The South Asia Channel

The bin Laden aftermath: Pakistan’s militant milieu

Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs ignited debate about al-Qaeda’s future as well as the future of militancy in Pakistan, where various outfits retain the capability to strike locally and globally. In the near term, analysts expect al-Qaeda Central’s leaders in Pakistan will seek to ensure their security and execute ...

BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs ignited debate about al-Qaeda’s future as well as the future of militancy in Pakistan, where various outfits retain the capability to strike locally and globally. In the near term, analysts expect al-Qaeda Central’s leaders in Pakistan will seek to ensure their security and execute a succession plan in the wake of bin Laden’s capture, necessitating a communications lockdown and forestalling any direct retaliation. Instead, al-Qaeda Central is likely to rely on other outfits to respond on its behalf, either locally or globally. It already has called on fellow Muslims in Pakistan "to rise up and revolt to cleanse this shame that has been attached to them by a clique of traitors and thieves who sold everything to the enemies."

The threat of retaliation comes from a mélange of militants from various established outfits, splinter groups and independent networks. The internecine nature of this confederation also means that even if bin Laden’s demise does provide space for a political resolution in Afghanistan, the threat from militants in Pakistan is unlikely to disappear. Despite understandable frustration, the United States must continue to engage with Pakistan. But the nature of that engagement should change, with a view toward the longer term, which means a greater focus on building civilian as opposed to military capacity. 

Taking Stock of the Major Players

The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has already promised retribution in Pakistan, which is understandable given that it has acted as a stalking horse for al-Qaeda in the past. Although the TTP has been on the front end of attacks in Pakistan, bin Laden’s organization is believed to have been pulling some of the strings behind the scenes. Militants formerly associated with Punjabi outfits, such as Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), could contribute to a fresh round of attacks, as they have to previous operations in the past. These groups forged ties with al-Qaeda during the 1990s and some of their members began working with it to launch attacks in Pakistan soon after 9/11. Thus, at precisely the same time the army and ISI can expect additional (and deserved) pressure from the U.S. to stop playing favorites and crack down on all of the militants on Pakistani soil, the country may also be poised to witness a new wave of violence.

Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, maintains the most robust transnational networks of any Pakistani militant outfit and is viewed as an increasingly global threat. However, despite the fact that its above-ground wing Jamaat-ul-Dawa organized street demonstrations to mourn bin Laden, it is far from certain the group would be willing to launch an operation on behalf of al-Qaeda. The army and ISI are believed to be putting significant pressure on LeT’s leaders to refrain from overtly engaging in attacks on Western interests abroad. Unless Pakistan wants a showdown with the United States this is unlikely to change. However, this also presumes a level of organizational coherence and control that may be at odds with the ground reality. LeT militants are present on both sides of the Durand Line, meaning not all of them rely on safe haven in Pakistan. Furthermore, individuals or factions within LeT can utilize its infrastructure as well as transnational capabilities to pursue their own operations without the leadership’s consent. Enhanced organizational integration with other outfits heightens the opportunities for freelancing, with former LeT members acting as an important bridge to al-Qaeda as well as other militant outfits.

Al-Qaeda is not a significant military force in Afghanistan, and any organizational turmoil it experiences is unlikely to impact the start of the spring fighting season. Neither the Taliban nor the Haqqani Network, the two most prolific actors in the Afghan insurgency, has embraced out-of-area attacks or operations in Pakistan, though the latter has supported actors that do. The bigger question is how bin Laden’s demise will impact their respective Pakistan-based leaderships.

The army and Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) are unlikely to end their support for either entity, both of which are considered essential to protecting Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan. However, America’s ability to unilaterally strike bin Laden’s compound in the heart of Pakistan provides it leverage, in part because the operation raised questions about the ability of the army and ISI to protect senior leaders in the Taliban and Haqqani Network. More importantly, although al-Qaeda’s connection to both of those entities goes deeper than just bin Laden’s history with either outfit, that personal relationship was an important one. Osama’s demise creates space for a political reconciliation in Afghanistan, in the event the U.S. chooses to pursue such a path. Problematically, there is no guarantee the army and ISI could, or would attempt to, dismantle the militant infrastructure in its entirety even if Afghanistan is settled according to Pakistan’s interests.

The Protean Militant Milieu

Historically, there were three loci in which militants in Pakistan were active: Afghanistan, Indian-administered Kashmir and sectarianism attacks at home. Two new areas of activity have emerged during the past several years: a revolutionary locus manifested by the insurgency against Pakistan, and a global locus characterized by out of area attacks against America and its allies. Sectarian attacks continue, and have become a means of destabilizing the state. The Kashmir jihad has stagnated, though LeT remains committed to that cause and to attacks against India. Afghanistan, on the other hand, has become a focal point for every major militant outfit as well as a host of smaller networks and splinter groups.

Regardless of official army and ISI policy vis-à-vis militants on its soil, any political settlement in Afghanistan is likely to have positive and negative ramifications at the ground level. With the Kashmir jihad moribund, the abatement of the Afghan insurgency would mark the first time in decades that Pakistani militants were not faced with active open fronts on which to fight. A solution deemed acceptable by the Taliban would provide an impetus for many militants to demobilize and would rob jihadist leaders of a valuable rallying cry. However, those unwilling to lay down their arms could drift further into the sectarian, revolutionary or global orbits. Furthermore, whereas the Taliban might be willing to break ties with al-Qaeda, other actors might not. At this point the country is host to a consortium of established outfits, splinters, networks and freelance operators whose most enduring feature is its protean nature. These actors will continue to pose a threat to Pakistan, its neighbors and the West until the entire militant edifice is torn down.

Too Big To Fail

The response in Pakistan has not been promising. By focusing on the raid into Pakistani territory and glossing over the fact that bin Laden was living on Pakistani soil, the army appears to be doubling down on obstinacy. Nor is it helpful that the government says it will refuse the U.S. access to those who survived the raid. The one glimmer of hope thus far was the statement earlier this week by the Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani, that the government would launch an investigation into how bin Laden managed to live for so long in Abbotobad and whether his support system included any serving officials. It now appears the military has taken charge of the investigation, which does not bode well for transparency. None of this is particularly surprising; even after being humbled by the U.S. raid the army remains the most powerful institution in the country, and regardless of what misgivings they may have, those in the civilian government have a history of circling the wagons in times like this.

Despite all of this, the United States must continue to engage Pakistan: first, because the Pakistani populace should not be punished for the behavior of its military leadership; second, because the United States cannot degrade the militant threat emanating from Pakistan on its own; third, because doing so would help to disprove the narrative in Pakistan that American will abandon it after objectives vis-à-vis al-Qaeda are achieved; and fourth, because Pakistani stability is necessary for greater stability in South Asia, a region in which the United States will continue to have equities for a long time to come.

The question is, who should the United States engage and assist? While recognizing the contributions and sacrifices the Pakistani military has made in the struggle against some militant outfits, it should also be apparent by now that relying so heavily on the military is not a recipe for long-term stability in a militant-free Pakistan. Instead, the U.S. should focus more attention on capacity building for civilian intelligence agencies and law enforcement, which are precisely the institutions that should be on the front lines of counter-terrorism in Pakistan.

This must be part of a wider realignment of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship and one that sees greater emphasis given to building up civilian institutions in Pakistan. For too long the United States has relied on the army as its primary interlocutor out of perceived operational necessity, often with frustrating results. The military-to-military relationship is an important one, but over-reliance on the army is at odds with the aim of fostering civilian governance in Pakistan. The United States finds itself with additional leverage this week, and should use some of it to promote that cause. Doing so is in keeping not only with American interests, but also American values.

Stephen Tankel is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of the forthcoming book, "Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba."

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