Geopolitical Diary: The Lahore Attack and Pakistan's Tarnished Image
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day.
Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider
what might happen tomorrow.
One day after militants ambushed the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, Pakistan, on Tuesday, accusations, rumors and conspiracy theories about the possible culprits percolated in the South Asian press. The Indians were claiming the Pakistanis have lost control over their militant proxies, while the Pakistani press was blaming the attack on intelligence agents from India's Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), and the Sri Lankan government said it hadn’t ruled out involvement from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebels. Sri Lanka's claim is perhaps the easiest to dissect. Colombo is engaged in an intense military offensive against the Tigers that has largely stripped the rebel group of its northern and eastern strongholds, though the government is being heavily criticized over alleged human rights abuses against Tamil civilians caught in the fray. The Tigers have their hands full just trying to hold onto their remaining bits of territory, and they have no real support base in Pakistan for carrying out attacks. Moreover, an attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore would only bolster Colombo’s fight against the Tigers, without serving any real strategic interest for the group. Nonetheless, keeping the Tigers link alive gives Colombo a bit more leverage to fight off human rights complaints and push forward in what it calls "the final phase" of its offensive against the Tigers. Far more interesting are the Pakistani claims of an Indian hand in Tuesday’s attack. A number of Pakistani media agencies have been putting out stories with conspiracy-theorist undertones. They claim that Indian RAW agents intentionally targeted Sri Lankans (as opposed to Westerners) in an attempt to further isolate Pakistan, because the international community has not put enough pressure on Islamabad to cut its ties to militant groups. These stories were likely fed at least in part by Pakistan’s powerful security establishment. Indian intelligence has long been involved in a tit-for-tat covert battle with Pakistan; the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) provides support to Kashmiri Islamist militants and a host of other separatist and Islamist groups in India’s restive northeast, while India’s RAW gives covert support to Baluchi separatists. There is a big difference, though, between India supporting rebels and India orchestrating a large-scale attack against a foreign target in a Pakistani city. India is far more likely to target Islamist groups in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir than to carry out a spectacular attack in Lahore – a strategy that would come back to haunt New Delhi and deny the Indians the moral high ground they try to maintain in dealing with Pakistan. The Indians are far more concerned about the potential that this attack was carried out (at least in part) by one of Pakistan’s Kashmiri Islamist militant proxies, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). LeT was created and nurtured by the ISI in 1989, when the Pakistani military establishment saw an opportunity to destabilize India by supporting Islamists fighting on behalf of Kashmir. The LeT rose to prominence during the 1990s but took a step too far in December 2001, when it carried out a serious attack on the Indian parliament. Not surprisingly, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the United States and India brought enormous pressure against Pakistan to take action, so Islamabad launched a mostly superficial crackdown on LeT and its fellow militant organization, Jamaat-e-Mujahideen, in 2002. A few years later, as Pakistan became engulfed in a jihadist insurgency of its own, groups like LeT drifted further from the state’s grip and into the jihadist orbit. The result was a large number of well-trained Islamist militant cadres, with links to groups like al Qaeda and sympathizers in the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment, that are capable of carrying out large-scale, spectacular, complex and coordinated attacks. The attack in Mumbai in November 2008 is an example: An event for which no one claimed responsibility, and in which attackers relied primarily on hand-held weapons, including grenades. Following the Mumbai attacks, the Pakistani military again came under tremendous pressure to rein in militants – touching off a fiery debate within the Pakistani security establishment over whether the state should try to strike deals with, or turn against, former proxies that are now engaged in private jihad. STRATFOR has been told that the military actually has made some concrete moves against LeT, but has kept quiet about it for fear of domestic backlash over "caving in" to Indian demands. In addition to placing the top LeT leadership in detention, Pakistan allegedly arrested 124 LeT cadres, shut down four training camps and seized the group’s financial assets. The extent to which these are superficial moves designed to impress Washington and fend off an attack from India is unclear, but it does appear that LeT has been feeling cornered lately. Consequently, the group might have felt compelled to carry out a headline-making attack in Lahore (which is near LeT’s headquarters) in coordination with jihadist allies. If LeT has in fact strayed far enough from its former patron to carry out an attack on Pakistani soil, with the goal of embarrassing Islamabad, then the Pakistani state's apparent push to plant media stories about an Indian hand in the attack would come as little surprise. Pakistan has tried desperately to show, both at home and abroad, that its military is still in control and that the writ of the state remains strong. An LeT gone rogue would severely undermine this perception. And it would give India and the United States a lot less motivation to trust in Pakistan’s ability to control the militants operating inside Indian, Afghan, and now even Pakistani borders. It is likely too early to claim definitively that any one group was behind Tuesday's attack, and the cover-ups, blame games and conspiracy theories will continue. But even if it is well known that Pakistan is at war with itself, Islamabad will do everything it can to battle the perception that it is on the path to becoming a failed state.