A Rashidian Danger?

by Joshua Foust on 12/9/2008 · 1 comment

I’ve sometimes mocked Ahmed Rashid for, as one example, his assertions that the IMU would be the downfall of civilization. But I remain undecided whether his fear-mongering contributed to the fact that none of his dire predictions panned out. After all, canaries in the coal mine can warn of an approaching danger. One group I rarely remember hearing Rashid talk about, however, is Lashkar-e Toiba—perhaps because they are officially concerned with Kashmir, but they’ve featured prominently in Zahid Hussein’s work on the same area so who knows. Anyway, I thought of this while reading V.S. Naipaul biographer Patrick French’s discussion of the Mumbai attacks:

But there is no sane reason to think Lashkar-e-Taiba would shut down if the situation in Kashmir improved. Its literature is much concerned with establishing a caliphate in Central Asia, and murdering those who insult the Prophet. Its leader, Hafiz Saeed, who lives on a large estate outside Lahore bought with Saudi Money, goes about his business with minimal interference from the Pakistani government.

Lashkar-e-Taiba is part of the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders (the Qaeda franchise). Mr. Saeed’s hatreds are catholic – his bugbears include Hindus, Shiites and women who wear bikinis. He regards democracy as “a Jewish and Christian import from Europe,” and considers suicide attacks to be in accordance with Islam. He has a wider strategy: “At this time our contest is Kashmir. Let’s see when the time comes. Our struggle with the Jews is always there.” As he told his followers in Karachi at a rally in 2000: “There can’t be any peace while India remains intact. Cut them, cut them – cut them so much that they kneel before you and ask for mercy.” In short, he has an explicit political desire to create a state of war between the religious communities in India and beyond, and bring on the endgame.

(Via Reason) Now, French isn’t alone here—Susan Schmidt and Siobhan Gorban said much the same thing in this week’s Wall Street Journal—but I still don’t know how useful it is to treat all pan-Islamist groups as if they’re the same. As bad as Lashkar-e Toiba is, it is also generally a Pakistani-Indian problem. While they formed in Kunar in the 1990s, the overwhelming majority of their activity and focus has been Kashmir. That other Islamists trained in LeT camps is bad, but in the 1970’s IRA terrorists trained at Palestinian terror camps too—and no one was saying you needed to destroy the PLO to end Irish terrorism.

I guess what I’m getting at is, after a certain point most terror groups will work together for the sheer pragmatism of it. While that means there is a link, it does not mean there is an operational or ideological link, and assuming there is one can lead to violent miscalculations. So is this the case with LeT? Are their ties to the Taliban and al-Qaeda purely pragmatic, or born, as French argues above, from a desire to subjugate all of Central Asia? I can’t say. They sure do talk a big game. But then again, so do we.

Further Reading: This analysis of the recent Pashtun riots in Karachi from the perspective of a MQM supporter is very interesting, especially in light of the considerations I outlined above. Many thanks to Rabia at Grand Trunk Road—whose blog is an excellent resource for this kind of thing—for the link.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 1 comment }

Jay December 9, 2008 at 1:16 pm

A very interesting point.

“While that means there is a link, it does not mean there is an operational or ideological link, and assuming there is one can lead to violent miscalculations.”

However, it also doesn’t exclude the possibility. While we can cast a suspicious eye at the integrity of these ‘links’ between geographically, politically, culturally disparate groups, just because the initial intentions of those creating the links were ‘pragmatic’, doesn’t invalidate the implications of this self-association in terms of ideological branding.

Looking back to the 1970s/1980’s and the IRA’s creative exploration of geo-political faultlines, led them to make partnerships of sorts with U.K. ‘enemies'(and visa versa, of course). This old Brian Crozier article quotes The National Catholic Register in 1982:
“Sinn Fein’s expressions of solidarity include the PLO, the Basques, and, more recently, the radical feminists, all united by various Marxist slogans”

These links ranged from PR exercises (symbolically, was IRA training in Libya so entirely dissimilar to Russia/Venuzuela’s joint naval exercises? -beyond the training both are messages or political insinuations), capacity building for political wings of paramilitary orgs (Sinn Fein/ETA), to military support (the Eksun Valdez ship filled with terrorist goodies from Uncle Muammar in 1987).

Thinking of the residuals of ‘pragmatic partnerships’, I recalled these two personal experiences:

1) I was surprised when I went to Iran first in the late 1990s, that invariably the first reaction when I said I was Irish, was “Bobby Sands!” (or ‘Bab-e Sands’, or ‘Bob-e Sonds’), the Sinn Fein MP, who died on Hunger strike in 1981. For the new Revolutionary Iran, the self-sacrificing ‘anti-British’ martyr ‘fitted well’ with an Iranian anti-imperialist, populist agenda, heavily informed by Shi’ism. Analytically there were many differences, resources, history of imperial relations, religion), but the symbolism of this association was indeed in the timing of their ‘struggles’- giving credence to the idea that ‘pragmatism’ was behind their association (and Tehran officially changed the name of a street running beside the UK Embassy to ‘Zand-e Bobby Sands’). But the fact that 25 year afterwards, public perception of the brand ‘Political Ireland’ can still be associated with an anti-imperialist emancipatory polemic, must have some residual effects i.e. who inherits the Iranian revolution that made the pragmatic link in the first place – people who were sold as stirling truth this Irish-Iranian solidarity amongst many others.

2) Waiting with an English journalist for a Taliban visa in 1999 in Peshawur, when I told the consul I was from Ireland, he put his hand on his heart and said: “We have heard of your sufferings!” and invited me to his brother’s wedding. When he heard where the Englishman was from, he became decidedly grumpy and ignored him (and he didn’t get his visa).

Yes, it’s anecdotal and difficult to measure or assess but this meme has consistent anecdotes. Links between terrorist organizations may be tenuous, they may be pure propaganda meant for one or more ‘ideological market place’ but the ‘art’ of good product placement and association is precisely in the drama of the symbolism rather than the details. It’s the Che Guevara school of PR… (A martyr’s worth a thousand truths…)
Conflict resolution and counter-insurgency must take on the complex challenge of addressing myth and symbolism and the multi-valent relationships that share these symbols. I wonder should we be getting our bizarrely-reformed former IRA members to consult with Taliban/Al Qu’aida, to help them separate (what seem) beautiful heartfelt (and bloody) myths from the prosaic but peaceful world of the possible?

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