LONDON (Reuters) - If Pakistan’s battle against the Taliban seems difficult, a much tougher challenge lies ahead: deciding what to do about the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group it once nurtured to fight India in Kashmir.
Security experts from the United States and India believe the Pakistan Army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency could shut down the group blamed for last year’s attacks on Mumbai -- if they choose to do so.
“The Pakistan Army could do it and the ISI could tell them where to find those guys in a heartbeat,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who led a review of strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan for President Barack Obama.
“If they wanted to shut them down they could,” said B. Raman, a former Additional Secretary at India’s Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) intelligence agency. “They can do it, but they don’t want to do it because they look upon it as a strategic asset.”
But Samina Yasmeen, a professor at the University of Western Australia who is researching a book on the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), said the reality on the ground may be more complicated.
Over the years, she said, the LeT had given birth to splinter groups which had broken free both of the Pakistan Army and ISI, and even from the LeT leadership.
“There are elements within the Lashkar that are not under the control of the army anymore. They really moved on a trajectory that people did not expect,” she said. “After 9/11 there was a section that emerged within the Lashkar that may not be under the control of the Lashkar leadership.”
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pushed the LeT to the top of the agenda last week by effectively telling President Asif Ali Zardari that India would not re-open peace talks until Pakistan acted against the organisation and its leaders.
He seems to have won support in the West, where the LeT is seen as potentially as big a danger as al Qaeda. “I think we have to regard the Lashkar-e-Taiba as much a threat to us as any other part of the al Qaeda system,” said Riedel.
But finding a consensus on what Pakistan can, should and will do about the LeT is like asking people to agree on how to label many different shades of grey.
Like many militant groups, the LeT was born out of the CIA-backed jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan and then began operations in Kashmir in 1993, Indian analysts say.
According to Raman, the LeT is the biggest militant group in Pakistan, with a larger presence even than the Taliban, and a charitable wing, the Jamaat ud-Dawa, which rather like Hamas in Gaza also carries out humanitarian work.
With land, property and madrasas all over Pakistan, it collaborated with al Qaeda while also offering its training infrastructure to Pakistanis from the diaspora, he said.
But unlike other militant groups it has been scrupulous in avoiding attacks inside Pakistan, thereby avoiding the wrath of the army that has now been turned on the Pakistani Taliban.
For security analysts, the two questions are whether the army and ISI can close down the LeT, and if they want to do so -- the assumption being that this would have to be done by the country’s powerful military rather than the civilian government.
Riedel said he believed the capability was there.
He acknowledged that taking on the LeT -- which is based in Punjab province, the main recruiting ground for the army -- would be hard. “They are Punjabis. You are taking on the same constituencies from which the Pakistan Army and the ISI draw their own core supporters,” he said, adding that you could probably find officers with cousins in the LeT.
“It’s become more and more difficult but I would not underestimate the ISI’s knowledge base. They would be able to bring people in,” he said.
But Yasmeen said more problems could be created by targeting the leadership. “You limit their ability to have some possibility of controlling those below. The risk of splintering increases,” she said.
November’s Mumbai attacks, which killed 166 people, offered hints about splits either within the ISI or the LeT -- for the first time Jews and westerners were targeted, risking an American backlash.
Raman said for this reason he was not convinced the ISI as an institution -- as opposed to individual officers -- had ordered the attacks.
“I’ve not seen any convincing evidence to show that the ISI as an institution gave the order,” he said. “They would have seen to it that they did not attack westerners.”
The distinction is important since the ISI as an institution would be unlikely to take action without backing from the army -- whose chief General Ashfaq Kayani was formerly the ISI head.
Yasmeen said another possible explanation for Mumbai was splintering within the LeT, since its leader Hafiz Saeed, who was released from house arrest this month, had always been clear the group’s focus was on India, rather than on a global agenda.
Whatever the truth about Mumbai, the question of whether the army actually wants to shut down the LeT is quite separate.
India has long complained that Pakistan selectively targets militants who threaten domestic stability, like the Pakistani Taliban in the Swat valley, while leaving alone those who can be used against India or to extend its influence in Afghanistan. It is an argument that appears to be gaining currency in the west.
“Pakistan sort of compartmentalises the various militant threats,” a U.S. defence official said, adding the offensive underway against the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas was designed to stop a threat to Pakistan.
“And so we haven’t seen anything to indicate a strategic re-orientation in Pakistan at this time,” he said.
Analysts say the army may be rethinking its attitude to militants after it lost control of the Pakistani Taliban, which then overran the Swat valley and began encroaching on Punjab.
But giving up the LeT, seen as a “force multiplier” in the event of an invasion by India -- rather like citizens trained in civil defence -- would be another step altogether.
Would the army chief turn against the LeT?
“My sense of Kayani is that he is very pragmatic. He hasn’t accepted that India is not a threat to Pakistan,” said Yasmeen. “From Kayani’s point of view, does he want to deny himself the possibility of using all trained and semi-trained people?”
That question returns to the Catch 22 of India-Pakistan relations. Without peace, Pakistan may never fully turn against the LeT. And India will not offer peace talks until it does so.
Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in Washington