Lashkar-e-Taiba Chief, Hafiz Saeed's release and political mainstreaming
Days after Donald Trump was sworn in as the US President, the Pakistani Government had arrested Hafiz Saeed, to ingratiate itself with the new Administration in Washington. Through his ten months under house arrest, no evidence was produced in court, despite the fact that India handed over fifteen dossiers to Pakistan, linking Hafiz Saeed to the Indian Parliament attack in 2001 and the Mumbai attacks in 2008.
Pakistan’s dangerous ‘good terrorist, bad terrorist’ game once again came to the surface with the recent release of the 26/11 (Mumbai 2008) attack mastermind Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, who is the founding member of the radical Islamist organization Jamaat-ud-Dawa, and its military branch, Lashkar-e-Taiba, both dedicated to installing Jihadist rule over India and Indian Administered Jammu & Kashmir. Saeed was designated a terrorist by the United Nations under UNSCR 1267 (UN Security Council Resolution) in December 2008 following the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, in which 164 civilians were killed. The international community including the U.S. has also designated him as a Global Terrorist (Specially Designated National under Executive Order 13224 by United States Department of the Treasury), which led Washington to announce a $10 million bounty for information leading to his prosecution.
Hafiz Saeed was released from his house arrest on the 24th of November 2017, after the Pakistan government decided against detaining him any further, since according to them there was no solid evidence for his involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The way in which this case has unfolded creates the impression that Islamabad provides preferential treatment for militant Islamist outfits, which are acting as strategic assets against their perceived rivals. These groups are utilised as tools towards achieving Pakistan’s strategic objectives, however, Islamabad must not forget that these terrorist organizations, allegedly under State patronage, will eventually adopt a life on their own and destructively backfire against their guardians. The fact that the Pakistani Army, the actual epicentre of power, together with the powerful intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), still distinguishes between ‘bad’ terrorists, those who target Pakistani Security Forces, and ‘good’ terrorists, those who advance its geo-political aims, vis-á-vis Afghanistan, India and Indian Administered Jammu & Kashmir, remains a matter of grave concern for the international community.
After Saeed’s release, the US State Department in a formal statement reacted by saying that:
“……The United States is deeply concerned that Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) leader Hafiz Saeed has been released from house arrest in Pakistan. LeT is a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization responsible for the death of hundreds of innocent civilians in terrorist attacks, including a number of American citizens. The Pakistani government should make sure that he is arrested and charged for his crimes”.
A senior Trump administration official went further and said to a news agency:
"...it does not serve Pakistan's interest to let him (Saeed) go free, let him give public remarks or be allowed appearing before public gatherings. It belies Pakistan's claim that it is not a sanctuary for terrorists. Frankly, it flies in the face of that claim”.
By blindly abiding to (erroneous and perverse) catchy phrases like, ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’, Pakistan perilously glamorizes individuals such as Hafiz Saeed and their artificial and faithless ‘fight for freedom’ in Indian Administered Jammu & Kashmir, which remains nothing more than simply the brutal and cold-blooded massacre of thousands of innocent people. Days after his release, while referring to both groups founded by Hafiz Saeed, Retired Army Chief and former President Musharraf – previous ally of Washington in the War on terror and considered a liberal and moderate by various international players, went on a Pakistani TV channel saying, “…..I am the biggest supporter of LeT and I know they like me and JuD (Jamaat-ud-Dawa) also likes me. I was always in favour of action in Kashmir and of suppressing the Indian Army in Kashmir and they (LeT) are the biggest force. India got them declared as terrorists by partnering with US”.
In a video shot by Dawn News TV, Director-General of the Punjab Rangers Maj-Gen Azhar Navid Hayat is seen giving envelopes containing 1,000-rupee notes to participants after the protests in Islamabad this week which forced the law minister Zahid Hamid to resign. "This is a gift from us to you", the General is heard telling one bearded man. "Aren't we with you too?" Recently, Pakistan Army spokesman Major-General Asif Ghafoor said, “…That the State was working on a ‘mainstreaming’ programme to induct members of armed groups into the political process….”.
Considering the support Hafiz Saeed and other extremist elements enjoy from the most powerful corridors in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, which is evident from Musharraf’s recent statement and Maj-Gen Azhar Navid Hayat's actions, Saeed's possible re-arrest would be nothing more than an eyewash in order to avoid ‘repercussions’ against the Pakistani State which could mean cuts in aid and strategic losses in Afghanistan.
During his detention time, Saeed established a political offshoot, with the backing of the Military, called the Milli Muslim League, in order to participate in the upcoming general elections. Despite the party being declared ineligible for the polling by the Election Commission of Pakistan, MML’s Sheikh Yaqoob received 5,822 votes - over four times that of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party - in little over four weeks of its existence. Another extremist party, Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah Pakistan (TLP), yet to be recognised by the Election Commission, which organised this weeks' protests that forced Pakistan's law minister Zahid Hamid to resign, was founded by Maulvi Khadim Hussain Rizvi, an Islamic scholar, who strongly supports Mumtaz Qadri who assassinated Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in 2011 and vowed to get even with the PML-N for hanging Qadri.
Such attempts of political mainstreaming of Jihadists and Saeed’s presence in the electoral platform compel analysts to ask whether it indeed makes a difference if Hafiz Saeed is again placed under house arrest or not? With parties like the PPP and the ANP confined to Sindh and KPK and the decline of PML-N and MQM, electoral politics in Pakistan seems to be fertile for extremist Islamist right-wing parties. These developments strongly illuminate the growing polarization in Pakistan and lay bare the deep dissonance between the Army and the Civil administration.
Some experts and analysts ask a very pertinent and unsettling question based on this emerging political and social scenario in Pakistan: ‘What if Hafiz Saeed, Maulvi Khadim Hussain Rizvi or their fielded proxies become part of Pakistan’s next Government?'