The US Confronts Pakistan’s Street Power

Lahore-based Hafiz Muhammad Saeed is founder of Laskar-e-Taiba, LeT, and alleged to be the mastermind behind the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. Yet he’s also come to epitomize Pakistani street power, taking advantage of widespread seething discontent. Author Dilip Hiro details the history of Pakistan that encourages instability. Large numbers of Pakistanis are alert for any hint of disrespect directed toward Islam or their nation’s sovereignty. The sensitivity goes hand in hand with the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence’s intense focus on India as its arch-enemy. A terrorist leader like Saeed quickly transforms territorial disputes in Kashmir or war in Afghanistan into causes for jihad and justification for mass attacks on civilian targets at home or abroad. The US has announced a $10 million bounty for information leading to Saeed’s arrest and conviction, but the unpopularity of US drone and other attacks inside Pakistani borders plays into LeT’s hands. In sum, the US can’t count much on Pakistani support as NATO withdraws from Afghanistan. – YaleGlobal

The US Confronts Pakistan’s Street Power

Manipulating Pakistani street anger, Saeed complicates US withdrawal from Afghanistan
Dilip Hiro
Friday, April 27, 2012

Street power: Lashkar-e-Taiba leader Hafiz Muhammad Saeed mocks US bounty (top); Pakistanis take to the street to protest American drone attacks

LONDON: When Washington announced in April a $10 million bounty on the Lahore-based Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, it was aimed at bringing about the jihadist leader’s conviction. He has been the alleged mastermind for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, leaving more than 160 dead, including six Americans.

But the move has gone awry, adding to the tortuous relationship between Washington and Islamabad arising from the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border and closure of supply lines to NATO forces in Afghanistan. The defiance with which Saeed has treated the US threat has highlighted the power of the Pakistani street, an integral part of the country’s politics. At crucial points in Pakistan’s history such as the 1977 general election under the civilian rule of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, street power, fueled by Islamic fervor, trumped elected authority, and paved the way for the shift from democracy to military dictatorship.  

The electoral system is weighed in favor of feudal lords since a large majority of voters live in villages whereas day-to-day politics are played out in urban areas. In towns and cities, Islamist groups have wide support among the lower middle and working classes, prone to taking to the streets on any issue related to Islam. Little wonder that in the current episode, Saeed has emerged as the epitome of street power, a formidable force that poses an unprecedented challenge to the US.   

Though a popularly elected civilian government has been running Pakistan since 2008, its military high command has not abdicated its traditional authority to decide policies concerning national security, an area that covers a vast ground, domestic and foreign. Its Inter-Services Intelligence directorate which plays a vital role in securing or enhancing Pakistan’s internal and external security became the primary tool to execute Islamabad’s crafty policy of making India bleed through “a thousand cuts” in the three-fifths of Kashmir it controls. In turn, the ISI used various non-governmental organizations to implement the official policy.

Until the 1977 coup in Pakistan by General Muhammad Zia ul Haq, the Indo-Pakistani dispute on Kashmir, originating in 1947, was viewed by both sides in territorial terms, with the respective governments being the sole actors. But Zia ul Haq, a diehard Islamist, redefined the struggle to “liberate” Kashmiri Muslims from the yoke of Hindu India as a holy jihad.

Following the pattern of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, which was open to Muslims worldwide, he encouraged non-governmental organizations in Pakistan to join the anti-India jihad under the tutelage of the ISI. Lashkar-e-Taiba  (LeT) and the Jamaat ud-Dawa (JuD), funded partly by the government, figured prominently on the ISI list, and officials treated Saeed with reverence. 

The democratic government of Benazir Bhutto that followed Zia ul Haq’s death in 1988 was “protective of jihadis,” and “never soft on Kashmir,” according to Retired General Hamid Gul, who was ISI director under her. So while Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, PPP, was nominally secular, it came to accept the Islamic interpretation of the Kashmir dispute.

Between November 1999 and mid-December 2000, LeT staged 15 attacks on security forces in Indian Kashmir, killing 50 soldiers and losing 24 of its militants. In late December LeT terrorists engaged Indian troops in a firefight in the Red Fort in Delhi. “The [Red Fort] action indicates that we have extended the jihad to India [proper],” Saeed declared.

A year later five heavily armed militants of LeT, riding an official car, managed to get past a gate to the Parliament House in Delhi hoping to massacre many of the 800-odd lawmakers. They failed when their vehicle crashed into a stationary vehicle inside the complex’s perimeter, resulting in the closure of all entrances to the chamber.

Subsequent pressure by India and the post-9/11 Bush administration compelled Pakistan’s President General Pervez Musharraf to outlaw LeT in January 2002. But it was a halfhearted step, accompanied by Musharraf’s assertion that Pakistan would not surrender its claim to Kashmir. “Kashmir is in our blood,” he said. “No Pakistani can afford to sever links with Kashmir.”

Viewing the Kashmir issue through the Islamic prism has provided a virtually impregnable political shield to organizations such as LeT and JuD, effectively annulling impact of the official ban. JuD operates openly and LeT clandestinely. 

The provincial Punjab government’s attempts to deactivate Saeed as a political-religious leader have failed due to the judicial verdicts. Twice during 2009 the Lahore High Court released Saeed from house arrest due to lack of evidence. That is why a US State Department spokesman explained that the bounty on Saeed was for evidence that would stand up in court – a tall order as recent events in Pakistan show. 

In November 2010 a court in Lahore, applying the Blasphemy Law of 1986, sentenced Aasia Bibi, a Christian mother of four, to death for insulting Prophet Mohammed during a dispute with Muslim women in her village. Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, criticized the law and signed a mercy petition addressed to the president. Two fiery clerics offered bounty to anyone who killed Taseer. On 4 January 2011, Mumtaz Hussein Qadri, one of Taseer's police bodyguards, did so. Random interviews with people in the street revealed a widespread belief that Taseer was killed for insulting the Prophet Mohammed. On the eve of his appearance before a magistrate, the smiling Qadri was garlanded by a crowd of more than 200 lawyers ready to defend him. In contrast, fearing for his life, the public prosecutor did not turn up at the hearing. Likewise, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari did not show up at the funeral of Taseer, a PPP luminary, nor did opposition leader Nawaz Sharif or military corps commanders.

The retreat of the civilian and military power elite in the face of murderous intimidation heartened jihadist leaders like Saeed. Broadening their support base are US drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal belt adjoining Afghanistan, which are condemned almost universally in Pakistan.

Determined to block the reopening of Pakistan’s land routes into Afghanistan for NATO traffic under any circumstances, Saeed cobbled together an umbrella organization of 40 political and religious groups under the Difa-e Pakistan Council (DePC), Defense of Pakistan, in December. Its leaders immediately took to addressing rallies in major cities.

Their rallies draw huge crowds. Council leaders combine patriotism with religious piety in an environment where a large majority of Pakistanis believe that Washington’s “war on terror” is a war on Islam. The latest opinion survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Center, published in  June 2011, shows that 75 percent of Pakistanis have an unfavorable view of the US, and 68 percent consider it as “more of a threat.”

The council decried Washington’s bounty on Saeed, calling it “a nefarious attempt” to undermine its drive to safeguard Pakistan’s sovereignty. The Council’s hands have been strengthened by the Parliament’s resolution on 12 April, demanding an end to US drone attacks and hot pursuits by US or NATO troops inside Pakistan.

When the Obama administration and Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani review mutual relations on the basis of the Pakistani Parliament’s resolution, they will find the shadow of Saeed lurking over them. More than the leading representative of militant jihadism in Pakistan, Saeed has come to epitomize street power. Recent episodes in Pakistan show that when it comes to a crunch, street power trumps electoral authority. The US thus faces a formidable foe in Pakistan whose cooperation it badly needs to withdraw from Afghanistan in an orderly and dignified fashion by 2014.



Dilip Hiro’s latest book is “Apocalyptic Realm: Jihadists in South Asia,”published this month by Yale University Press, New Haven and London. Click here to read an excerpt.

Copyright © 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization