The Problem with 'Legitimate' Militancy

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Politics in Pakistan is often thought of as riddled with scandal and corruption. Even so, Pakistan’s political sphere took a dark turn earlier in August when Jamaat-Ud-Dawa, an organization the US accuses of being a front for the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, formed a new political party called the Milli Muslim League (MML). This development cast doubt on Pakistan’s willingness to act against Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the problematic distinction between militants that the state perceives as ‘useful’ and ones it does not. This unwillingness to take a hard stance against all militancy creates an unstable security climate that weakens Pakistan ability to combat radicalism and creates opportunities for transnational terrorists to flourish.

Jamaat-Ud-Dawa was declared a terrorist front group by the UN following the devastating 2008 attack on Mumbai. The organization is said to have provided cover and funding for Lashkar-e-Taiba which staged the 2008 three-day terror campaign that brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war. By masquerading as a charity organization, Jamaat-Ud-Dawa was accused by the UN of “financing, planning, facilitating, preparing or perpetrating of acts or activities” in connection to the Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The UN declaration required nations to freeze assets, suspend travel, and prevent weapons transfers to Jamaat-Ud-Dawa, in order to hamper their ability to engage in terrorist activity.

 Despite the UN’s actions, Jamaat-Ud-Dawa’s reemergence as a political actor is another sign that militancy is alive and well in Pakistani politics. The MML seeks to lift the house arrest of Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the leader of Jamaat-Ud-Dawa, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and a sanctioned terrorist. At the same time, Lashkar-e-Taiba has continues to be an active terror group, and operates more-or-less openly within Pakistan while continuing their insurgency in Kashmir.

The emergence of the MML as an actor on the political scene showcases Pakistan’s problem with double standards for militants. The issue arises from Pakistan’s long held policy of deploying insurgents to fight against its neighbors. The military establishment has used militants as ‘irregular forces’ to compensate for conventional weaknesses (such as against India), or to give the government political cover from international retaliation (such as against Afghanistan). This willingness to use insurgents to achieve international political objectives creates an unwillingness to crack down on the insurgents’ domestic branches. Indeed, doing so would compromise Pakistan’s militant-centered strategy because the insurgent cells which cause instability within Pakistan provide the training, members, leadership for the militants in India and Afghanistan. In order continue the use of militants abroad, Pakistan’s military establishment has to at least tacitly support their domestic branches.

Pakistan’s unwillingness to crack down on all forms of militancy means that while some groups are targeted, many go unpunished. Bowing to increasing international pressure, Pakistan has nominally taken a stance against some insurgents. Yet, these efforts are few and far between, and only seriously target groups which do not serve the interests of the military establishment. In a recent paper, Paul Staniland of the University of Chicago concluded that Pakistan’s efforts at fighting militants were not serious when the militants were not openly and aggressively anti-state. On one hand, Islamabad is engaged in counterterrorism offensives against ISIS and the Pakistani Taliban in the north. However, these groups were tolerated by the Pakistani government for years, and represent only the most virulently anti-state groups in Pakistan. On the other hand, Pakistan’s support for Kashmiri militants is well documented, and Islamabad has been frequently criticized for allowing the Afghan Taliban to operate in safe havens within its borders. Pakistan does little in the way of education, policing, or sanction against the majority of militant groups. Most of Pakistan’s efforts at militant prosecution are halfhearted at best.

The distinctions between ‘useful’ and ‘enemy’ militants are counterproductive. First, allowing militancy in any form (especially a political party) gives all militants political and economic cover to expand their operations. When Lashkar-e-Taiba can evade the government, it can provide cover for other dangerous militant groups, sell small arms for money to insurgents, and undermine the rule of law. Second, normalizing militia groups as part of the political mainstream radicalizes the political spectrum. Lashkar-e-Taiba is hardly ideologically moderate, and their involvement in the political process is likely to make polarize discourse. Being allowed to operate openly also gives groups the ability to recruit on a far larger scale, and normalizes the role of militias in day-to-day life. Many militant groups use this political normalization to recruit directly from Pakistani madrassas without fear of prosecution. Last, even groups that the government dubs as ‘friendly’ are unlikely to genuinely support the government. Militants certainly oppose democracy and social equality for women, religious minorities, and other groups. Beyond that, militants may also turn on the government if circumstances change: Sayeed Salahuddin of the Hizbul Mujahedeen once claimed, “We are fighting Pakistan’s war in Kashmir and if it withdraws its support, the war would be fought inside Pakistan.”

If Pakistan wants to put an end to its militant problems, it needs to crack down against all armed groups. It has become clear that differentiating between militants which are friendly to the state and those that are hostile is near impossible, and only benefits groups that seek to evade the arm of the law. Until Pakistan realizes that the benefits it receives from supporting militancy will always come attached with persistent violence, terrorism, and the erosion of the rule of law, parties like the Milli Muslim League will be able to continue propping up Jamaat-ud-Dawa and other dangerous insurgents.