The High Court of Lahore ordered the release of Hafiz Saeed, pointed out as one of Mumbai’s 2008 attacks masterminds. The Laishkar-e-Taiba (LeT) co-founder and chief of militant group Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) was under house arrest since January. The news has spread with a mix of reactions: while the US and India expressed their disapproval of the Court’s decision, Pakistan remained silent over international protests.
The freedom of Hafiz Saeed, if not reverted, may have two serious implications for South Asia’s complex security environment: a) his leadership might motivate new attacks against Indian forces and/or territory; and b) the connivance of Islamabad and its Intelligence Agency with Pakistan-based terror groups undermines any commitments made regarding the Afghan conflict, turning the new strategy unveiled by U.S President, Donald Trump, ineffective.
As aforementioned, Hafiz Saeed is one of the founders of LeT and JuD. Both groups claim to have a convergent goal: to liberate Kashmir through jihadism from Indian administration and create a South Asian caliphate based on Salafi ideals. Saeed himself has claimed in several occasions that jihad is the only way towards unifying Kashmir to the rest of Pakistan. Having India as their main enemy, both groups were held responsible for the major attacks against Indian territory in the last decades: the massacre of Pandits in Kashmir (1998), the Red Fort attack in Delhi (2000), the Parliament attack (2001), the Mumbai train bombings (2006) and the Mumbai attacks of 2008, to mention a few.
While the LeT works as an armed insurgency, the JuD has then and again acted as its political speaker – in August this year, it even declared that it would create a new political party in Pakistan. And whereas Saeed’s involvement as the mastermind of previously mentioned attacks is frequently pointed out, Islamabad has done little to contain his actions and influence over the Taliban’s ramifications. With his release and his recent speeches reinforcing the need for an armed militancy, it is expected that both LeT and JuD – and its coming political party – gain a new momentum, posing a major danger to South Asia’s security environment.
Second, although LeT and Jud have as a primary goal the unification of Kashmir and its liberation from the Indian administration, both groups have significant influence over the course of Afghanistan’s conflict. It has been known for some time that Pakistan-based groups offer military training and safe havens to the Afghan Taliban, making it difficult to achieve any real progress in America’s longest war. There can be no solution for Afghanistan’s conundrum without including Pakistan and its role in supporting regional insurgent groups. In July of 2016, Afghan officials blamed him for managing the activities of ISIS in Afghanistan and urged the Pakistani authorities to take measures against him.
One year later, Donald Trump outlined a “new” strategy for the US in Afghanistan, mentioning the facilities given by Pakistan to jihadists and calling for tougher actions against the Taliban in South Asia. Last month, after the threatening undertone, the US demonstrated interest in resuming talks in a more tempered way after Islamabad claimed to be committed to cooperating on counterterrorism issues. These efforts have been put at stake after Saeed’s release, showing that Pakistan’s stance will barely change without further pressure. It also undermines Trump’s strategy itself, as LeT and JuD will most likely keep on protecting and supporting the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan.
The international community should watch closely the recent political context of Pakistan since Nawaz Sharif was ousted, as it affects directly the South Asian security environment, including the Afghan conflict. The recent events show how the Army, alongside with groups headed by Hafiz Saeed, are gradually enhancing their political influence – and subsequently, impacting the way the government deals with jihadist groups. The risks are even higher when one takes into account Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities: providing the insurgents a political room eases their access to these weapons. The release of Hafiz Saeed is yet another symptom of domestic institutional fragility which, in turn, endangers India’s regional security and also stalls any progress made by the efforts of Western coalition in Afghanistan.
*Luciane Noronha M. de Oliveira, Master of Arts in Maritime Studies and Fellow of South Asian Affairs of the Brazilian Naval War College. [email protected].