"Sooner or later the Americans are going to leave the region. The problem isn’t that they will just leave, but that they might abandon the region altogether. That will leave us alone with these thousands of militants to deal with without any international support"
This bold statement about Pakistan’s militancy problem was given to me by a recently retired military officer in the Pakistan Army, who served at a key appointment during Operation Zalzala in 2008 in South Waziristan against domestic militants. According to another General of the Pakistan Army who was active in the Wana Operation against militants in 2004, Pakistan’s basic counterterrorism policy has been fairly simple: "either kill the terrorists wherever they are found, or coerce them to support your cause against the other anti-state militants." It is under this lens that Hafiz Saeed, founder of the banned Lashkar-e-Tayyaba needs to be understood.
Pakistan’s refusal to arrest Hafiz Saeed might seem confusing. A man carrying a 10 million dollar bounty on his head, and who has been charged by the United States and India for links to terrorism and hijacking, walks around freely in major city centers of Pakistan, is invited for television interviews, and now runs one of the country’s fastest growing charity organizations, Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD). What is more confusing still is the fact that while the United States has placed a handsome bounty on his head, it has been fairly silent over the issue ever since, and hasn’t been pushing the authorities in Pakistan to take any action against Saeed.
Recent interviews with key officials in the military and police forces of Pakistan revealed to this author that Hafiz Saeed has been left alone because although he might be a threat to India, at the moment he and his followers are not a threat to Pakistan.
The security establishment of Pakistan categorizes militant threats into three spheres: 1) Groups that are threat to Pakistan only, 2) Groups that are threat to both Pakistan and the United States, 3) Groups that are a threat to only the United States, India, or any other country. Hafiz Saeed, for Pakistan, falls into the third category. Moreover, if anything Hafiz Saeed has recently transformed and rebranded himself as a political and social actor renouncing violence altogether. Could Hafiz Saeed lead to a Sinn Fein-style of transformation of militant groups in Pakistan? According to some in the power circles of Pakistan, he certainly could.
Saeed is increasingly looked upon by the security establishment as a key figure who will, after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, mobilize the armed militants from different factions, and either pacify their animosity toward the Pakistan state, or encourage their evolution into political actors. Many in the establishment entertain the view that militants can only be dealt in their own language; in other words, by another militant on behalf of the establishment. But why Saeed?
Hafiz Saeed is a perfect mix of what the establishment requires: an anti-Indian down to the bone, a patriot in the sense that he would not rise up against the Pakistani state, Saeed is considered radical enough by all types of militants, which allows him to sit down and negotiate with groups like the sectarian Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the anti-government Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). But he is not motivated by sectarian differences – something that is particularly attractive to the security establishment in the midst of the wave of sectarian and religious violence crippling Pakistan.
In a sense, Saeed is the new face of the evolution of militancy in Pakistan, the kind that Humaira Iqtidar predicts in her book, Secularizing Islamists: Jama’at-e-Islami and Jama’at-ud-Da’wa in Urban Pakistan, from far right extremism to center right, and then to progressive. Saeed’s evolution into a political actor, along with his charismatic ability to mobilize thousands of people, is what makes him marketable to an establishment that is desperately seeking ways to counter terrorism in Pakistan during and after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. In the words of Saeed, "The militant struggle helped grab the world’s attention," he told the New York Times, in what would have been an unimaginable interview even a year ago. "But now the political movement is stronger, and it should be at the forefront of the struggle."
While Saeed was once used as a pivotal player against India in Kashmir, the establishment in Pakistan is currently more concerned with the internal threat that Pakistan faces from groups like the TTP. A senior police official who has led several offenses against militants in southern Punjab told me that he believes "Saeed has been redirected and is now being used as a tool to ensure the disarmament and evolution of militant groups in Pakistan".
The analysis of this police official makes even more sense when juxtaposed with the recent rise of the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC), which is a consortium of over 36 right wing and religious organizations. DPC is one of the movements led by Hafiz Saeed that has united and mobilized followers of different radical ideologies, which Pakistani officials hope will create a force to broker peace between the government and militants. In other words, Hafiz Saeed is seen as a middle-man between the anti-state militants and the security establishment of Pakistan. And for this reason, Pakistan is unlikely to act against or compromise on Hafiz Saeed, despite overwhelming pressure from India, and dossier of evidence suggesting links between Hafiz Saeed and terrorism.
Saeed has successfully maintained his relevance and importance to the establishment of Pakistan, and is now being cultivated as a major political actor who could ensure that the militants disarm, and will negotiate peace on behalf of the establishment. It remains to be seen whether this policy will eventually work, but the fact is that Pakistan really doesn’t seem to have any other option to fight the ever growing number of militants. And until this policy fails to bear fruit, Pakistan will have to live with the burden of being blamed for supporting militants like Hafiz Saeed.
Hussain Nadim is a faculty member at the Department of Government and Public Policy at National University of Science and Technology (NUST), in Islamabad. He was previously a Visiting Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org