I was sitting with my family in an Indian restaurant in Queens, New York at our annual pre-Thanksgiving dinner as my eye occasionally darted up to the screen overhead with images of Mumbai’s Taj Hotel smoldering on a Hindi-language satellite channel. I thought to myself “This has got to be a Lashkar operation” as the casualty numbers mounted. Then when a local ABC news crew began to interview the Indian family at the next table, I knew the militants had really awoken the somewhat slumbering global media in a way their last foray in India did not. In December of 2001, members of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and another Pakistani group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), jointly attacked the Indian Parliament in New Delhi. However, the world was largely focused on the war in Afghanistan and the ensuing Bonn conference at the time. Lashkar-e-Taiba is known and feared throughout South Asia as a brutal terrorist network composed primarily of Kashmiri irredentists and unreconstructed pan-Islamists. Their agenda has morphed over the last two decades since the group’s inception in the 1980’s with a focused agenda wresting the Indian administered portion of Kashmir from Indian forces to attacks on India’s political and financial institutions.
To explain how groups such as LeT and JeM operate openly in Pakistan is to try to understand Pakistan’s dysfunctional political discourse. I attended a rally earlier this year set up by several of the country’s “big tent” Islamist parties who opposed Musharraf’s rule for not being sufficiently strident toward India and the United States. After shooting photos at the all day affair, a Pakistani friend and I went over the images on my laptop later that evening. He began to comb over the photos tooth-and-nail to show me what I was not nuanced enough to realize earlier. Amid the crowds of demonstrators and on-lookers mixed members of some of Pakistan’s most feared militant outfits. Members of Jaish-e-Mohammed, like LeT, a supposedly banned formation, mingled around in their distinctive headdresses consisting of a very specifically embroidered prayer cap wrapped in a stylized turban. “How could it be” I asked my friend “that these terrorists are walking around central Lahore openly and in front of the press, even standing next to Punjab police officers?” This rally was not being held by a group of nameless malcontents either. Some of the most prominent members of the political establishment were speaking including cricket world champion-turned-pundit Imran Khan and the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, one of Pakistan’s oldest Islamic parties.
Traditional militancy in Pakistan is in fact a viable part of the political culture. Most of the militant groups operate not against the government but rather in the government’s interest of fomenting violence by proxy throughout the region. Militant groups that are genuinely against the government such as the once Marxist-leaning ethnic Balochi nationalists are painted by Islamabad to be pawns of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the Indian CIA. However, among opposition politicians operating nationally in Pakistan, there seem to be certain red lines which, when crossed by the central government, can be used to stir up rage against the leadership. Qazi Hussein Ahmad, the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami extolled his followers to never forgive the Musharraf regime for assassinating Nawab Akbar Bugti in the context of a military operation in 2006. Bugti, in life was anything but an Islamist in the fashion of Mr Hussein. Nawab Akbar Bugti was an ardent Baloch ethnic-nationalist. Essentially, Baloch dissidents want to secede and therefore partly dismantle the Pakistani state while Jamaat players seek to further consolidate Pakistan’s Islamization which they believe has not quite gone far enough. In comparison, there is virtually no synergy between the two groups. The province of Balochistan is a population poor, resource rich backwater long neglected for most of Pakistan’s independence. Walking down The Mall, Lahore’s trendy shopping street, there are signs advertising “Pay Your Sui Gas Bill Online”. The Sui natural gas field is in the Dera Bugti district of Balochistan and is precisely what the elderly Nawab Akbar Bugti was fighting over. Most of the gas produced in the Sui field is fed to Lahore and Karachi while Balochistan seethes largely devoid of infrastructure.
While the chanting of “Bugti, Bugti” by the mostly Punjabi (and entirely male) crowd was likely solely for propaganda purposes and obliviously ironic seeing as Nawab Akbar Bugti struggled much of his adult life against the Punjabi domination of Pakistan’s military and bureaucracy, the very fact that his name was being roused in Lahore demonstrates the fluidity of non state and terrorist alliances within such a fractured country. Jaish militants yelling “Bugti Zindaband” or “Long live Bugti” are actually voting against their interests since the Nawab’s narrow goals of Balochi liberation were diametrically opposed to their broader narrative of religious violence. Such are what passes for politics in Pakistan.
While Lashkar-e-Taiba’s primary aims are launching attacks across the Line of Control toward the Indian military in Jammu & Kashmir, their stated agenda has become much broader. Like Jaish-e-Mohammed, LeT has been partly co-opted into a wider global jihadist milieu. In the evolution of the ideological basis of Kashmiri separatism, these groups have stated their interest in attacking the architecture of the Indian state itself. Beyond that, they have resorted deploring Hinduism in the fashion of anti-Zionist Arab and Iranian groups decrying Judaism as an apostasy that stands in the way of their territorial aspirations. In the most unoriginal way they have equated India, whose destruction has become their raison d’etre, with Israel as part of an archipelago of anti-Muslim neo-colonial powers asserting themselves to destroy the global (although highly fissiparous) Islamic community.
LeT and JeM might sound almost like an exotic, murderous cults to those not familiar with Pakistan, but when I visited the southern city of Bahawalapur as a wandering college student less than a year before 9/11, Jaish-e-Mohammed was running their head office in the city, loud and proud with a corresponding set of charity offices and religious institutions all over Pakistan. Pakistan has border disputes with both Afghanistan and India and its militant groups can be used to irritate both and can easily provoke the Indian military to shift hundreds of thousands of soldiers with an inexpensive, coordinated suicide attack carried out by just a handful of cadres. For Pakistan, these armed formations with clerical justification are relatively easy to foster or deny depending on the current levels of Indo-Pakistani tension. The attack on Mumbai by a group like Lashkar can have one of two effects: India and Pakistan can move their forces along the border in a tired and expensive show of force as in 2002 or Pakistan and India’s respective civilian leadership can forge new ties in the name of counterterrorism and intergovernmental integration and work together, perhaps even with Kabul as a peripheral partner, to deescalate regional conflict. Let the international community encourage the latter.
Creating dramatic headlines on India’s west coast is an immense distraction from the reinvigorated interest in the war in eastern Afghanistan. It also helps to highlight the fact that the American strategy of dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan in isolation from Indo-Pakistani relations and their hot and cold war over Kashmir is a strategy that contains built-in obsolescence. Rather than the keep the Kashmir dispute simmering on the foreign policy back burner, it is in fact Palestine writ large.