Friday, October 16, 2009

Lashkar-e-Taiba - Pakistan's Hezbollah

One group absent from the concoction of Punjabi groups joining the Pashtun Taliban rebellion is Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT). Although it recruits from the same general area, the other groups are Deobandi (Pakistan’s homegrown Islamic extremists) whereas LeT is Dar Ahl Hadith, which is basically the Pakistani-offshoot of the Saudi Wahabis. The theological divisions are not enormous and there are links. But LeT appears to be more careful and disciplined in its strategic thinking. It has not been involved in significant violence within Pakistan and has not taken on the Pakistani government. It also appears to have independent funding sources (initial stake money was apparently from Saudi Arabia, but it has since developed its own fund-raising networks.) While there are far fewer Ahl Hadith adherents in Pakistan then Deobandis (or Barelvis or Shia), LeT itself is one of the larger groups – the ISI reports they have 150,000 members. LeT runs schools, hospitals, and other social services along with an extensive print media empire. In short, it is a Hezbollah-like organization with multiple facets, the ability to innovate tactically, and choose its operations strategically (like the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai.)

Saeed Stands Alone
This is important background to the recent Pakistani court decision to dismiss incitement charges against LeT leader Hafiz Mohammed Saeed. B. Raman has a fine analysis here. A few additional points are in order. Westerners love the independent Pakistani judiciary when it is “democratic” but not when it is actually doing its job under the law. The real issue is the way in which Saeed was prosecuted. The charges were incitement – these are loser charges that only make Saeed more popular. Incitement against India is in theory illegal – but is also admired by many in Pakistan.

Saeed is officially head of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which officially has nothing to do with LeT (see previous post.) One imagines evidence could be produced to prove this lack of connection false – but the Pakistani government does not seem interested in producing it. At this point, Pakistan cannot afford to open up a second front against the LeT – not with serious shooting in Wazirstan and the likelihood that operations in the Punjabi heartland will be necessary. The Pakistani army faces several challenges, first every unit deployed is a unit not facing India (the military’s core obsession), second the military is not designed for counter-insurgency operations, third much of the Pakistani army is Punjabi so operations there are fraught with potential morale problems.

It is unknown if the Pakistani high command views LeT as an asset or a problem, but given all of their immediate problems and the LeT’s scrupulous avoidance of taking on the Pakistani government it is easy to see why Pakistani leaders would avoid this particular fight.

They will not be able to avoid it forever.

Pakistan's Jihadi Stew

The aftermath of the attack on the Pakistani military’s GHQ earlier this week has brought attention to the complex stew of jihadi groups running around the Punjab. Imtiaz Gul provides an overview at Foreign Policy while the venerable B. Raman provides another at Outlook India. The story starts with the Saudis supporting anti-Shia groups in Pakistan to counter Iranian-backed Shia militancy. This was exacerbated by local animosities in regions were Pakistan’s Shia minority were wealthy landowners. The main anti-Shia group was Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP). Reportedly it received substantial state support under General Zia who wanted to counter his political rivals. SSP became involved in politics and spun-off violent groups, most notably Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) in 1996. Supposedly there is no connection between the political SSP and the terrorist LeJ. This is an organizational maneuver that has been repeated endlessly in the Pakistani jihadi milieu. Supposedly, both of these groups have been banned – but banned groups in Pakistan never seem to disappear, they just change their names.

The anti-Shia groups also worked with the Pakistani government during the Afghan war, where they forged links with the Arab jihadis and the Afghans. When Pakistan began supporting jihadi groups to fight in Kashmir the anti-Shia groups were an entryway. An effective unraveling of the Kashmiri groups is an enormous task – a small piece of the picture can be seen here. Individuals often move between groups – either because the group is shifting identity because of too much international attention or just for better “career opportunities.” Jaish-e-Mohammed was founded after Harkat ul-Ansar official Maulana Masood Azhar was freed from Indian prison and found that he was a popular figure. So rather then rejoin his old outfit, now renamed Harkat ul-Mujahideen (after Harkat ul-Ansar became a banned terrorist organization) Azhar founded JeM. Azhar was a model jihadi entrepreneur, with the venture capital provided (reportedly) by the ISI.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Man vs. Mosquito: The Ultimate Insurgent

The past week I celebrated the Jewish holiday Sukkot. During this holiday, observant Jews “dwell” in their sukkah – a temporary structure. This “dwelling,” depending on climate and inclination can vary from formally living in it to merely taking some meals in the sukkah. Personally I like to spend as much time in it as possible. One side effect is that our back door is open a lot and mosquitos get in our house. My wife does not like mosquitos (but they love her), so I sat up one night and tried to hunt down the ones that got into our house. Not easy. Fast and hard to spot, my most effective anti-mosquito tactic was to sit very still and let them get a taste of my arm. A draining, tedious strategy, and in the process I got bored and had a few beers which only reduced my effectiveness. If I had had to deal with more than a handful I would have had to turn to chemical warfare.

The experience brought to mind the classic line from Robert Taber’s 1965 classic on counter-insurgency, The War of the Flea: Guerilla Warfare in Theory and Practice
Analogically, the guerilla fights the war of the flea, and his military enemy suffers the dog’s disadvantages: too much to defend;too small, ubiquitous, and agile an enemy to come to grips with. If the war continues long enough - this is the theory – the dog succumbs to exhaustion and anemia without ever having found anything on which to close its jaws or rake with its claws.
It was a humbling experience. I guess the one difference is that insurgents can be deterred and co-opted. Mosquitos are remorseless blood-sucking machines.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Quetta Front & the Baluchi Factor

As fighting in Afghanistan, particularly the south, intensifies U.S. policy-makers are beginning to shift their gaze to Afghanistan’s southern border with Pakistan and wondering if the northern regions of Baluchistan are – like the FATA on Afghanistan’s eastern border – serving as a Taliban haven. U.S. officials have even claimed that Taliban head Mullah Omar and his top leaders are living in Baluchistan’s capital Quetta.

This has, unsurprisingly, set off a spasm of denials in Pakistan along with the immediate conclusion in Pakistan that the U.S. was planning drone attacks in Quetta. Not helpful, in the context of American attempts to attach conditions to aid in the Kerry-Lugar bill.

Old News
Two points about this “new” front. First, Quetta should have been on the radar screen from the beginning – back in May 2003 The New York Times reported on Taliban gathering in Quetta. The reporter Carlotta Gall and her Pakistani photographer Akhtar Soomro were beaten up by Pakistani intelligence agents for their trouble.

Pakistan’s Other Insurgency
The second point is that most of the articles speculating about the Taliban leadership residing in Quetta ignore the ongoing Baluchi insurgency in the province. This is not an irrelevant point. The northern part of Baluchistan is dominated by Pashtuns the tribe that spreads across much of Afghanistan and into the NWFP and FATA. Quetta, the provincial capital, is primarily Pashtun but close to the Baluchi/Pashtun fault-line. The Baluchis have never particularly wanted to be a part of Pakistan. This interview with an underground Baluchi rebel leader gives some background as to the depth of Baluchi resentment against the “Punjabis” and the way their activities in Baluchistan are perceived. This article by a Pakistani journalist expands on these themes, arguing that Islamabad has systematically sought to exploit Baluchistan’s resources while not building physical or social infrastructure in the province that benefits its people. Most interesting, he argues that Islamabad sought to play the Pashtuns against the Baluchis and encouraged Islamist Pashtun groups as a bulwark against Baluchi seperatists.

As discussed on this blog before, Pakistan is rife with ethnic cleavages which complicate its counter-terror and development. The Pakistani army turned against the tribal Pashtuns when they became a clear threat to the state – coming down from their mountain strongholds and into the “settled regions.” But the Baluchistan Pashtuns may still be viewed as an asset, balancing the Baluchi separatists and providing a needed line into the Taliban and Afghanistan should (as many Pakistani strategists expect) the U.S. quit the region.

Books could be written about this – there are no pat policy solutions. But if the U.S. hopes to work with Pakistan to clamp down on this southern haven and generally build a stronger and more stable Pakistan, it will need to consider the Baluchi factor and its impact on Pakistani thinking.