Since the Army Public School attack in Peshawar in late-2014, which resulted in the deaths of more than 130 schoolchildren, the Pakistani state has aggressively targeted militant groups based in the country. However, not all militant groups in Pakistan have received the same treatment, including Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a terror group that primarily targets India.
Over the last two decades, the group has remained an important component of the Pakistan’s regional security calculus against India. The group has been implicated in number of terrorist attacks in India, including the 2008 Mumbai attacks that claimed more than 160 lives.
While the United Nations classifies the group as a terrorist network, it operates freely in Pakistan. The group’s chief, Hafiz Saeed, lives a normal life despite a million dollar bounty on his head. Its charity collection centers remain operational despite the federal government’s ban, which pronounces the group as banned and proscribed.
However, all of that may change soon. Lately, there has been a noticeable change in Pakistan’s strategic thinking as far as India and its own national security are concerned. One can argue that this change has not come voluntarily; rather it is the outcome of various domestic and regional developments that demand Pakistan’s disassociation from all terrorist groups, even those targeting India.
Arguably, two factors are mainly responsible for this change. The first is linked with Pakistan’s own realization that these groups, in the long run, can prove to be a fatal liability for the state’s stability. In the last few months, moreover, many LeT-affiliated militants have joined the Islamic State.
Second, there is growing pressure from China on Pakistan, which is investing billions of dollars in the country and is averse to Pakistan’s support for militant groups. China’s Xinjiang province, which borders Pakistan, has suffered from from Islamic militancy for quite some time. This has also been a source of friction between the two countries as Beijing believes that Uyghur militants, who have an established terrorist network in the province, largely operate from Pakistan and have links with various other terrorist groups, including the Pakistani Taliban.
Analysts still argue that it’s premature to say that at this point Pakistan is ready for an all out action against groups like LeT. “The state of Pakistan, civil and military, is petrified at the prospect of touching militants based in Punjab,” Moeed Yusuf, director of South Asia programs at the United States Institute of Peace said. “The paradigm is shifting. But you can be sure that you’re not going to see action against Jamaat-ud-Dawa [LeT’s political arm] any time soon.”
Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told the The Diplomat that “there’s reason to believe that Pakistan may expand its anti-terror campaign to Punjab, given that it has already taken some major action against some of the sectarian militants there.”
“But it’s one thing to go after sectarian groups that target state, and quite another to go after the anti-India groups,” Kugelman said. “One stages attacks in Pakistan, while the other does not. That’s a big distinction.”
Pakistan’s apparent inaction against the group has much to do with the public support it enjoys in the country’s most populated province: Punjab. The group’s support base comes from the anti-India narrative that remains popular in the country and has over the decades been drilled into Pakistanis in the form of nationalism. Anti-India views are prevalent all across the country, especially in Punjab. Any all out action against the group would thus result in thousands pouring into streets in its defense.
However, it’s unmistakable that the growing evidence suggests that even if Pakistan is not ready to take direct action against the group, it certainly has made its intentions clear: it will neither support nor become a party in LeT’s actions anymore. Recently, the Pakistani state used the Anti-Terrorism Act to register a case against some relatively unknown Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) activists who were involved in the January 2016 Pathankot Airbase attack in India. JeM in known to have links with LeT (though the two groups have important differences).
Moreover, a few weeks ago, Pakistan’s national security advisor shared credible intelligence with his Indian counterpart regarding an imminent attack by LeT terrorists who had crossed into India. For Pakistan, the LeT threat should not be different from many other so-called ‘state friendly’ terrorist groups. Pakistan is playing with fire and may find that these groups eventually go rogue and take up arms against the state.