In the first of a four-part series on Hafiz Saeed’s new political party, Lt. Gen. Syed Ata Hasnain writes that Saeed’s move to launch Milli Muslim League Pakistan shows being the ‘friendly terrorist’ for the deep state is no longer enough. Read the second, third and fourth parts.
Syed Ata Hasnain
So Hafiz ‘Bhai’ now wants to further legitimise terror and its employment as a strategic tool, and continue escaping the international ban placed on him by exploiting the emerging political space in Pakistan. The formula is simple: just float a political party called Milli Muslim League Pakistan. Hafiz Saeed, commonly known as the chief of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), now called the Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD), continues to thrive despite the US and the UN bans placed against him.
It is not difficult to assess Saeed’s intent but a little background always helps. He was picked by General Zia-ul-Haq in the early Eighties to be an Islamic studies teacher and thereafter made his way to Saudi Arabia where he came under the influence of mujahideen returning from Afghanistan and the Ahle Hadith sect. Upon return, along with the al Qaida mentor Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, he founded the Markaz Dawa-Wal-Irshad (MDI).
Azzam was a rabid Palestinian, heavy on jihad and Saeed’s orientation can be traced to him. In all probability the MDI was part-funded by the ISI and elements of the Ahle Hadith, no doubt with sponsorship of Abdullah Azzam. It became the ideological launch pad of the so-called jihad in J&K. In 1990, it gave rise to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), again inspired by the ISI based on the grandiose plans of Zia-ul-Haq to launch a war of a thousand cuts against India. The LeT formed the militant arm of the MDI and has undergone change of name more times than one can remember.
It has taken a long time for Saeed to realise that he could be a rabble rouser and a ‘friendly terrorist’ for the larger deep state only as long as he was useful to the ISI. With the changing political environment of Pakistan, uncertainty about the political dispensation after next year’s general elections and the fickle state of the new, un-cemented world order, being just the head of a friendly terrorist organisation may not be enough in terms of lasting capability.
The idea that his organisation cannot exercise genuine power and without a political face, can only continue to act at the whims of the state has dawned on him rather late. This, in spite of the street power that the MDI exercises in terms of recruitment rallies and fund-raising campaigns. But direct power can only be exercised through the political route and an opportunity seems to be emerging on Pakistan’s political canvas.
The Bhutto inspired Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is a pale shadow of its past and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), the property of the Sharif family, has now clearly earned the ire of the Pakistan Army.
Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaaf (TeI) hardly has a pan-Pakistan reach and Imran’s own personal reputation is questionable. In October 2016, Pakistani daily Dawn reported that a PML-N lawmaker, Rana Muhammad Afzal, had questioned why Saeed was being mollycoddled at the cost of Pakistan’s international image and the inability to withstand criticism of the JuD’s role in Kashmir. Saeed’s appreciation of the situation probably led him to conclude that before many more Rana Afzals emerge to question his credentials, it was a safe bet to create a political space for himself.
It is unknown whether MDI/JuD combine can pass muster to register as a political party in Pakistan’s yet-to-mature political system but clearly what Saeed is looking for is an escape route and greater legitimacy to protect his fiefdom which he has created with much care. If a Prime Minister of the main party from heartland Punjab could be brought down by the Supreme Court, so could Saeed’s empire at the orders of someone in authority who no longer finds him useful.
But will this route bring Saeed political legitimacy and seats? Until now, Pakistan’s electorate has shown a penchant for electing ‘feudals’ but not radicals. However, in five years, much has changed in the Islamic world and after Mumtaz Qadri gained iconic status as the assassin of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer what can one say of Pakistan and its electorate.
For India, the acceptance of the JuD/MDI as a political party under the Pakistani Constitution will give one more piece of evidence of state involvement in proxy activities in Kashmir. However, given the geo-strategic importance that international players accord to Pakistan, the evidence is likely to remain lost in the maze of the grey zone that Pakistan has successfully created to cover its dubious activities.
Lt. Gen. Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd), a former GOC of Srinagar-based 15 Corps, is associated with the Vivekanand International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. Twitter: @atahasnain53