Millions of dollars of aid later, Pakistan continues to support terror across borders. It is time for the U.S. and India to unleash economic sanctions and coercive diplomacy.
The release from detention of Lashkar-e-Taiba operations chief Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi and Pakistan’s failure to prosecute him for masterminding the 2008 Mumbai attacks is a travesty of justice. It is particularly galling when contrasted with the rapid proceedings against Shakil Afridi, the physician who helped U.S. intelligence agencies find Osama bin Laden.
But what is an even bigger scandal was the comfortable state of Lakhvi’s “incarceration”. In prison, Lakhvi had access to television, mobile phones, and the Internet. He had dozens of visitors a day; he held meetings unsupervised by prison guards. He was behind bars, but continued to direct LeT operations. All this and the clear lack of seriousness in prosecuting or imprisoning Lakhvi highlights the continuing cosy relations between Pakistan’s military and the terrorists that its generals find useful in pursuing strategic goals against India and Afghanistan.
The U.S. reaction
India has taken umbrage at Lakhvi’s release, but the U.S. should be equally appalled. Just a couple of days before Lakhvi’s release, the U.S. State Department had approved Pakistan’s request for $952 million in military equipment, ostensibly to be used to fight terrorism. In the Mumbai attacks, more than 160 civilians, including six Americans, were killed. The Americans were specifically targeted because they were Westerners. In this context, Pakistan’s decision to release a man who has American blood on his hands, just days after the U.S. agreed to provide the aid it had asked for, can be seen as a grave insult. Some Indians might even see it as proof of a double-faced U.S. attitude towards terrorism.
Besides this grant, the U.S. has given over $20 billion as military aid since 2002 and over $10 billion for development work. The aid was the carrot extended by the U.S. to encourage Pakistan to fight terrorism.
Instead, Pakistan has continued to be a leading source of terrorism worldwide. Besides the 2008 Mumbai attacks, terrorists linked to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have sponsored multiple attacks across India. Further, it effectively revived the Taliban insurgency with safe havens and equipment, furthering the instability in Afghanistan and costing the lives of over 2,000 U.S. military personnel.
Clearly, the carrots have not worked. It is now time for the U.S. to seriously consider wielding sticks. The U.S. has an enormous arsenal of sanctions that has been effective, for instance, against Iran. It is time for Pakistan to learn that there is a heavy price to be paid for misbehaving on the international stage. Terrorists are used to moving money illicitly but sanctions could prove painful to Pakistan’s generals and intelligence staff, who usually become quite wealthy in the service of their country.
If placing crippling trade restrictions on Pakistan and prohibiting all aid, except humanitarian, is too bold a step to be taken, there is a range of more targeted options that can be used.
Tools of restraint
The University of Maryland’s Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics has developed a programme titled STONE or Shaping Terrorist Organizational Network Efficacy. The programme uses a combination of network analysis tools, unique properties of individuals in the network, and “big data” analytics to identify the most critical nodes in a network. It also finds out how networks adjust to the removal of a node or nodes. STONE has so far been applied to open-source data on Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and LeT. Using past instances when leaders of terrorist organisations were replaced, one of STONE’s top three predictions has been to accurately pinpoint the successor to a removed terrorist in over 80 per cent of the cases.
What was most intriguing about the findings on LeT was the prominent role played by former and present ISI officers. This confirmed long-standing suspicions about the important role of ISI sponsorship in LeT operations. The U.S. has been aggressive in placing financial sanctions on Pakistani terrorist groups and their leaders by declaring them Specially Designated Global Terrorists but it has refrained from placing ISI backers on the sanctions list. It is high time this restraint was ended. We don’t know who was responsible for granting bail to Lakhvi, but the ISI could be a serious candidate.
Besides STONE, there are other tools — denying travel visas to the West and student visas to the children of senior ISI personnel could be one. ISI agents identified (with open source data collected about five years ago) as significant players in the LeT network could be candidates for such sanctions. Intelligence agencies can undoubtedly pinpoint the figures entrenched in Pakistan’s military-terrorism complex. Financial sanctions on them will send Pakistan an unambiguous message that business as usual is over.
There are other options that don’t target specific individuals, but include covert action and a reduction in U.S. military and development aid to Pakistan. Research carried out by the authors shows that LeT carries out almost no attacks during times of internal conflict. Running intelligence campaigns that sow dissension within LeT is an immediate option; the tactic was reportedly used successfully against Palestinian arch-terrorist group Abu Nidal.
Game theory models of LeT attack behaviour developed by the authors suggest that only a combination of two factors — reduction in aid by the U.S. and either covert action or coercive diplomacy by India — would have a chance of reducing LeT attacks.
Insanity, they say, is to repeat the same action over and over but expect different results. So far, this has been U.S. policy towards Pakistan. Hopefully, American policymakers will finally learn something from Lakhvi’s premature release.
(V.S. Subrahmanian is the Director and Aaron Mannes is a researcher at the University of Maryland’s Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics. R.K. Raghavan served as Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation. They are co-authors of Computational Approaches to Terrorist Groups: Lashkar-e-Taiba (2013).)