Curbing militants in Pakistan; a trial of patience?

December 3, 2008

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has urged Pakistan to cooperate “fully and transparently” in investigations into the Mumbai attacks, while U.S. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell has pointed a finger at Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based Kashmiri militant group.

That’s probably the kind of language that would go down well in India, which has been frustrated in the past by what it saw as the United States’ failure to acknowledge the threat from Pakistan-based Kashmiri militant groups, instead preferring to rely on Pakistan as a useful ally in the region while focusing its own energies on defeating al Qaeda and the Taliban.

But what exactly can either the United States or India do if they want to put pressure on Pakistan? India has long complained that Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, another Pakistan-based militant group, were nurtured by the Pakistan spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI, to stage attacks in both Indian Kashmir and elsewhere in the country. And while Pakistan denies providing more than moral support to Kashmiri groups, it has never cracked down on Lashkar-e-Taiba, based in Punjab and Pakistan-held Kashmir, in the same way that it has begun to tackle militants from al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

Lashkar-e-Taiba’s charitable wing, the Jamat-ud-Dawa, earned popular support by working to rescue victims of the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, as discussed in this article by Steve Coll in the New Yorker. And much to India’s irritation, the Jamat-ud-Dawa continues to operate openly in Muridke outside Lahore.

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, has encouraged Pakistan to take action against militants not just on the Afghan border,  but also “against militant extremists elsewhere in the country”.

What does that mean? Disarming the Laskhar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed? Arresting their leaders? Cracking down on the Jamat-ud-Dawa, even to the point of closing down Muridke?

And can Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari deliver without weakening his fragile civilian government or alienating the powerful Pakistan Army? As Arif Rafiq discussed in the Pakistan Policy Blog some months back, Pakistan Army head General Ashfaq Kayani has made clear he is willing to leave domestic politics to Zardari, but has drawn a line in the sand when it comes to external security and Kashmir.

It could take months of painstaking diplomacy to make any real progress, assuming that India does produce proof that Lashkar-e-Taiba really was behind the Mumbai attacks. And that could require patience. Does Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, facing a national election by next May, have the patience to wait?

(Reuters photo: Sun sets behind Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai/Punit Paranjpe)

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