The Lashkar project

Its unleashing is rooted in the existential crisis faced by Pak’s army-led establishment.

Written by Praveen Swami | Published: December 11, 2014 12:05 am
LeT’s jihadist credentials, Pakistan’s military-led state now hopes, will win over the powerful Islamist constituency in Punjab and Pakistan’s northwest, for the state. LeT’s jihadist credentials, Pakistan’s military-led state now hopes, will win over the powerful Islamist constituency in Punjab and Pakistan’s northwest, for the state.

He appeared on horseback before the iconic Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore last Thursday, the beast swaying somewhat alarmingly below his not-inconsiderable girth, to proclaim before thousands of cheering cadre brought in on special trains that it was the eve of the Ghazwa-e-Hind. Neo-fundamentalists believe that the Prophet said the war to establish Islamic rule in India would be waged by an army rising from the fabled deserts of Khorasan before the day of judgement. “The Ghazwa-e-Hind is inevitable,” announced Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, head of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), parent organisation of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT). “Kashmir will be freed, 1971 will be avenged and the Gujarat victims will get justice, god willing.”

Ever since last Friday’s lethal attack on a military station in Uri, believed to have been conducted by a LeT assault unit, India’s security services have been wondering if bombs and bullets could follow the barrage of hostile words. After 26/11, international pressure pushed Pakistan to force the LeT to retreat. In recent years, though, it has steadily become more visible. These fears are well founded. The unleashing of Saeed is rooted in the existential crisis faced by Pakistan’s army-led establishment. For them, the LeT is a critical line of defence against jihadists who threaten their survival — a lifeline, as it were, that the state hopes to use to drag itself out of a rising jihadist tide.

Ever since 2010, as Pakistan slipped slowly towards a full-blown war with Islamists seeking to overthrow the state, Saeed emerged at the head of a jihadist coalition that cast itself as the defender of Pakistan. In March 2010, a jihadist convention held at Kotli drew speakers from terrorist groups collectively calling themselves the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC). The LeT’s Muzaffarabad-based commander, Abdul Wahid Kashmiri, addressed the Pakistan government: “You beg water from India, whereas we are battling to levy jizya (a tax on conquered non-Muslims)”.

That May, the JuD’s Hafiz Abdul Rehman Makki and the Jamaat-e-Islami’s Farid Paracha were joined by Ejaz Chaudhury from Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf, to voice anger at India’s alleged choking of rivers. Makki, a key LeT ideologue, said India was working to “destroy the next generation of Pakistan”. Flowering slowly into a 40-member coalition, the DPC threatened, at massive rallies, to lay siege to parliament. It cast the ruling Pakistan People’s Party as traitors, unwilling to defend Pakistan from its enemies.

The context to this development was simple. Facing ever-rising levels of terrorist violence, a succession of peace deals with jihadists in the north-west having disintegrated, the Pakistan army hoped to use a state-sponsored coalition of Islamists to undermine the legitimacy of its adversaries. Figures like Ehsanullah Ehsan, the spokesperson for the anti-state Tehreek-e-Taliban, cast the army as an apostate in the pay of the US. In his speeches, Saeed responded by assailing anti-state jihadists as agents of India and Israel.

Evidence exists that the LeT’s post 26/11 rebirth was state-sponsored. Budget documents for 2012-2013 showed the JuD received a grant in aid of Rs 61.35 million. Finance Minister Mujtaba Shuja-ur-Rehman also announced his government intended to set up a Rs 350-million knowledge park in Muridke.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government also has a long-standing relationship with the LeT. In June 2010, Punjab minister Rana Sanaullah told the BBC that his government had given JuD institutions some $940,000 in grants. Less than two years earlier, following the 26/11 attacks, Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN had promised that his government would “proscribe the JuD and take other consequential actions, as required, including the freezing of assets”. This promise, clearly, wasn’t kept.

The reasons for Pakistan’s military-led coalition turning to the Islamists were rooted in history. In 1956, the country’s first constitution declared Pakistan an Islamic republic — a notion unknown to classical theology, and invented by early 20th century ideologues — and mandated that no laws repugnant to the Quran and Hadith would be passed.

Later, General Ayub Khan excised the prefix “Islamic” from Pakistan’s name, but nonetheless appointed a council of clerics to guide the state. Then PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in turn, bowed to clerical pressure, pushed forward with anti-minorities measures and declared Islam the state religion. General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq oversaw the full bloom of this process. Influenced by the ideas of Islamist ideologue Abul Ala Mawdudi, General Zia built a new model army, concerned not just with defending the state’s frontiers against its adversaries, but also with reinventing Pakistan itself.

In a 1991 article in the Green Book, an official army journal, Commodore Tariq Majid explained the role of jihadists in this new state: “The Islamic state, apart from the standing forces, keeps a volunteer force of the people and employs the other lot of able-bodied manpower to strengthen the other elements of the military system during wartime.” Brigadier Saifi Ahmad Naqvi, writing in the 1994 Green Book, put it thus: “Pakistan is an ideological state, based on the ideology of Islam.” Therefore, “the existence and survival of Pakistan depend upon complete implementation of Islamic ideology in [the] true sense. If the ideology is not preserved then the very existence of Pakistan becomes doubtful.”

The LeT was born in pursuit of this project. In 1982, Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi, the key organiser of 26/11, ended his studies at the Jami’a Muhammadia seminary in Gujranwala, and left to fight in Afghanistan’s Loya Paktia region. He was repelled, though, by local jihadists’ freewheeling religious customs. In ’84, he broke away and formed a new group drawing legitimacy from the neo-fundamentalist Ahl-e-Hadith sect.

In Lahore, meanwhile, Saeed, his brother-in-law, Makki, and Zafar Iqbal, all teachers of Islam at the Islamic University of Engineering and Technology, had formed a religious group, and decided to sponsor Lakhvi’s fledgling organisation. The group gained the support of Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden’s mentor, and set up its first training camps in Afghanistan in 1987. From 1990 or so, the birth of the Kashmir jihad gave the LeT a new opportunity. It entered operations in 1993, as the ISI grew increasingly disillusioned with fractious, and unreliable, ethnic-Kashmiri jihadist groups.

The Markaz Dawa wal’Irshad, as the LeT’s parent body was then known, received funds to purchase property in Muridke, 30 km from Lahore, where it set up multiple higher education, medical and welfare facilities. By 2001, the organisation was operating in at least 74 districts. Part of the cash came from Saudi jihad financiers, notably Sheikh Abu Abdul Aziz, Mahmood Bahaziq and Lakhvi’s brother-in-law, Abdur Rahman Sarehi, who was held in 2003 for his connections with bin Laden.

The LeT’s jihadist credentials, Pakistan’s military-led state now hopes, will win over the large, and powerful, Islamist constituency in Punjab and Pakistan’s northwest, for the state. To do this, though, it will have to show that its jihadist project is a serious one — precisely the reason for last Friday’s lethal attack. In turn, anti-state jihadists have begun to sharpen their own appeals to Pakistani nationalist sentiments, vowing attacks against India.

Islamabad knows the dangers: large-scale terrorist attacks could well lead to war, as it almost did after 26/11. Pakistan, battered by internal war, knows that it can afford this even less than India. The army has few helping hands to reach out to, though, other than the portly prophet of the apocalypse.

praveen.swami@expressindia.com

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