(CNSNews.com) – As the Obama administration seeks “renewal” in its strained relationship with Pakistan, a top U.S. military officer warned Tuesday of the growing threat of a Pakistan-based terrorist group that has declared “jihad” on America and is carrying out attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan.
One day before U.S. Pacific Command head Adm. Robert Willard made the comments about Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), the leader of a Pakistani group which the State Department calls a “front operation” for LeT delivered a fiery public speech at Pakistan’s National Press Club, about a mile from the seat of government in Islamabad.
The freedom of movement and speech enjoyed by Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, head of the ostensibly charitable organization Jamaat ud-Dawa (JuD), reinforces the perception of a disconnect between Pakistan’s stated counter-terror cooperation with the U.S., and what critics view as ongoing complicity in supporting terrorists when it suits its strategic purposes, particularly in Afghanistan and India.
Lashkar-e-Toiba (Lashkar-e-Tayyiba) was established in the late 1980s with the backing of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to fight Indian rule in disputed Kashmir.
It was formally banned under U.S. pressure following an attack on the Indian Parliament shortly after 9/11, but researchers say LeT continued to operate as JuD, the name of its original parent organization.
While Saeed denies that JuD and LeT are related, the U.N. Security Council includes him, LeT and JuD on its list of entities associated with al-Qaeda. The list identifies Saeed as “the leader of Lashkar-e-Tayyiba.”
Testifying before the Senate Armed Forces Committee, Willard noted that LeT is blamed for one of the worst attacks in Indian history, a 60-hour assault in Mumbai in November 2008 that left 166 people dead, including six Americans. LeT’s involvement in the attack “validates India’s concerns regarding terrorist threats originating from outside India,” he said.
But Willard also described LeT as a “global threat.”
“It has declared jihad against the West and specifically against the United States in the past,” he said in response to questions from Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.). “They’re conducting attacks against our people in Afghanistan, today.”
There was also evidence of LeT presence in the broader Asia-Pacific region, Europe, and, in the past, in the U.S. and Canada, Willard added.
“Unquestionably they have spread their influence internationally and are no longer solely focused on South Asia and India.”
Asked by Ayotte about the LeT relationship with Pakistan, Willard – whose area of responsibility encompasses India but not Pakistan – chose his words carefully.
“The discussion regarding the government of Pakistan’s relationship to LeT is a very sensitive one,” he said. “It continues to be a discussion item between the United States government and the Pakistan government in Islamabad and I think will continue to be.”
Willard said while Pakistan’s government has “denounced” the historical linkage, “the Indian government would offer that it still exists.”
“I think given United States’ relationship with both India and Pakistan, and the importance that we place on those relationships, that it’s important that this particular discussion continues to take place and that we continue to work with the government of Pakistan … to root out terrorism that exists inside their borders.”
After the Mumbai attack, the U.S. backed Indian demands for Pakistan to act against those responsible. Despite evidence implicating Saeed – based in part on India’s interrogation of the sole surviving gunman – Islamabad declined to lay criminal charges against him or to extradite him to face trial in India.
Saeed was placed under house arrest, but a court later ordered his release.
In his National Press Club speech on Monday, Saeed voiced continued support for the armed campaign against Indian rule in Kashmir.
Court case will spotlight alleged ISI role
The widely-suspected ISI role in LeT terrorism is about to be highlighted in a trial in a U.S. District Court in Illinois, where a Pakistani-Canadian faces 12 counts relating to the alleged provision of material support to terrorists.
Tahawwur Rana is accused of helping others – including Pakistan-born U.S. national David Headley – to reconnoiter the locations of the Mumbai attacks.
Ahead of his May 16 trial opening, Rana lodged a defense in which he said he believed his actions were undertaken on behalf of the ISI.
Rana argued that the ISI had the authority to act in India to protect Pakistan’s national interests, and that he should be immune to prosecution in the U.S. under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The court on April 1 rejected the argument.
“While the court rejected Rana’s attempted defense on technical grounds, his implicating of the Pakistani government and its intelligence agencies strengthens the widely held view in India and elsewhere that Islamabad’s reluctance to act against the perpetrators of attack points to official patronage of terrorism,” commented the Times of India on Tuesday.
Asked during a press conference about the allegations raised in the Rana case, State Department spokesman Mark Toner on Tuesday declined to comment on a trial “that’s about to begin.”
On the broader issue of counter terrorism cooperation with Pakistan, he said, “certainly that’s ongoing, and we are very candid in sharing our views and sharing information with Pakistan about terrorist threats. And we believe that cooperation continues to be … good.”
Toner said Washington had made it clear after the Mumbai attacks that “Pakistan has a special responsibility” to bring those responsible to justice.
“They pledged their cooperation to bring these perpetrators to justice, and we believe they’re going to be – they’re carrying that pledge out.”
Healing the rift
U.S.-Pakistani relations have been strained in recent months, in part over the stepped-up use of unmanned U.S. drones to target terror suspects along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and in particular the controversy over a CIA contractor who shot dead two Pakistanis.
The case pushed anti-U.S. sentiment to new levels. The American, Raymond Davis, was eventually freed in mid-March after relatives of the men he killed were paid “blood money,” an arrangement permissible under shari’a. (The administration said the money did not come from the U.S. government.)
Islamabad was further riled last week when the White House, in a report to Congress on the situation in Afghanistan, said Pakistan had “no clear path toward defeating the insurgency” in its border areas near Afghanistan.
The report said coalition forces were making progress in reversing the Taliban’s momentum in Afghanistan, but then added that “consolidating those gains will require that we make more progress with Pakistan to eliminate sanctuaries for violent extremist networks.”
Pakistan’s foreign ministry rejected the assessment, saying that it should “not be held accountable for the failings” of the U.S. and NATO strategy in Afghanistan.
The administration is taking steps to try to heal the rift.
ISI head Lieutenant-General Ahmad Shuja Pasha met with CIA Director Leon Panetta at CIA headquarters on Monday, in what U.S. officials characterized as an attempt to repair the breach.
Also Monday, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter delivered a speech in Islamabad on “a way forward” in the bilateral relationship.
“We’ve had some difficult days in the recent past,” he said, citing the Raymond Davis case.
“In the ensuing weeks, I believe both sides have reflected on the importance of our ties, and how we must not let this very regrettable incident stop us as we work together for Pakistan’s bright future with America’s determined help,” Munter said. “Instead, let us look for renewal.”