Let out of the purdah

Don’t take the charade too seriously

Now unless you think that dossiers-and-lawsuits is somehow an effective way for India to secure itself against attacks by Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex, you should neither be surprised nor overly concerned over the Lahore High Court’s decision to release the Lashkar-e-Taiba chief from house arrest. Of course his release reveals Pakistan’s lack of seriousness in acting against the jihadi groups. As does the fact that there were no charges pressed against him—he was only under ‘preventive custody’. This going in and out of the purdah—to use Sumit Ganguly’s term—is an old routine. In fact, it shows a lack of seriousness on India’s part to expect the Pakistani legal system to somehow solve the problem pf cross-border terrorism. Dossiers-and-lawsuits simply cannot be the centre-piece of India’s strategic response. [See: Beyond the cosmetic crackdown and after the mea culpa]

Coming to Mr Saeed’s release, what might have been the motivations and the terms of the deal? The Pakistani army is engaged in a battle against the ‘Taliban’ in Malakand and Waziristan, it is likely to want to placate the jihadis in its heartland. Also, Mr Saeed’s case fits a pattern of judgements coming from the ‘restored’ judiciary which also freed A Q Khan and Maulana Abdul Aziz of the Red Mosque in recent months. Like the others, Mr Saeed’s freedom is likely to have come under the understanding that for the time being, he is permitted to indulge in rhetoric, but not the kind of mischief that would get the Pakistani government in more trouble. That’s not bad news.

There is a chance that Mr Saeed’s release is linked to the onset of the summer infiltration season in Jammu & Kashmir. But surely, the resourceful LeT chief is unlikely to have serious impediments in directing the operations while being under house arrest. That would even provide alibis, fig leafs and mitigation pleas to all those who might need them.

Why lose sleep over a few thousand tribesmen

The Talibanisation of Pakistan does not necessarily need the Taliban to take over

Over at Informed Comment, Juan Cole argues that fears of the Taliban taking over Pakistan are overblown (via Chapati Mystery):

The Pakistani Taliban are not going to take over the Pakistani government. That worry doesn’t keep me up at night. They are small, and operate in a rugged, remote area of the country. They can set off bombs and be a destabilizing force. But a few thousand tribesmen can’t take over a country of 165 million with a large urban middle class that has a highly organized and professional army. [Juan Cole]

Coming from a professor of history, no less, that is a shocking statement. A few thousand violent individuals can well take over a country if the general population is supine and the security apparatus sympathetic. So how many violent individuals did it take on October 12, 1999 when General Musharraf seized power? Next door in Iran, Wikipedia tells us, “the final collapse of the Pahlavi dynasty occurred shortly after on February 11 (1979) when Iran’s military declared itself “neutral” after guerrillas and rebel troops overwhelmed troops loyal to the Shah in armed street fighting.”

The political crisis triggered by the Supreme Court’s disqualification of the Sharif brothers does threaten to destabilise Pakistan further. Though unlikely at this point, it might even result in yet another military coup. This does not make the threat of a ‘Taliban takeover’ any less serious. That’s because ‘Taliban takeover’ does not necessarily mean a regime that places Baitullah Mehsud or a similar character in power. It could well place the army chief or even a politician at the helm, leave the civil bureaucracy largely intact, but replace the tattered 1973 constitution with the sharia. It won’t take long for the assorted jihadi groups in Pakistan’s cities and the countryside to start moral policing and dispense Taliban justice. The few thousand tribesmen are not alone—there are several tens of thousands of jihadis and jihadi sympathisers who can be mobilised for consolidating the revolution. Don’t forget their organisational capabilities were recognised to be superior to that of the Pakistani government in the aftermath of the earthquake in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in 2005.

To be sure, it is possible that developments in recent weeks have caused excessive panic in Washington. As Matthew Yglesias points out “Pakistan’s been a troubled place for a long time and Americans shouldn’t confuse a rapid increase in our level of interest in Pakistan’s troubles with a rapid escalation in the scale of the troubles.” It is possible that the military-jihadi complex wants to signal by actions what Musharraf did with words (“after me, the Taliban”). Even so, it is undeniable that Pakistan has never quite rolled back the first creeping then marching fundamentalism that has affected the state and society…since 1947. This at once creates militants with an agenda to overturn the political order, and also legitimises their cause in the minds of the people. A revolution is not only possible, it can be swift. Wikipedia also says that the Iranian revolution was “unique for the surprise it created throughout the world.” There’s no excuse to be surprised another time.

Taliban, Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex and the United States

Some Taliban are allied with Pakistan, against America. Other Taliban are against Pakistan because of America. None of them are ‘moderate’.

Choose your pick: aspirin or scotch. You’ll need help to cope with this week’s news from Pakistan.

First, there is Mullah Omar and his shura, all but openly operating out of Quetta in Balochistan, reliably with the connivance of Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex. Mullah Omar’s group is primarily interested in fighting Western troops in Afghanistan.

Second, there is the Pakistan Taliban, operating out of Bajaur and Swat, in Pakistan’s FATA region. Baitullah Mehsud and Maulana Fazlullah are primarily interested in fighting Pakistani troops in Pakistan (although the converse is not entirely true). Even so, Messrs Mehsud and Fazlullah are patriotic Pakistanis, as the Pakistan’s military spokesman informed us after the terrorist attacks on Mumbai, going to the extent of threatening to attack India in case of the latter declared war on Pakistan. Then again, they just threatened to kill the leaders of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hizbul Mujahideen, for not taking up arms against the Pakistani government.

Third, out of the blue, or rather out of the grave the Pakistani army presumably dug for him, comes Mustafa Abu-al Yazid, one of al-Qaeda’s ‘top leaders’, with a video threatening India with all sorts of dire consequences were it to go to war with Pakistan. The video is out of pattern with those released by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri and could well have been the handiwork of the ISI’s psy-ops unit.

Confusing? Well, yes. But even so, it should be clear that other than Messrs Mehsud and Fazlullah (who form the core of the Pashtun militant groups that form the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan) the Pakistani military establishment is comfortable with the other jihadi groups—whether it is Mullah Omar’s Taliban, al-Qaeda, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hizbul Mujahideen and groups fighting in Afghanistan, like the Haqqani militia.

And if there is a problem between Mehsud & Fazlullah and the Pakistani government, it is largely due to the deployment of the Pakistani army in FATA. But to the extent that Pakistan’s military establishment complex finds it unacceptable for the Pashtun tribesmen to extend a Taliban-style regime over FATA and NWFP—which will happen if the army backs out completely—this creates trouble for both Pakistan’s civilian government and the military establishment. This is the big problem: and as K Subrahmanyam and M D Nalapat envisage in this month’s Pragati—the war to Talibanise or DeTalibanise Pakistan is inevitable.

If we take Hamid Mir’s word for it, the fact that the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hizbul Mujahideen have come under the Pashtun Pakistan Taliban’s crosshairs validates the use of the term "military-jihadi complex", as the military and the jihadi establishments are joined at the hip. But if the Pakistan Taliban carry out their threat, can we expect the Lashkar-e-Taiba to direct its energies against the Mehsuds and the Falzullahs? Actually, it’s not a question of possibility—it ispossible. The more important question is what will it take?

Further, the alliance between Mullah Omar and the Pakistani military establishment may well have survived the Bush administration. But there are signs that under Barack Obama, the United States might attempt to crush the Quetta shura, despite Pakistan’s best attempts to convince it otherwise. In the event that the United States manages to sever this alliance then Mullah Omar might well make common cause with Messrs Mehsud and Fazlullah, thereby driving the Pakistan military establishment to side with the United States. Indeed, this is the outcome that Richard Holbrooke and General David Petraeus should be working towards.

What about al-Qaeda then? Whatever might happen to its relationships with the Taliban groups, the Pakistani military establishment has an enduring interest—beans, cats and skeletons being involved—in keeping Messrs bin Laden and Zawahiri out of US hands. Besides, it is al-Qaeda that helps Pakistan by providing ‘senior leaders’ who can be killed by UAV-fired missiles, and yes, occasionally by appearing in threatening videos.