Most analysts contend that the recent Jaish-e-Mohammad attack on an Indian military base in Pathankot was primarily aimed to derail a nascent peace process between India and Pakistan following Prime Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore, in Pakistan’s Punjab, last month. While in the tactical sense this is true; there can never be any meaningful peace process with Pakistan because Pakistan’s military cannot abandon its baseless claims on Kashmir or accept India as the dominant power in the region. This interpretation of the attack as “peace spoiler” misses the strategic element of the ISI’s revival of Jaish-e-Mohammad (usually referred to as “Jaish”), which has been long dormant following a split in the organization in 2001 when the rump of the outfit decided to focus their weapons on the Pakistani state. As I have argued elsewhere, Pakistan’s refurbishing of this outfit is not only about prosecuting Pakistan’s regional strategies, but it is also a critical component of Pakistan’s domestic security strategy.
Jaish-e-Mohammad is a Deobandi Islamist terrorist group with close ties to the Deobandi Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, anti-Shia groups such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi/Sipah-e-Sahaba-e-Pakistan, and al Qaeda. Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate (ISI) created Jaish by working with several Deobandi terrorists associated with Harkat-ul-Mujahideen to hijack Delhi-bound Indian Airlines flight 814 after it departed Kathmandu in late 1999. The aircraft eventually landed in Kandahar, the base of Afghanistan’s Taliban, where terrorists agreed to free the surviving passengers upon the release of three Pakistani terrorists incarcerated in India: Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and Maulana Masood Azhar.
Indian officials delivered these terrorists to Kandahar from which they traveled to Pakistan reportedly ISI escort. After the ISI paraded them about Pakistan as celebrities, Azhar resurfaced in Karachi in January 2000 when he announced the formation of the Jaish from the remnants of other Deobandi terrorist groups. Pakistan’s ISI the Jaish to up the ante in Kashmir and to serve as a competitor to Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which the ISI also raised and deployed to Kashmir in the early 1990s to escalate the violence in the state. While LeT pioneered the “high risk mission,” the Jaish pioneered the use of suicide attacks in Kashmir in April 2000 in Badami Bagh.
Unlike the Lashkar-e-Taiba which has remained largely intact over the years, the Jaish split in late 2001 when its leadership disagreed on whether the organization should stay loyal to the Pakistani state under President and General Musharraf or begin attacking it in retaliation for Musharraf’s aiding the Americans to oust the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. After all, the Afghan Taliban shared the Jaish’s Deobandi ideological orientations and represented the only regime that enforced the version of sharia they all espoused. Moreover, many Jaish members previously fought alongside the Taliban when they served in other Deobandi militant groups. Jaish confederates were not alone in their outrage. In fact, numerous Deobandi militants that the ISI had nurtured were furious that Pakistan’s military had seemingly turned their back on the Afghan Taliban and were assisting the American kufars to oust their confederates from Kabul.
Despite the pressure from Jaish commanders and members alike to defect, Masood Azhar remained loyal to the state and reported the developments to the ISI. In doing so, he demonstrated his value to the ISI. The rump of the organization he founded launched attacks under the name of Jamaat ul Furqan and initiated a series of deadly suicide attacks against military targets, including Musharraf himself. This was the opening salvo in a realignment of militant groups that would produce Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP or Pakistani Taliban) in 2007.
Even though the Jaish and its leader Masood Azhar are explicitly proscribed by the United States and the United Nations Security Council, among other entities, Pakistan adamantly continued protecting the organization. Azhar freely operated in his home town of Bahawalpur in Southern Punjab. Despite being technically proscribed even in Pakistan, the organization actually expanded in recent years. Since at least 2011 if not earlier, Pakistan’s ISI has been resurrecting the Jaish under Azhar’s leadership as a part of its strategy to rehabilitate those assets who defected to the Pakistani Taliban.
By 2013, I learned during fieldwork in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, that Pakistan had resolved to take the Pakistani Taliban seriously partly due to international pressure and partly due to domestic imperatives. After numerous months of incessant warning, Pakistan’s military formally commenced a selective campaign against those militants in the tribal areas attacking it in June 2014 under the operational name of Zarb-e-Azb. Prior to the onset of these operations, Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies sought to persuade elements of the TTP to abandon the fight against Pakistan by either rejoining the fight in Afghanistan to help the Taliban or to rejoin the JeM to kill Indians. Those members of the TTP who could not be so reformed to fight the external enemies and remained committed to fighting Pakistan were deemed enemy combatants who must be eliminated.
Envervating the Jaish is a cornerstone of Pakistan’s strategy of managing its own internal security challenges as well as a cornerstone of its policy of nuclear blackmail to achieve ideological objectives in Kashmir. Individuals from international organizations tasked with monitoring these groups told me over a year ago that Jaish activists have long been poised for infiltration into India , along the so-called Line of Control in Kashmir. Given that the Jaish is Pakistan’s program for bringing errant terrorists back into the fold of “good terrorists,” the only thing surprising about this Jaish assault is that it did not happen sooner. The India and the United States must understand the strategic imperatives that motivate Pakistan to keep organizations like the Jaish in its vast stable of terrorists. Pakistan does so not merely to “disrupt peace” with India; rather, to prosecute the Pakistan army’s endless war on India within its borders and across South Asia.