Pakistan Is Inviting Its Favorite Jihadis Into Parliament

It might seem like the Pakistani military is trying to defang its ostensible adversaries. It's really trying to empower them.

Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, head of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) addresses demonstrators on Kashmir Solidarity day in Lahore on February 5, 2015. (Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)
Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, head of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) addresses demonstrators on Kashmir Solidarity day in Lahore on February 5, 2015. (Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

The notorious jihadi Hafiz Saeed has apparently had a change of heart. Like many extremists in Pakistan, the 67-year-old firebrand used to rage against democracy. But earlier this month a new political party, controlled in all but name by Saeed — the leader of the militant organization Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the alleged mastermind of a string of horrific massacres in India, including the killing of 166 people in Mumbai nine years ago — peacefully contested its first by-election for national parliament.

Bearded party workers from the Milli Muslim League wandered the streets of Lahore in hi-visibility jackets. Posters of Saeed were plastered across the city, in direct contravention of a ruling by the Election Commission, which does not recognize the MML as a party. The candidate backed by the MML, Yaqoob Sheikh, himself designated a terrorist by the U.S. Treasury in 2012, notched up an unexpectedly high 5 percent of the vote for the former National Assembly seat of recently ousted prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. (A further 6 percent went to another new Islamist party, the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, founded to cherish the legacy of a man who was hanged for the murder of a senator campaigning for reform of the country’s strict blasphemy laws.)

Why have bloodthirsty, anti-democratic groups suddenly chosen to enter the world of politics — and how have they been allowed to operate so openly? For the answer, look to Pakistan’s army. Earlier this year, according to Muhammad Amir Rana of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, the military held successful talks with several “banned organizations” over a deradicalization strategy that would, in theory, see them drop their AK-47s and pick up clipboards.

Well-meaning supporters of the strategy argue that not all extremists can be killed or locked up. Some point to the IRA in Ireland or Islamist radicals in Indonesia as proof that political engagement can defang terrorist groups. Others ask why the political transition now seen as the inevitable path of the Afghan Taliban should not also apply to Pakistan’s own jihadis.

But deradicalization is tricky at the best of times, and the conditions that made it work elsewhere in the past simply don’t apply to Pakistan today. Most of all, it needs a state willing to threaten nonstate actors with something they would rather avoid (a military offensive) while proffering the reward of something they want (political influence). In Pakistan, neither condition is fulfilled. In fact, the “mainstreaming” project appears just as likely to strengthen jihadi militants as quell them — and you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder whether that isn’t really the point.

By global standards, the Pakistani army is large, well equipped, and well disciplined. But it’s next door to India, a foe three times its size, which has beaten it soundly in every conflict the two have ever had. That leaves the military willing to resort to the darkest methods to even the score.

The army has been chasing the possibility of a “good Taliban” for decades — starting with the Afghan Taliban itself, sponsored and supported by Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence. The main reason that Lashkar-e-Taiba and its charitable front, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, survive under Hafiz Saeed’s leadership is that as far as the military is concerned, they’re the good jihadis.

Lashkar-e-Taiba has never carried out an attack within Pakistan — at least one that’s made the press. Rather, it has served as a proxy for the military in its asymmetric war with India, particularly in the disputed territory of Kashmir. According to David Headley, one of the Lashkar-e-Taiba members involved in the 2008 attack on Mumbai, the ISI provided “financial, military, and moral” support for the operation.

The army proved how effective it can be in a recent sustained assault on the jihadis it doesn’t like — those who carry out attacks within the nation. A crackdown in the northeastern tribal areas came as a furious reply to the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s 2014 massacre at a school in Peshawar. Deaths from terrorism have since fallen by two-thirds.

But none of the circumstances that have historically shielded Lashkar-e-Taiba from a similar military crackdown have changed — in fact, some of them have become more entrenched. The belligerent tone of Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, has fuelled the military’s hard-wired belief that it must retain all its assets in the 70-year-old conflict.

Meanwhile, the ever-expanding charitable works of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which the armed forces have supported by granting it permission to work in parts of the country that international nongovernmental organizations and other local organizations cannot reach, have softened public opinion. A popular actor congratulated Hafiz Saeed after the Lahore by-election, praising him as a “righteous man.” While much of Pakistan’s civilian elite share the condemnatory line of its English-language newspapers, read by 2 percent of the population, the broader public tends to a less harsh view. Just 36 percent of the population holds an unfavorable opinion of Lashkar-e-Taiba, compared to 60 percent for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, according to a 2015 Pew survey.

If the army has no clear incentive to wholly “deradicalize” Lashkar-e-Taiba at this point in time, it has more than enough to present its old strategic asset as newly defanged in order to ward off international pressure. America has reduced its aid to Pakistan for housing, in the words of U.S. President Donald Trump, “the very terrorists who we are fighting.” Allies closer to home have recently shown signs of losing patience with its tolerance of favored jihadi groups.

At last month’s BRICS summit among five of the world’s most rapidly developing nations, a statement was issued condemning — for the first time — Lashkar-e-Taiba and its affiliates by name as a threat to regional stability. Pakistan’s civilian government daringly echoed the criticism. It cannot lift a finger against Saeed, given the military’s stranglehold over counterterrorism and foreign policy. But the sum effect of such glancing blows, and the potential diplomatic isolation that would result from maintaining the status quo, may have convinced elements of the military to make a show of “politically deradicalizing” its historic playmates.

The transformation might, moreover, yield strategic fruit. The army is known to loathe the recently ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who favored peace with India.

And the reduced margin of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s victory in Lahore last week, compared to the general election in 2013, owed much to the rise of the MML and its fellow religious party, which split the right-wing vote. The new parties’ street power alone might sway the future course of the country’s politics.

At large MML rallies, supporters chanted “Long live the Pakistan Army!” and — by coincidence or not — the party’s main goal is said to be opposing repeal of the broad, Islam-based articles of the constitution that the Supreme Court used to justify Sharif’s removal. It would take a brave politician to speak out in favor of reform when Jamaat-ud-Dawa and the MML control huge and boisterous vote banks.

Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior has so far resisted granting the Milli Muslim League the status of a political party — hence the need for MML to support its nominally independent candidate at arm’s length. But it may not be able to hold out much longer. One challenge the civilian government faces in dealing with Saeed’s organizations is the smoothness with which they adapt to rules. Jamaat-ud-Dawa, his charity, works zealously across the country. Its members carry out disaster relief, run around 200 schools, and have deliberately offered support to minorities — such as Hindus and Shiites — to win more public sympathy. The country’s former military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, referred to Jamaat-ud-Dawa as a “very fine NGO” in an interview earlier this year. Military officials point out that if the MML submits to the requirements of Pakistan’s Constitution, whether they “wear beards or not, they would not be stopped [from forming a party] anywhere in the world.”

That runs a little wide of the truth, and, of course, operating a political party with one hand doesn’t prevent fostering jihad, covertly, with the other. Consider Hezbollah, for example. To date, Saeed’s outfits have played a similar double game as the Lebanese organization, which grew its militant wing alongside a burgeoning political front.

Jamaat-ud-Dawa, funded by charitable donations, operates from a sprawling base outside Lahore. Yet it was on the large lake inside those headquarters that Lashkar-e-Taiba militants reportedly prepared for their amphibious assault on Mumbai. If Saeed slips into the political mainstream, such practices suggest he will merely funnel some of the financial rewards to terrorist activities, while instructing his henchmen to smile for election officials.

The Pakistan army may find that its strategy backfires in another way. The whole point of using militants against India is to maintain a facade of plausible deniability. But bringing Saeed into the system puts all that at risk. After Lashkar-e-Taiba militants shot up the Indian parliament in 2001, 800,000 troops massed the border as India and Pakistan — two nuclear-armed nations — nearly went to war. The Pakistani state denied it had anything to do with the attack. That excuse was thin at the time. Repeating it now would wear it to vanishing point.

Memphis Barker is the Economist correspondent in Pakistan.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola