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Selig S. Harrison

The other Islamist threat in Pakistan

By Selig S. Harrison
June 17, 2009
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THE DANGER of an Islamist takeover of Pakistan is real. But it does not come from the Taliban guerrillas now battling the Pakistan Army in the Swat borderlands. It comes from a proliferating network of heavily armed Islamist militias in the Punjab heartland and major cities directed by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a close ally of Al Qaeda, which staged the terrorist attack last November in Mumbai, India.

Pakistan’s failure to crack down on Lashkar-e-Taiba militias and the recent release of two of its leaders jailed after the Mumbai attack led to an angry exchange on Monday at a meeting in Russia between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari.

No new US aid commitments should be made to Islamabad until it takes decisive action to disarm Lashkar-e-Taiba in accordance with Article 256 of the Pakistan Constitution, which bars private militias. The administration wants to provide $3 billion in new military aid on top of the $10 billion already showered on Pakistan since 2001, together with a five-year, $7.5 billion program of economic aid. Surprisingly, while congressional leaders are seeking to attach a variety of conditions to the aid package, they have so far ignored the critical issue of the militias.

Disarming Lashkar-e-Taiba should be the top US priority in Pakistan because it would greatly reduce the possibility of a coup by Islamist sympathizers in the armed forces. The closet Islamists in the Army and the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) are not likely to risk a coup in Islamabad unless they can count on armed support from Lashkar-e-Taiba and its allies to help them consolidate their grip on the countryside.

Equally important, a strong US stand on Lashkar-e-Taiba is necessary to defuse India-Pakistan tensions that could lead to another war and to sustain the improvement now taking place in US relations with India, a rising power eight times larger than Pakistan.

New Delhi fears a repeat of the Mumbai massacre, in which 166 were killed, and views US readiness to pressure Islamabad on the militias as a litmus test of US friendship.

To be sure, the Pakistan government did make a show of cracking down on Lashkar-e-Taiba after the Mumbai tragedy. It banned it, placed two of its leaders under house arrest, and jailed and arrested six of its operatives on charges of “facilitating a terrorist act.’’ But the two leaders were released on June 2. The government stopped short of breaking up the militias and destroying the weapons stockpiles at their four training camps near Muridke and Muzaffarabad, and it has yet to prosecute the six prisoners or to arrest Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi, identified by US and Indian intelligence sources as the ringleader of the Mumbai attack, who is still at large.

Under a new name, Jawad-ud-Dawa, Lashkar-e-Taiba has continued to operate its militias, its FM radio station, and hundreds of seminaries where jihadis are trained, in addition to its legitimate charities and educational institutions. When the UN designated Jawat-ud-Dawa as a terrorist group, the Pakistan government issued another ban and Jawat-ud-Dawa changed its name to the Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation.

The “foundation’’ now has 2,000 members doing relief work in war-torn Swat with the approval of the Pakistan government, amid credible reports that it is using its humanitarian cover to recruit new members as it did after the 2002 Kashmir earthquake.

Lashkar-e-Taiba is on the Sunni side of the Sunni-Shia doctrinal divide in Islam and has its deepest roots in a 20,000-square-mile swath of southern Punjab between Jhang and Bahawalpur, where it champions the cause of landless Sunni peasants indentured to big Shia landowners.

“It is common knowledge that the local police are in their pocket in much of that area,’’ retired diplomat Tariq Fatemi, a former ambassador to Washington, told me recently.

Sunni extremist groups have been active in the Punjab since the creation of Pakistan and became the nucleus of Lashkar-e-Taiba when the ISI, with US funding, built up a jihadi movement to fight against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Lashkar-e-Taiba and key allies such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi still get ISI support and have close ties with other intelligence agencies, but how much and how close remain uncertain.

Like Al Qaeda to Americans, Lashkar-e-Taiba is a powerful emotive symbol to the 1.2 billion people of India. Hindu nationalists use this symbolism to fan fears of another Mumbai and to step up demands for reprisals against Pakistan. Increasingly, they are criticizing the United States for giving Pakistan money and weaponry without monitoring whether they are being used to strengthen Pakistan forces on the Indian border.

Why, they ask, should the United States give another $10.5 billion in aid, on top of the $14 billion already provided since 2001, to a government in Islamabad that is unwilling or unable to disarm home-grown terrorists who threaten India?

Why, indeed.

Selig S. Harrison is author of “Pakistan, The State of the Union,’’ a report just published by the Center for International Policy, where he is director of the Asia program.

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