Two weeks ago, during a visit to India, the undersecretary for political affairs at the State Department announced a $10 million reward for the capture or information leading to the capture of Hafiz Muhammad Saeed. Like others who have spent extensive time in Pakistan or studied militant groups based there, I was tempted to ring the State Department to collect.
Saeed is the leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is among the Pakistani military’s most reliable proxies and is most famous for staging the 2008 Mumbai attacks. He keeps a fairly active schedule, regularly appearing at public events. Thus, the announcement was met with a fair amount of puzzlement and a degree of derision. A spokesman from State soon clarified the reward was not for locating Saeed but instead for information to help Pakistan convict him in a court of law.
This assumes Pakistan has not prosecuted Saeed because of a lack of evidence when, in reality, the failure to act stems primarily from a lack of will. Indeed, Pakistan has not even banned the front group Saeed leads, which he laughably claims has no connection to Lashkar. This is despite the fact that the United Nations labeled that organization, known as Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a terrorist group and identified it as a Lashkar front.
That might help explain why Pakistani officials were not told in advance such “help” from Washington was on the way.
Confusion remains, however, about what the United States aimed to accomplish and, more importantly, whether putting a bounty on Saeed’s head was a good idea.
India is Lashkar’s main enemy. But the group is not ideologically opposed to attacking America, and there is consensus among those who follow Lashkar that it has the capabilities to strike U.S. targets in South Asia as well as further abroad.
Lashkar’s close relationship with the Pakistani military historically has been seen as a check on its military adventurism, but the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which deliberately targeted Westerners, elevated concerns that the group was moving in a more global direction and possibly spinning out of the control of its Pakistani state sponsors. Since then, U.S. security officials have been pressing Pakistan to crack down on the group and, barring that, looking for ways to degrade it unilaterally.
Drone strikes and other forms of direct action are typically ruled out because Lashkar’s leadership is based in population centers like Lahore. Whether or not one thinks removing that leadership would be a good idea, stoking paranoia within Lashkar’s ranks is one of the few offensive tools America has at its disposal, and one aim of this most recent action might have been to do so.
But it’s difficult to imagine—and nearly impossible for Pakistanis to believe—that the announcement was not intended to pressure Pakistan to act against Saeed and, through him, Lashkar.
Privately, some Pakistan officials will acknowledge Saeed is a bad guy. But publicly, many of them came to his defense. Condemning the action, the officials urged the United States to provide evidence as opposed to offering a reward for it. (Because no American court has indicted Saeed, a failure to produce such information has been positioned as tantamount to an admission Washington does not have it.)
So was the announcement a good idea? In terms of the impact on Lashkar, that remains to be seen, though in the short term it certainly seems Saeed has gotten a public boost from it. Regarding America’s wider agenda vis-à-vis Pakistan, the answer is no.
Carrots and Sticks
The announcement came at a particularly sensitive time, days before State Department deputy secretary Thomas Nides arrived in Pakistan to echo President Obama’s call for a “balanced” relationship that respects Pakistani sovereignty. It also came at a time when Pakistan was considering reopening ground supply lines to Afghanistan for NATO forces.
There’s already fierce opposition to reopening supply lines, with Saeed’s voice among the most vociferous. The bounty is unlikely to derail an agreement, but the United States gave Saeed a bigger megaphone and thus made life more difficult for those who favor engagement with America. It also deposited yet another arrow in the quiver of those who claim America does not respect Pakistan’s sovereignty.
The announcement also came in a sensitive place, India. Whether or not an unstated objective of the reward was to advance relations with New Delhi, it certainly appeared that way in Pakistan. That both angers officials there and enables them to dismiss legitimate American concerns about Lashkar as a sop to India.
This is a symptom of three wider problems.
First, any U.S. strategy vis-à-vis Lashkar needs to nest within a wider Pakistan strategy, not drive it. Right now, America’s stated priorities are decimating al-Qaeda and stabilizing Afghanistan to allow for a troop drawdown, two issues on which Pakistani cooperation is considered both critical and possible. That raises serious questions about whether the potential benefits of this move were worth the very clear costs.
Second, the United States will continue to face challenges in terms of balancing its relations with India and with Pakistan.
Third, while there are no easy answers when it comes to Pakistan, one of the ingredients that has been lacking in U.S. policy is consistency.
If the United States wants to eschew engagement and get tough on Pakistan, then it should get tough on Pakistan and be clear that it is doing so—which means making the offer of a reward part of a sustained campaign against all militants based there as well as the military and intelligence services that still support some of them.
However, indications are that the United States wants a rapprochement with Pakistan to accomplish other stated objectives and intends to pursue a long-term strategy of engagement. That demands determined patience and requires considering the costs and feasibility of decisions such as whether to put a bounty on Saeed’s head within this wider framework.
In short, understanding that all bilateral relations involve carrots and sticks, the United States needs to pick a lane and be clear-eyed about the costs associated with it. Otherwise, Washington antagonizes those with whom it is trying to work while providing ammunition to those it aims to undercut. And it risks looking feckless in the process—as it did when Saeed held a press conference across the street from the military’s general headquarters days after the announcement was made. Detailing his travel itinerary, which has since included several public appearances, he cheekily suggested collecting the $10 million himself.
Stephen Tankel is an assistant professor at American University and a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His book Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba was published last year.