On Friday, November 25, the US State Department, and later the White House, reprimanded Pakistan for its act of freeing Hafiz Saeed from house arrest. This was stated to be a “step in the wrong direction”. Despite this being rated as a “very strong statement from the White House”, it is a step too late as it fails to impress Pakistan. Islamabad insists that it cannot take action against the LeT leader without seeing evidence that could be presented in a court of law. The Pakistan government’s consistent stand is that India never provided any concrete evidence linking Saeed or other LeT leaders with the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Moreover, in Pakistan there is no ongoing criminal case against Saeed, making it difficult for any court of law not to free him. The court ruled that in the absence of any formal charges against the LeT leader, it would not allow the Punjab government to extend the house arrest that started in January this year.
The decision might have surprised India and the US but it was the writing on the wall ever since terrorism charges against Saeed and his Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) were withdrawn last month. It did not make sense to keep him inside. All kind of clerics from historically less powerful militant backgrounds, like the Barelvis with their Tehreek-e-Labaik, have managed to build a bigger political stature than they deserve. The Barelvi radical and neo-militant upsurge seems to give an impression that the Pakistani state has shifted its support from the more organised Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith groups such as the Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) to the new bunch that are stalking the political government at the moment. Such an impression tends to disturb the internal organisational balance. It is a fact that the JeM and LeT/JuD are programmed differently and committed to the struggle in Kashmir and against India and are, thus, needed around, which is not the problem of the Barelvi radical-militant groups.
The other issue, which the state would argue, is that Saeed is needed to materialise the policy of mainstreaming the LeT/JuD through bringing them into the political mainstream. The Milli Muslim League (MML), a party born out of the ribs of the JuD, does not does benefit from Saeed being in jail. While a normal non-religious party would benefit from the incarceration or death of a leader, this does not apply to the MML. Its workers would energise and commit themselves much more to the struggle to counter the PML-N headed by Nawaz Sharif only if their leader is out and not behind closed doors.
In preparation for the 2018 elections, the ball for which seems to have rolled since Nawaz Sharif’s dismissal from power, Saeed can play a greater role if he is out in the open. He is an impressive speaker and can sufficiently motivate people, not just those belonging to his own sect, against Nawaz. In fact, in one of the first YouTube messages by Saeed, he condemned the sitting government for conspiring to change the law and undermining honour and respect for the Prophet. His ability to address audiences will prove to be an effective tool in slicing away public support for Nawaz Sharif. Given the establishment’s focus on tactics rather than strategy, it makes perfect sense for it to focus mainly on getting rid of Nawaz Sharif through planting Tehreek-e-Labaik or Saeed and his MML to disturb the country’s political future.
Saeed’s release, it must be kept in mind does not have any impact on the JuD’s larger operations. Saeed may be one of the prominent leaders but his house arrest did not have any impact on the functioning of his organisation. It continued to operate as normal. In any case, he was free to tweet or post messages on Facebook or other social media sites.
This appears to be a myopic plan considering that Pakistan is confronted with a much bigger issue of opposition from the US. However, the American card no longer works in Islamabad considering the realisation that the US needs Pakistan more than the other way around. In the backdrop of Washington’s tension with Iran, Pakistan continues to be the most viable option for transporting goods and materials to American men in uniform in Afghanistan. It was pressure from the Pentagon that lead to the State Department releasing the recent tranche of funds to Pakistan which was days before Saeed was released. The establishment believes that despite Trump’s bad temper, Pakistan is not dispensable. There is a fundamental relationship between Pakistan military and the Pentagon which is partly intact despite the anxiety expressed by American generals.
Even if links with the Pentagon have gone sour, Pakistan does not necessarily need Washington any more. Irrespective of the nervousness in the larger society regarding China’s position on Pakistan — Beijing joining the BRICS statement condemning terrorism has not gone down too well in Rawalpindi and Islamabad — there is immense confidence regarding the sustainability and longevity of relations between the two countries. Despite the fact that the belt-road-initiative (BRI) comprises of multiple routes, Pakistan is a fundamental showcase for the project. Pakistan believes that China cannot afford to abandon it. But what it also means is that Islamabad does not have any care in the world as it takes notice of America or India’s reaction to the freeing of Saeed.
Symbolically, the US has no influence over Islamabad, which is visible from the fact that state officials realise that they have little dependence on Washington or the West in general for financial resources. Major stakeholders in the non-governmental sector claim that the Economic Affairs Division (EAD) of the Ministry of Finance in Islamabad no longer even cares about money committed by the European Union which is seen as an extension of America’s political universe. The response is that Pakistan no longer needs to depend on the West but expects China to fill all sorts of gaps.
Under the circumstances, Saeed will continue to grow larger than life. He and his organisation have now become a symbol of the state’s geo-political power and independence. He will be dealt with when the state wants, not when Washington or Delhi get annoyed.