Pakistan recently put Hafiz Saeed, the co-founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba and the chief of Jama’at-ud-Da’wah, under house arrest, a move that many in the region have interpreted as Islamabad caving into American pressure.
The timing of the action is indeed important as the decision was taken at the tail of American President Donald Trump declaring seven Muslim countries as source of terror and banning entry of their nationals to the US. The decision to put Saeed under house arrest was not announced by the political government but the military spokesperson Maj General Asif Ghafoor, who used the term “national interest” in explaining the decision to Pakistanis.
Notwithstanding that Hafiz Saeed is not put in prison but under house arrest and the action does not mean anything for India, New Delhi could not contain its excitement at the action and had to make a remark that it was watching developments as if the action indicated some effort at appeasement. Pakistan’s interior ministry snapped back, as it should have done to clear any misunderstanding in the minds of India’s security establishment and, at least, some of its analysts, that the decision indicated an effort at appeasement or reaching out on behalf of the new army chief. There were even suggestions that the new army chief had conveyed his intent to box-in all troublesome militants. Of course, such analysts never tell the source of such communication.
However, such miscalculations are not limited to India. There are even Pakistanis who believe that this could be a policy shift fuelled by Trump’s unpredictability, pushed further due to reservations by Beijing.
Pressure from Washington?
But why would Pakistan be afraid of Washington at this juncture when, according to the former Director General Inter-Services Intelligence Lt General (retd) Zaheer-ul-Islam, “the region is anticipating a new shuffling, producing a China-Pakistan-Russia nexus soon”? The Indian track-II specialists amongst whom the former Director General ISI Lt. General Asad Durrani is a hot favorite must have recently heard him talk about the new strategic equation in which Russia and China have appreciated the strategic value of Pakistan. Whatever the value of such claims, it is important to note that Pakistan is no longer worried about the US abandoning it as had happened in the past. Historically, Islamabad struggled to extend the temporary military alignment with Washington as much as was possible. That does not seem to be the worry any more especially with the realisation that there are other global players in the world that no longer remains uni-polar.
Even some American analysts argue that there was no pressure from Washington, making people turn their eyes towards China, which appears to be the likely player with enough clout to influence Pakistan’s policies. But why would Beijing interfere now when it has happily tolerated militants indicated by Islamabad as friendly partners? There is a lot of myth building in the West and in Pakistan about China’s concerns regarding its soft underbelly of Xinjiang, which is why many believe that Beijing is ultimately the state which will help leash Pakistan-based jihadis. The understanding in circles in the US is that since Washington has failed to tame Pakistan on the militancy issue, this ought to be left to China that has better capacity and leverage to do so. But is there evidence of China wanting to play that role? Why should it be concerned about militants it can easily buy and use as its own proxies in Afghanistan? The war in Afghanistan is not anywhere close to an end and the Taliban or Pakistan-based militants can prove helpful in fighting future limited battles. In any case, Moscow and Beijing’s real concern at the moment is Daesh [Arabic for al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant], which Pakistan has managed to convince both could be fought through friendly Taliban or other jihadis. For statist political realists, nothing is more convincing than the argument that “you need steel to cut steel”.
But the fact of the matter is that something is happening in Pakistan which has created confusion even amongst certain segments of the Jama’at-ud-Da’wah, who seem puzzled – or at least give the impression. Recently, a right-wing journalist in Pakistan, associated with following a wink and a nod from the General Head Quarters, criticised Hafiz Saeed during a talk show ,arguing that his support of the Kashmir issue was harmful for the cause of the Kashmiris. This is not an indicator that the Kashmir issue is being abandoned or that the JuD is being sidelined. The Modi government and the right-wing fanaticism that it encourages in India has deepened Rawalpindi’s suspicion of New Delhi. So, an appeasement of India is not the point here. Nor is the abandonment of jihadis an option since proxies are part of the design for future conflict in the region.
There are two possibilities that are worth considering. First, that Rawalpindi is trying to tidy up JuD in the process of which it is leashing its leadership for the purpose of disciplining them. Irrespective of how much control the army chief has over all wings of his intelligence apparatus, he probably does not subscribe to global expansionism of the jihadi groups. Fighting for Kashmir or against India is one thing but expanding the frontiers of militancy across borders is another. There is a possibility that Hafiz Saeed or someone in his network might have crossed the chief and, hence, they to be taught a lesson.
The other possibility pertains to Donald Trump’s seeming unpredictability – which is actually his predictability. Given what is believed to be the new American President’s nature and his passion to fight the ISIS and Islamic militancy, Hafiz Saeed’s arrest may well be a bid to engage Trump in a dialogue. Indeed, Rawalpindi has sufficient clout in Washington that has resulted in a report to the White House by the US think tanks arguing that while a stick must be used vis-à-vis Pakistan, the country ought not be abandoned. So, from an apprehension that the country would be entirely sidetracked by Washington in favour of New Delhi, this could be a possible to ensure the American president remains engaged with Pakistan. Despite the fact that Tariq Fatimi, the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister of Pakistan on Foreign Affairs, failed to get an appointment with the Trump team, a telephone conversation did take place between the two heads of government, the details of which were artlessly released by Nawaz Sharif perhaps to project and build his clout. But the Sharif government is not Hafiz Saeed’s main handler. And his house arrest is not necessarily the political decision of the government.
The house arrest of Saeed is perhaps a signal to the White House, encouraging it to remain engaged with Pakistan. The focus has been so much on Hafiz Saeed lately that he could be seemingly sacrificed, at least temporarily, while JuD as an organisation is kept alive. In fact, with Saeed confined at home, the activities of the organisation become highly opaque. But for Washington this could mean a signal that Rawalpindi is ready to change its tune. Clearly, Pakistan is not out of the game as far as relations with the US are concerned. In fact, as the think tanks suggested, while it may be threatened with being declared a terrorist state, it could actually be engaged with. In Pakistan’s case, it means the military rather than the political government. Furthermore, given Trump’s keenness to talk to Russia, and China reaching out to him through his family, Pakistan would like to continue to remain connected rather than being cut out and isolated. However, to remain in the game, Islamabad-Rawalpindi has to make gestures that may stoke Trump’s ego and keep his men engaged.
Thus keeping Hafiz Saeed away from the mainstream may not be a major sacrifice.
Dr Ayesha Siddiqa is a noted scholar and commentator on Pakistan and author of Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy.