructure and cadre. The reason for this is simple. The JuD has grown into a huge organisation with its tentacles spread all over Pakistan and in every state institution. According to a recent book by Pakistani scholar Arif Jamal, the JuD/LeT has over the years trained around 500,000 jihadists. Even if we deflate this number by a factor of 10 or 100, that makes for anything between 5000 and 50000 committed, armed and trained jihadists. For Pakistan to take on this number with any degree of seriousness is practically a mission impossible.

Adding to the complexity of the task is the fact that until now much of the focus of the Pakistani security agencies has been the area west of Indus i.e. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and FATA. This region is, in a sense, the periphery. The JuD however has its base in the hinterland i.e. Punjab and Sindh and taking it on means dealing with a massive spike in terrorism in the heartland, which is hardly something to look forward to for a Pakistani policymaker. But the scale of the problem is precisely why Pakistan cannot afford to delay dealing with it any longer. The normal modus operandi of the ISI was to not allow any terror outfit to grow beyond a certain point. Once the threshold was reached, the organisation was either split or eliminated. The JuD has been an exception in this regard. The problem is that if Pakistan doesn’t act against it now, this organisation will continue to grow and could soon acquire proportions that might be beyond the capacity of an already feeble Pakistani state to handle. Time is therefore running out for Pakistan if it actually wants to take on the JuD.

In the unlikely event that Pakistan has decided to go all out against groups like the JuD, then it will not be because of either US pressure or anything that the Narendra Modi government has done but because it is in Pakistan's own interest. To the extent that there is some US pressure on Pakistan to act against the JuD, Pakistan will use it, not so much to take on the JuD (which it will do anyways in its own interest) as to demand a quid pro quo from the Americans for something they were going to do in any case. The limitations of US pressure on Pakistan to do something that Pakistan didn’t think was in its interest became very clear over the last decade and more. Since 9/11, the Americans have been ceaselessly pressuring Pakistan to move against the HN and other terror groups. Pakistan resisted all such pressure because it did not think that it was in its interest to move against the Taliban and their affiliates and associates. Despite the Americans losing over 2000 soldiers in Afghanistan, they weren’t able to make Pakistan stop its double-dealing and double games. Therefore, to expect that the Americans have now found some new lever to pressure Pakistan to change course and that too at a time when they are in the process of leaving Afghanistan is to misread the situation.

If Pakistan has indeed come to the conclusion that its interests are no longer served by the jihadists, then it creates a remarkable convergence of interests between India and Pakistan. In a limited way, this strategic convergence of interests opens a window of opportunity for the two countries to re-engage with each other and to use this to build trust and confidence between them. This will by no stretch of imagination lead to complete normalisation of relations but it will address what is a necessary condition – ending the export and use of terrorism by Pakistan – for embarking on a process for normalisation of relations. If India sees Pakistan actually move to demolish the infrastructure of jihad, then for its part, India will need to undertake measures that create a space, even an incentive, for Pakistan to not step back in its ‘jihad’ against the jihadists. But before any of this happens, Pakistan will need to fulfil its side of the bargain.

Published Date: 24th January 2014, Image source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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