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Lawfare Podcast Episode #22: Stephen Tankel on Pakistan, the Endgame in Afghanistan, and LeT

Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 8:13 AM

This is the latest piece in the interview series I have done over the last few months with terrorism and regional experts about non-legal issues of pertinence to Lawfare readers. For this episode, I interviewed American University professor and nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Stephen Tankel.

(The other interviews in this series are with Brookings Senior Fellow Bruce Riedel, with Brookings Senior Fellow Daniel Byman, and with Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Daniel Markey.)

Tankel has a slightly different perspective on Pakistan than Markey—with whom I also discussed U.S.-Pakistani terrorism cooperation and the relationship between Al Qaeda and jihadist groups in Pakistan—but we started with similar questions so that Lawfare readers hear a different voice on the subject. However, I have chosen to focus this post on the other topics we discuss, several of which are Tankel’s areas of expertise. The full interview is, as always, available below as an episode of the Lawfare Podcast.

Tankel is an expert on insurgency, terrorism, the evolution of non-state armed groups, and political and security issues in South Asia. He has spoken and published widely on these issues, and has conducted field research on conflicts and militancy in Algeria, India, Lebanon, Pakistan, and the Balkans. Some of his most recent articles from this year include “Sharing is Caring: Containing Terrorism in South Asia,” published in Foreign Policy, Afghan War Is Not Over Yet,” published on, and “U.S. Confuses Carrots and Sticks in Pakistan,” published in the National Interest. He is the author of Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba, published jointly by Hurst & Co. and Columbia University Press last year.

(Note: Thanks to Brookings intern Nik Royce for his help transcribing parts of this interview.)

Pakistan’s Internal Security and Domestic Barriers to Stability

Early in our discussion, Tankel and I talked about Pakistan’s stability and its degree of control over its territory. There are definitely still parts of the tribal areas that are “no-go areas” for the Pakistani army and the ISI, he says. Pakistani authorities lack control of these areas and it is difficult to even travel through them. Beyond these areas, the military can generally operate within the heartland of Pakistan, Tankel says. This, however, begs the question of what “control” really means. Tankel argues that one interpretation is that to have control, you must have enough of a monopoly on the use of force, as well as the governance capacity, to make sure that others cannot compete with you. One can argue that by this measure, the Pakistani government lacks control even of parts of Karachi and Punjab, with non-state actors “outcompeting” them on any given day. This leads some scholars to the conclusion that there are islands of instability even within the Pakistani heartland where the government lacks real control.

Tankel argues for thinking about the question of control in terms of whether the Pakistani army could assert control in a given area in a pinch. For example, the publicly-declared holiday to allow protests over the anti-Muslim film, The Innocence of Muslims, was a disaster; the army quickly lost control over the protests and was unable to hold back protesters without exercising lethal force. The very need to provide this holiday troubled Tankel, either because it means that the government felt that it would not be able to limit the violence otherwise, or because the authorities felt so threatened by these actors that they felt the need to give in to them. Another example is that the army does not move against some of these establishment Islamist terror groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Sipah-e-Sahaba that have a presence in Punjab—because of the very real fear of backlash from them if it does. It is easier for authorities to kick the can down the road, which means that it maintains only a tenuous kind of control.

Tankel denies that Pakistan is a failed state. But stability exists on a spectrum, he says, and it is certainly less stable than the Pakistanis (and Americans) would like it to be on any given day—though it is actually much more stable than those who think it is on the verge of imploding seem to believe.

What are the domestic barriers to greater internal stability in Pakistan? Tankel explains that there are myriad structural barriers. Pakistan suffers from severe shortfalls in governance capacity. The police are under-resourced, under-paid, under-trained, and deeply politicized. The politicization of the police and military is, in itself, a feeder of instability and a barrier to action against militants. In addition, there are systemic issues. There is lack of cooperation between the federal government and the provincial governments, at times because there are different parties in power at the different levels, and the parties compete with one another. Entities that aren’t tasked for counterterrorism, such as the ISI, nonetheless engage in counterterrorism—sometimes because they are the most capable, and other times so they can maintain control of the counterterrorism space. The ISI, the police, and other actors all compete with one another as well—and often engage in extrajudicial coercive practices, which further weakens the whole system. The legal infrastructure in Pakistan is also quite weak, Tankel says. There is no witness protection program and no judicial protection either, and as little as 15 percent of the cases heard in anti-terrorism courts result in convictions. All of these barriers to action give militants more space to expand their roots and engender instability.

On top of all of this, the Pakistani military and the ISI continue to play favorites with the militant groups—tolerating some and going after others.

Afghanistan Post-2014

With the troop surge in Afghanistan now over, and with the drawdown fast approaching, I ask Tankel whether the Authorization for the Use of Military Force becomes any less plausible or powerful as a justification to continue operations in Pakistan if the war with Afghanistan is ending. He believes that U.S. policy with respect to Pakistan will be conducted on the basis of political calculation and operational utility, not according to how many U.S. troops remain next door in Afghanistan.

The million dollar question, says Tankel, is how the U.S. troop drawdown in Afghanistan will affect some of these Pakistan-based and Pakistan-supported jihadist groups. He believes that one of the consequences of the 2014 drawdown will be to bring out the differences between these militant groups and their agendas. Some of them call for revolutionary jihad against Pakistan; others think the focus needs to be on Afghanistan; still others want to kill the Shia’a; and others, of course, want to focus on India. It is already difficult for all these groups to unite around a common cause because they all have such disparate agendas. Tankel argues that this could potentially be a positive dynamic if it means that any one group is prevented from reaching a critical mass.

The downside of this is that tracking all these different actors will be much more difficult, as will knowing where any one entity will focus on any given day. In addition, we may see an increase in violence as different groups compete with one another, Tankel warns. And, of course, there is the possibility that some groups will see the American withdrawal as a victory, and will pursue larger objectives, especially in Afghanistan, with even greater determination.


We then turn to LeT, the biggest, and arguably, as Bruce Riedel states in our first interview, the most dangerous of the Pakistani groups. I start by asking Tankel how big the organization really is. Estimates of its size are very difficult, he says, because of how membership is defined. If we use the number of men under arms as a definition, he says, then estimates range from 2,000 to 4,000. But if the definition includes people that have gone through military-type training, the number grows a lot—anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 people. Furthermore, this number depends on the type of training people go through. General training is three weeks; religious indoctrination is also two to three weeks; special training is two and a half months to three months of guerrilla training; and there is additional urban warfare training. Other factors include whether the individual stayed with the group or not, and whether the individual is simply a member of Jamaat-e-Dawa, LeT’s social welfare organization. In Tankel’s view, one of the most important points about LeT is that because it is such a variegated organization, it is all the more essential to have a good understanding of the different actors and the different roles in the organization.

I ask Tankel how he would define LeT’s objectives. He states that LeT is both a missionary and a militant organization. One of its key objectives is promoting reform in Pakistan, or, as the group would put it, turning Pakistan into a true Islamic state. It pursues this objective primarily using non-violent means. As a militant organization, however, it is primarily pan-Islamist and wants to liberate occupied Muslim lands and protect all Muslims around the world. Although Al Qaeda is also pan-Islamist, argues Tankel, America is its biggest enemy, whereas India has always been LeT’s principal foe. There are several major reasons for this: the conflict over Kashmir; the partition of the subcontinent at the time of independence, which is a bitter memory for the majority of Punjabis that make up LeT; the contested territory of Hyderabad, which the organization believes is under Indian occupation; and, generally, anti-Hindu communal sentiment in Pakistan.

How has LeT has evolved since the Mumbai attacks of 2008 brought it into international notoriety? Tankel says that Hafiz Saeed, its leader, has taken on an increasingly public role, which could be a sign of Pakistan’s unwillingness or inability to control him—or a way for Pakistani authorities to allow him to feel important so he doesn’t orchestrate another attack that could drag Pakistan into a war with India or precipitate an international crisis. (In fact, Hafiz Saeed is so unchecked by the Pakistani state that he recently offered aid and supplies to victims of Hurricane Sandy.) Jamaat-e-Dawa was also allowed to re-launch it website recently, is still not a banned organization, and, in general, has been given increasing latitude by Pakistan to pursue its objectives. In addition, LeT has ramped up its activities in Afghanistan since 2010. Again, Tankel sees this as a result of efforts by the army and the ISI to placate and regain influence over LeT by letting the group to blow off some steam. Looking forward, Tankel believes that the decision as to whether the organization should focus on Afghanistan, continue to focus India, or even focus on growing its base within Pakistan, could lead to a rupture within the LeT leadership.

We end by talking about the effects that the recent FTO designation of the Haqqani Network will have on the group, compared to the effect it has had on LeT.  Tankel says that designation made LeT’s operational environment a bit more difficult; it made bringing in money from overseas a tiny bit more challenging, and it constrained the running of its logistical networks abroad. Tankel believes that the designation of the Haqqani Network will not be the straw that breaks the camel’s back—but maintains that it is not designed to be. It is meant to slow the group down, which is what it did to LeT.