April 27, 2011
Lashkar-e-Taiba (the Army of the Pure or LeT) is one of Pakistan’s oldest and most powerful jihadi groups. Yet despite its long and bloody history, LeT only began generating significant attention outside South Asia after launching a multi-target attack on the Indian city of Mumbai in November 2008. The 10-man assault team, which LeT dispatched, killed 166 people in the course of striking two world-class hotels, a café popular with foreign tourists, one of the busiest railway stations in the country, and a community center run by the Jewish Chabad organization. Although LeT began contributing to al-Qaeda’s global jihad against the United States and its allies after 9/11, the group was (and remains) strongly influenced by regional dynamics, and India has been its primary enemy since the early to mid-1990s.
The boldness of the Mumbai attacks and target selection suggested LeT continued to prioritize jihad against India, but was moving deeper into al-Qaeda’s orbit. Approximately one year after Mumbai, U.S. President Barack Obama wrote a letter to his Pakistani counterpart, President Asif Ali Zardari, in which he specifically mentioned LeT as one of the militant groups against which the government should act. A chorus of U.S. diplomats, security officials and military officers reiterated this call for action, pressuring Pakistan publicly as well as privately to move against LeT. Yet LeT’s position remains relatively secure. There are two main reasons. First, the country is facing a serious insurgency and the group remains one of the few militant outfits that officially refrain from launching attacks in Pakistan. The security establishment has determined that to avoid additional instability it must not take any action that could lead LeT to change this position. Second, the Pakistani army and its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) have long considered LeT to be the country’s most reliable proxy against India and the group still provides utility in this regard as well as the potential for leverage at the negotiating table. Thus, the consensus is that, at least in the short-term, taking steps to dismantle the group would chiefly benefit India, while Pakistan would be left to deal with the costs.
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Stephen Tankel is a Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of the forthcoming book Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba (Hurst & Co. and Columbia University Press 2011).