Keeping Raymond Davis and Lashkar-e-Taiba in perspective

March 15, 2011

tajmumbaiAccording to the New York Times, Raymond Davis, the CIA contractor arrested in Pakistan for shooting dead two Pakistanis in what he says was an act of self-defence, was working with a CIA team monitoring the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group.

The article, by Washington-based Mark Mazzetti, was not the first to make this assertion. The NYT itself had already raised it, while Christine Fair made a similar point in her piece for The AfPak Channel last week (with the intriguing detail that “though the ISI knew of the operation, the agency certainly would not have approved of it.”)

But it was the first article I’ve seen which focused almost exclusively on U.S. anxieties about the Lashkar-e-Taiba — blamed for the 2008 attack on Mumbai — while also linking these explicitly to the furore over the Raymond Davis case:

“The CIA team Mr. Davis worked with, according to American officials, had among its assignments the task of secretly gathering intelligence about Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant ‘Army of the Pure’. Pakistan’s security establishment has nurtured Lashkar for years as a proxy force to attack targets and enemies in India and in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir. These and other American officials, all of whom spoke only on condition of anonymity, are now convinced that Lashkar is no longer satisfied being the shadowy foot soldiers in Pakistan’s simmering border conflict with India. It goals have broadened, these officials say, and Lashkar is committed to a campaign of jihad against the United States and Europe, and against American troops in Afghanistan.”

My first reaction to this was that it was not particularly new – we already knew the Americans were worried about the Lashkar-e-Taiba. My follow-up comment is that there is a danger of conflating the very specific row over Raymond Davis with longer-term arguments over the militant group. The two are not one and the same, even though they may overlap. And while rationally everyone knows this, politically such conflation is important, since it feeds all too often into a “pundit consensus” made up of emotion and impression.

 So here is a summary of my understanding of the history of the U.S. view of the Lashkar-e-Taiba based on conversations with officials and analysts (and on which, for fear of falling into pundit consensus traps myself, I am happy to be challenged.)

The United States, much to India’s annoyance, was initially reluctant to take on all militant groups in Pakistan, focusing primarily on seeking Islamabad/Rawalpindi’s help on tackling al Qaeda following the Sept. 11 attacks.  Yet, according to counter-terrorism experts, in adopting this stance Washington had failed to understand the way in which militant groups had changed in the 1990s from those with vertical hierarchies and clear agendas into a much more polymorphous, overlapping and horizontal movement. Among those who stressed this new development was former French investigating magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguiere, who complained that even after 9/11.  the Pakistan Army was still running training camps for the Lashkar-e-Taiba with the full knowledge of the CIA.

That attitude began to change after the 2005 bombings in London which highlighted the risks of “home-grown terrorism” in Britain linked to militant groups based in Pakistan’s Punjab province - among them, the Lashkar-e-Taiba. By extension, “home-grown” bombers with British passports and easier access to the United States were increasingly seen in Washington as a much more proximate threat.

The 2008 Mumbai attacks, which included among their victims foreigners and Jews, confirmed in the minds  of the U.S. administration that the Lashkar-e-Taiba had expanded its targets beyond India and had become a cause of serious worry. Then came the arrest of David Headley in Chicago in 2009, for scouting targets in Mumbai for the Lashkar-e-Taiba and helping al Qaeda plot an attack in Denmark. His confession, detailed in an Indian government report, would have left little doubt about how the lines between al Qaeda and the LeT were becoming blurred.

However — and this is why we have to be careful about conflating the Raymond Davis row with the LeT argument – David Headley was arrested in October 2009 and the CIA has since had more than a year to talk to the ISI about its worries about the LeT.

In turn, the ISI is almost certainly aware that an attack on the west traced back to the Lashkar-e-Taiba could have devastating consequences for Pakistan. So we can be fairly sure it is trying to keep the LeT on a tight leash – as I noted above, it is intriguing that Christine Fair says the ISI knew about the CIA monitoring. But Pakistan has also argued that taking on the militant group could make it even more dangerous, by driving it into the arms of al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban.

The LeT has always had a global agenda - at least in ideological terms.  You can trace the origins of the group to the jihad against the Soviets. Or more recently, consider that French police investigated a British-Pakistani living in Paris for allegedly helping “shoe-bomber” Richard Reid, a plot which unfolded as early as December 2001. Police failed to prove the case linking the man with Reid, but he was convicted and jailed for recruiting for the LeT. 

But the Lashkar-e-Taiba has also, unlike al Qaeda’s global view, tended to focus on the “near enemy” – India, Kashmir and, to some extent, Pakistan (there is little evidence of the LeT being involved in attacks on Pakistan itself, but it shares the view of other militant groups that the country should be run according to what it sees as the original ways of the companions of the Prophet Mohammed).

And anyone who thinks the Lashkar-e-Taiba might either seriously compete with al Qaeda globally or merge into it should read Leah Farrall’s brilliant essay on  “How al Qaeda Works” to understand why neither of these are possible.

I’m not saying the Lashkar-e-Taiba is not something we need to think about.   Just that it is a very complicated organisation in terms of motive, history and  state support (its humanitarian wing, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, worked hard to provide relief to the people hit by last summer’s floods.)  Equating the very high emotions running over the Raymond Davis case with the question of what to do about the Lashkar-e-Taiba would be misleading.

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