The Perils of Pakistan's Militant Crackdown

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Fayyaz Ahmed / EPA

Pakistani policemen shut down a Jamaat ud Dawa office in Quetta, Pakistan. Pakistan banned the Muslim charity organization after suspected involvement in the Mumbai terror attacks.

Pakistan is acting decisively against the militants blamed for the Mumbai massacre: Last weekend, it arrested some key leaders of the banned Lashkar e-Toiba (LeT) organization identified by India and by U.S. officials as implicated in the terror attack; on Thursday it followed that up with a crackdown on the Jamaat ud Dawa (JuD), an Islamic charity that has allegedly functioned as a front organization for LeT since it was banned in Pakistan in 2002. Pakistani authorities froze bank accounts, closed a number of offices and detained dozens of members of the JuD. But while the crackdown may demonstrate the government's firm resolve to tackle jihadist extremism within Pakistan, moving against the JuD is unlikely to significantly alter Pakistan's militancy problem — and could even exacerbate it by generating sympathy for those against whom the authorities have acted.

On Thursday afternoon, government officials fanned out across Pakistan, padlocking on the doors of JuD offices and placing its leader, Hafeez Saeed, under house arrest, after the U.N. Security Council had listed it as a terrorist group. The raids prompted muted protsts in much of Pakistan, but in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, where the group has a large following thanks to its relief work following the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, several hundred people marched in the streets, demanding that the ban be reversed. (See pictures of Pakistan's vulnerable Northwest passage.)

Thousands of worshippers attending Friday prayers at a Lahore mosque sponsored by the charity condemned the government crackdown, saying that the ban would also put a halt to the humanitarian services provided by the group. "Dawa was doing welfare work across Pakistan, but the relief work has been stopped," Saeed's son, Mohammad Talha Saeed, told the congregation, according to AFP. He said there "was no moral or legal justification" for banning the charity, and swore to challenge it in court.

But American and Indian investigators say the JuD became a front for the Lashkar-e-Toiba militant group, when it was banned in 2002 after being accused of being behind a terror attack on India's parliament and after being listed by the U.S. as a foreign terrorist organization. Saeed, who founded LeT as a militant wing of the charity group in 1990, officially quit his position as head of the militant group just days before the ban was put in place. India, which accuses LeT of planning the Mumbai attacks, welcomed Pakistan's latest moves, but Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told Parliament on Thursday that "much more needs to be done, and the actions should be pursued to their local conclusion."

Pakistani authorities, however, complain that India has not provided evidence to prosecute the case. "Our own investigations cannot proceed beyond a certain point without provision of credible information and evidence pertaining to Mumbai attacks," Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said Friday. And without evidence of complicity in the attacks, Pakistan will find it difficult to maintain pressure on the group, particularly because of the popular support it has won through its charitable work. If India wants to see Saeed jailed, says Senator Tariq Azim, "We need some credible evidence to pin him down. It is imperative that we make a tight case, or he will be liberated, which neither country wants." (See pictures of terror in Mumbai.)

Tanveer Sarwar, a 36-year-old builder in Rawalpindi, supports the government action, saying that there had been plenty of evidence that JuD had long been maintaining connections with other banned militant groups, and that the crackdown "may help to discourage other pro-militancy religious groups." But he is suspicious of the timing. "It is objectionable that the government didn't act until international pressure was exerted," he says, echoing the view that Pakistan's leaders are once again acting at the behest of the United States — a complaint that helped bring down President Pervez Musharraf.

Social activist and Kashmiri writer Sabur Ali Syeid, 33, sees the crackdown as a decision taken in reaction to foreign pressure, suggesting that this proves "that the government has no clear-cut or well-defined policy regarding the militant organizations, including Dawa." He warns that if the government is seen to succumb to foreign pressure by targeting certain groups, the result may simply be to inflame public hostility to the West and India, thus playing into the hands of the extremists.

Regardless of the timing, cracking down on JuD was never going to be easy. Following the Kashmir earthquake, the group moved quickly and efficiently to provide food, water and shelter to thousands of homeless victims even as the military struggled to mount its own relief effort. Just a few months ago, they did the same when an earthquake struck the province of Baluchistan. When disaster strikes, JuD volunteers swarm hospitals, ready to donate blood, and the group's madrassahs provide free education and meals to the nation's poor. And just as the provision of welfare has helped cement the popular support of groups such as Hizballah in Lebanon, so has it won the loyalty of many impoverished Pakistanis to the JuD. Moreover, JuD has been very vocal in its support for a Kashmiri militants fighting Indian rule in the contested territory — a cause dear to many Pakistanis, who believe that the largely Muslim state rightfully belongs to Pakistan. (Watch a video of earthquake tourism in Kashmir.)

Farahnaz Ispahani, spokeswoman for the ruling Pakistan People's Party, says that the government had long been investigating JuD, but that the U.N. Security Council decision required action. "As we are a member state of the U.N., it is binding upon Pakistan to respect the decisions of the Security Council. The decision they made, tied in with our prior knowledge [of JuD's activities] made it a good time to act."

But the crackdown will achieve little if it fails to address the root causes of the group's popularity, warns religious scholar Khurshid Ahmad Nadeem. "Banning is a failed strategy," he says. "I predict that in a few months, Jamaat ud-Dawa will resurface with a new name, new followers, and now, a new cause. If the sentiments are there, and the basic militant ideology has not changed in the population, you achieve nothing with a ban." But until such time as better education and job prospects offer young men a compelling alternative to throwing in their lot with militant groups, cosmetic crackdowns may be the best that the government can hope for.

With reporting by Ershad Mahmud/ Rawalpindi

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