Why announce a bounty on Hafiz Saeed?

Published: April 5, 2012
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This is, after all, a man Washington and New Delhi regard as a terrorist, yet whom many in Pakistan regard as a heroic symbol of defiance toward the United States.

Why now?

At a critical moment in the US-Pakistan relationship, with parliamentary debate raging in Pakistan about how to realign relations with Washington, and with the United States desperate to forge some level of cooperation with Islamabad to help move toward the elusive endgame in Afghanistan, why announce a bounty for “information leading to the arrest or conviction” of living-openly-in-Lahore Hafiz Saeed?

This is, after all, a man Washington and New Delhi regard as a terrorist, yet whom many in Pakistan regard as a heroic symbol of defiance toward the United States, an essential strategic asset, or both. In short, Washington’s decision will add new fuel to a fire that the Americans desperately want extinguished.

So why now?

Saeed himself has offered an answer: It’s all about appeasing India.

And on this count, he may be onto something.

Several days back, I tweeted a facetious suggestion:

Staffers at the US Consulate in Lahore should simply stroll around the city until they come across Saeed, and then slap handcuffs on him—thereby saving US taxpayers $10 million.

The Jamaatud Dawa’s savvy Twitter feed quickly sprang into action (it is unconfirmed whether this is their verified account)

Perhaps defeat in Afghanistan has made US lose complete sense

@JuD_Official retorted.

Playing the Indian card will further jeopardise the region.

The implication was that Washington’s announcement was meant as a gesture of support for India.

There may be some truth to this.

Many in India believe the Obama administration has little interest in strengthening the strategic relationship launched between the two countries during the George W Bush era. Indians also recall how the Bush administration boasted several high-level officials—such as undersecretary of state for political affairs Nicholas Burns and ambassador to India Robert Blackwill—deeply committed to improving ties with India. By contrast, Obama, with his ownership of the Afghanistan war and many attempts (not particularly successful) to deepen ties with Pakistan, is seen as more of an Af-Pak president with staffers more focused on that region than on India. (Such narratives, of course, conveniently ignore the state visit granted to Prime Minister Singh, and to President Obama’s endorsement of an eventual UN Security Council seat for India.)

Over the last year, the US-India relationship has not been helped by tussles over US legislation that would punish American firms for using call centers in India, by India’s decision to snub American arms suppliers in several high-profile deals, and by the lack of progress in consummating the US-India civil nuclear deal.

So for these reasons, the bounty decision afforded Washington an opportunity to reassure New Delhi about the strength of the bilateral relationship.

Be that as it may, the main reason for Washington’s bounty has little to do with India.

In essence, the Americans wanted to send a strong message of disapproval about the increased freedom enjoyed by a man that they believe has no business being free. The State Department may have said that the bounty “has everything to do with Mumbai.” Yet, for the US government, it also has much to do with Afghanistan. Noted Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) expert Stephen Tankel has described how the organisation began expanding its operations in that country in the mid-2000’s, after Pakistan-Indian ties began to warm and Indian activities in Kashmir were curtailed. LeT fighters have now become major players in Afghanistan, with operatives flowing into the north-eastern reaches of the nation and joining forces with other extremist groups targeting US forces.

In Washington, Saeed is seen, not as the benign overseer of JuD’s charitable acts, but as the brutal mastermind of the LeT’s anti-US militancy. With Saeed’s public presence growing in recent months while headlining the Difa-e-Pakistan Council’s many public rallies, with his railings against US drone strikes and Pakistan-based Nato supply routes growing ever more shrill, and with Pakistan showing no interest in detaining him (a position unlikely to change anytime soon), the United States decided to exercise the one option at its disposal: lodge a symbolic act of protest.

The takeaway?

Hafiz Saeed is now one of the world’s most wanted men, yet he lives a life far removed from that of a fugitive. And nothing will be done about it.

Surreal? For sure.

Yet given the wackiness that often characterises Pakistan-US relations, the bounty affair represents just another bizarre chapter in a very perplexing partnership indeed.

Read more by Michael here, or follow him on Twitter @MichaelKugelman

Michael.Kugelman

Michael Kugelman

Michael Kugelman is the South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He tweets @MichaelKugelman (twitter.com/MichaelKugelman)

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