Government’s crackdown on jihadist groups will ease tensions with India and de-escalate crisis but will not significantly reduce militants’ capabilities
Islamabad will avoid enacting comprehensive measures against domestic militant groups but will seek to prevent further cross-border attacks for now
Area around Line of Control will remain volatile with risk of sporadic violence by local insurgents
The Government announced the arrest of 44 suspected militants on 5 March, including the alleged son and brother of Masood Azhar, the leader of jihadist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). Further on 5 March, the National Counter Terrorism Authority issued a revised list of 70 banned organisations, including Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and the Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation (FIF), two charities linked to the banned militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which was responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Then on 6 March, the Government seized assets and took control of buildings owned or run by JeM, JuD and FIF, including several mosques and seminaries.
This latest crackdown comes as the Government seeks to reduce bilateral tensions with India following a suicide bombing that killed more than 44 paramilitary police in Indian-administered Kashmir on 14 February. JeM, which has historic links to elements of the Pakistani security and intelligence agencies, claimed responsibility for the attack and has faced the brunt of the crackdown. The attack triggered a series of air strikes on 26 and 27 February, the first to take place across the Line of Control (LoC) since 1971, significantly raising tensions between the two countries and leading to the capture of an Indian Air Force pilot whose plane came down in Pakistani territory. Pakistan returned him to India on 1 March and while the situation remains tense, the move has meant the immediate risk of open conflict has largely receded.
The Government’s measured response to the crisis has been well received at home. Domestic opinion polls show the popularity of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has strengthened, likely due to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s conciliatory approach to India and attempts to soothe bilateral tensions. The crackdown on militant organisations, which will have been undertaken with the military’s blessing, will further de-escalate the situation and allow Pakistan to claim it is fulfilling international commitments to tackle militancy. However, none of the arrests made in recent days have been accompanied by investigations and Pakistan typically announces official bans on domestic militant groups while allowing them to continue their operations under other names. Indeed, previous administrations have taken similar steps to Khan in response to international pressure. JeM was banned in 2002 but has continued to recruit and fundraise relatively freely, while JuD was banned last year, but the ban was allowed to lapse in October. The latest crackdown will therefore also likely prove temporary, and as such largely ineffective.
While Islamabad may pursue further limited actions against militants in the coming days, including for example arresting JeM leader Masood Azhar, it will be unwilling to enact more comprehensive measures that might interfere with the Army’s longstanding strategy of using militant groups as a counterweight to India. It will, however, seek to prevent groups from launching further cross-border attacks for the time being for fear of re-escalating tensions. The temporary, targeted nature of the crackdown will do little to erode militant groups’ capabilities in the longer term, however, and the risk of cross-border attacks by anti-Indian groups will persist. Meanwhile, the area around the LoC will remain volatile and the increased Indian military presence in Kashmir that has resulted from the recent tensions will elevate the risk of sporadic violence by local insurgents on either side of the de facto border.