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Punjab: Tempest of Terror


"If you want to destabilize Pakistan," an unnamed senior Police Officer in the Province notes, "you have to destabilize Punjab." That, precisely, is the intention of an accelerating and expanding campaign of Islamist extremist terrorism in Pakistan, linked intimately to the Taliban – al Qaeda complex, and to the growing movement of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has turned renegade against its original sponsors and handlers in the Pakistan establishment and Army.

Punjab accounts for some 60 per cent of the country’s population of about 172 million; it is the seat of political and military power, the crucible of Pakistan’s nationhood. Crucially, Punjabis dominate the 550,000 strong Pakistan Army (and its 500,000 Reservists), accounting for some 65 per cent of the Force. It is in Punjab, moreover, that the national capital, Islamabad, and its adjunct Army Headquarters at Rawalpindi, are located. It is here that the bulk of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and delivery systems are concentrated.

Historically, while Pakistan’s remaining three provinces – the North West Frontier Province, Sindh, and Balochistan – have always been somewhat restive, Punjab has provided the country its core of stability. A fifth Province, East Pakistan, broke away to form an independent Bangladesh in 1971. Pakistan occupied Kashmir – divided into ‘Azad Kashmir’, an ‘autonomous state’, and Gilgit-Baltistan, which has no constitutional status – has not been integrated into the national Provincial framework, and is held in thraldom under the military jackboot. The structure of governance and the allocation of national resources have overwhelmingly favoured Punjab, privileging the population enormously over residents of any other region in the country. This has, of course, fuelled immense resentment in other Provinces, but has, in the past, provided an essential stability to the Punjabi core of Pakistan. Thus, as insurgencies and terrorism have periodically swept across the other Provinces, Punjab has remained relatively stable, though it has seen occasional manifestations of sectarian (Shia-Sunni) strife.

All that has changed now and is worsening rapidly. Pakistan’s ‘descent into chaos’ is now dragging its very nucleus into the hurtling vortex of centrifugal forces. In just the first five months of 2009, Punjab has been subjected to as many as 67 terrorist attacks, with at least 147 fatalities, including 85 civilians and 51 security force (SF) personnel. Significantly, in an index of the near complete absence of state response, total terrorist fatalities in the Province stood at just 11 – including seven suicide bombers. 114 of these deaths occurred in suicide bomb attacks. In 2008, 84 incidents had killed 324, including 41 civilians, 267 SF personnel, and just 16 terrorists. Once again, an overwhelming proportion of the fatalities were inflicted by suicide bombings. 2008 witnessed 12 suicide attacks in Punjab, and 308 of the total of 324 fatalities were caused by these. Several of these attacks have been of devastating proportions, while others have demonstrated extraordinary audacity in the targets they have sought out. The worst of these, by far, was, of course, the suicide bombing of the Marriott at Islamabad on September 20, 2008, which killed at least 60, and gutted the hotel. On May 27, 2009, suicide bombers detonated a vehicle loaded with an estimated 100 kilograms of explosives near the offices of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Capital City Policy Officer (CCPO) in the heart of Lahore, killing 27 and injuring over 326. On April 5, 2008, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance of an Imambargah (Shia place of worship) at Chakwal, killing 24. In another devastating attack on February 3, 2009, 32 persons were killed in a suicide bomb attack at a Shia mosque in Dera Ghazi Khan. Other dramatic attacks include the suicide bombings at the Naval War College and the office of the Federal Investigation Agency, and the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan Cricket Team, all in Lahore, and the attack on the Police Training School at Manawan.

The principal establishment response has been denial – the assertion that these attacks have ‘come from outside’, particularly from the radicalized Pashtun belt of the North West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which have experienced a virtual meltdown of state authority; and that Punjab, with its syncretic Islamic culture, cannot be radicalized. One apologist thus argues that the "Taliban school of thought simply cannot win support in Punjab", asserting that "three fundamentals" prevent such an eventuality. First, that the Taliban philosophy is based on the strict Deobandi school, while the Punjabis are principally Barelvi and far more liberal in their beliefs and practices; second, that, while Punjab is a caste based society, it does not have the kind of tribalism that prevails among the Pashtun, and that the status of women is much higher in the Province; and, third, that there is a higher emphasis among even the lower and middle classes on education. The Punjabis, consequently, would not ‘accept’ the "kind of restrictions that the Taliban have imposed in the areas under their control."

Regrettably, all this recedes into the realm of make believe in the face of the realities of the ground. Punjab has long been the locus of sustained radicalization, and some of the most influential madaris (religious seminaries) and marakiz (religious centres) in the Islamist extremist movement in Pakistan, as well as a number Islamist terrorist groups and training centres, find their location in this Province. The continuous inflow of foreign funding – including a liberal stream from Saudi Arabia – as well as prolonged support from the Pakistan Army and the ISI, and also from various leading political formations in the country, have long promoted Wahhabi and Deobandi fundamentalism and created a pervasive terrorist and sectarian sub-culture that has progressively expanded its influence, even as it has decimated opposition through intimidation and violence.

Among the most prominent radical formations located in Punjab are the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT, also known as the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, JuD), the Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). It is significant that nine of the 10 perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks of November 26, 2008, including the lone survivor, Mohammad Ajmal Amir Iman aka Kasab, came from the Punjab Province. Muridke, where the LeT finds its ‘headquarters’, and Bahawalpur, where the JeM set up its vast command centres, are both in Punjab. When the Pakistan Government was forced by relentless international pressure after the Mumbai attacks, to take some action against the LeT-JuD combine, it sealed as many as 34 of the organisation’s offices in Punjab alone across the cities of Bahawalpur, Rahim Yar Khan, Rajanpur, Arifwala, Bahawalnagar, Khanewal, and Rajanpur. These, however, represent only a fraction of the group’s organisational strength in the province. 10 JuD run schools were also brought under Government-appointed administrators because they were ‘promoting extremism’. The JuD runs at least 26 educational institutions in various parts of the Province. Despite apparent action against the group – including the detention of its top leadership – there is evidence that the Pakistan establishment, including the political leadership, the Army and the ISI, continue to regard this as a ‘loyal’ formation, and to support or, minimally, wink at its activities. The LeT-JuD is Wahabi in its orientation, and finds much ideological common ground with the al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The JeM, created through a split in the Harkat-ul-Mujahiddeen, had principally been active in Indian Jammu & Kashmir. Over time, however, it has gone beyond its state sanctioned mandate to deepen historical ties with the Taliban and al Qaeda. The JeM has been closely linked, through the Binoria Madrassah in Karachi, with the Taliban and with al Qaeda. The JeM has developed significant links with the sectarian Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and the LeJ.

Both the LeT and the JeM are known to hav been sending their recruits to training camps run by the Taliban in Dir and Upper Dir since 2004.

While the LeJ was outlawed in August 2001, and has had several state campaigns directed against it, it retains a very significant influence in Punjab, particularly in Gujranwala, Jhang, Multan, Lahore and Islamabad. The principal targets of LeJ violence have been sectarian, with the Shias bearing the brunt of terrorist attacks. Nevertheless, there has been a gradual shift to the al Qaeda – Taliban brand of pan-Islamism, and an increasing proclivity to direct attacks against establishment and foreign targets. The LeJ was thus responsible for the devastating Marriott attack and for the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team.

The JeM and LeJ are both radical Deobandi in their ideological perspectives (the Dar ul Uloom Deoband in Uttar Pradesh, India, their proclaimed ideological source, has, however, rejected any associations with their ideology, activities and organisations), and have found common cause with the purportedly Deobandi Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the umbrella organisation that is leading the terrorist campaign against Islamabad, and that overran Swat and much of the Malakand Division in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Radical Islamist and terrorist groupings have, thus, had a long-standing base in Punjab, and have established their networks across the Province. Indeed, Punjab has been the principal provocateur and source of the instrumentalization of Islamist extremism and terrorism across the South Asian region, funding and supporting jehad through a multiplicity of proxies, both in Afghanistan and in India. By and large, however, their violence was principally directed outwards, into Afghanistan, into India, and, more recently, in the Pashtun areas of NWFP and FATA. In September 2008, NWFP Governor Owais Ghani had warned that "Militants in the tribal areas of the NWFP have established firm networking in southern Punjab and most fresh recruits for suicide attacks are coming from there. Militant leaders and commanders are also coming from Punjab. The militants’ field commander in Swat too is from Punjab." Similarly, Habibur Rehman Khan, Additional Chief Secretary of FATA, notes "The TTP and Punjab’s militant outfits have developed strong collaboration. There is significant presence of Punjabi militants in the tribal areas. Now they – the TTP and Punjabi militants – are part of the same front and have one mission. The links Punjabi militants had developed with the Taliban in the 1990s are paying now." Significantly, six militants killed in a US missile strike on December 11, 2008, at Azam Warsak in South Waziristan, were found to be from Punjab. The overwhelming proportion of Pakistani terrorists arrested and killed in India in recent years have been from the Punjab. Samina Ahmed, Project Director, International Crisis Group’s South Asia Project, thus notes, "Owing to the support from long-established Sunni extremist networks, these groups are based primarily in Punjab and have served as the Army’s jihadi proxies in Afghanistan and India since the 1980s."

Since the Army’s disastrous action against Islamists in the Lal Masjid at Islamabad in July 2007, however, all this has changed. The settled equations with the Army have been upset, and, despite extended – and in some cases continuing – associations with and support from the ISI, Islamist groupings in Punjab are turning inwards against their one-time patrons and benefactors. As one commentator, Farooq Ganderbali, notes, "Thus far Punjab’s jihad factories had been export-oriented units. Now they may be training their guns on targets closer home. The expanding of the Swat empire into Punjab can be seen as the final step of the extremist takeover of Pakistan."

Pakistan’s indiscriminate military action in Swat, Dir and Buner, which had been overrun by the TTP, has further intensified the deepening catastrophe in Punjab. The Army’s action in and around the Malakand Division overwhelmingly comprised indiscriminate aerial attacks, bombings, missile and artillery barrages which have flattened entire villages, killing more civilians than any estimate of ‘Taliban’, in the process displacing up to 3.4 million refugees who now huddle in ill-provisioned camps, many of which have sprung up in the Punjab – particularly around Islamabad and Rawalpindi – or with relatives and friends, wherever they can find sanctuary. Reports now suggest that "fearing the spread of Talibanisation, major provinces such as Sindh and Punjab are refusing refuge and rehabilitation facilities for Pakhtuns fleeing the impact of the Army’s operations." The squeeze on the Malakand Division – including Swat – has pushed TTP cadres out, without significantly denting their capacities for violence. A large number of TTP cadres are believed to be among the ‘refugees’, even as dismal conditions in the camps enormously augment the radical Islamist recruitment base. Worse, as the Army exerts pressure in Swat, the TTP and its various Punjabi allies have escalated a retaliatory campaign of terrorist attacks targeting urban centres in the NWFP and in Punjab.

The escalating terrorist campaign overlaps a campaign of ideological mobilisation, recruitment and intimidation, which is far more insidious and widespread than the more visible manifestations of radicalisation in the Punjab. Radical Islamist groups are now threatening all who ‘deviate’ from their perverse interpretations of Islam across wide areas of the Punjab, even threatening liberal writers, journalists, activists and leaders in the national capital, Islamabad. Intellectuals who could not be silenced by dictatorship are, abruptly, finding it difficult to speak under the threat of terrorist violence. Human rights activist Asma Jehangir, who has resisted the oppression of successive lawless Governments in Pakistan, thus confesses, "Nobody is safe anymore… If you are threatened by the Government you can take them on legally. But with non-state actors, when even members of the Government are themselves not safe, who do you appeal to? Where do you look for protection?" The TTP and its Punjabi allies have also been attempting to enforce a range of religious and social codes in the areas of their influence, and diktats against music, films, television, ‘immodest’ dress, the free movement of women, female education, etc., are now being announced and fitfully imposed wherever they are able to secure even transient dominance. Five Districts in Punjab – Muzaffarghar, Dera Ghazi Khan, Bahawalpur, Rahim Yar Khan and Bhakkar – have already come under strong militant influence, and there is little evidence of the state’s will or capacity to contest this trend.

Pakistan’s trajectory – and that of Punjab – progressively appears to be irreversible, as Islamist extremist groupings continue their systematic expansion into heartland areas. Crucially, there is an enduring ambivalence within the Pakistani establishment on the need for and character of response to the challenge. Most political groupings and much of the Army-ISI leadership remain collusive with at least some radical Islamist groups – even as they purport to fight others, and the instrumentalization of radical Islamism and jehadi terrorism remain central to both domestic political management and external power projection within the Pakistani strategic framework. Despite all the talk of the Army ‘fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda’, the truth is, the Pakistani Forces have focused essentially on the TTP, and not against any of the ‘outward directed’ groupings. The reality remains that Pakistan is unwilling to end its support to terrorism in Afghanistan and in India – but this is precisely what creates the spaces for terrorism within Pakistan as well. As Mohammad Amir Rana, the author of several authoritative books on jehadi terrorism in Pakistan, notes, "The military wants to keep alive its strategic options in Kashmir. The trouble is you cannot restrict the militants to one area. You cannot keep control of them."

Despite the enveloping crisis within Pakistan, there is a deep and destructive dynamic that prevents the country’s leadership from abandoning its suicidal engagement with jehadi politics and terrorism. For one thing, the gradual entrenchment of extremist Islamism within all institutions of Government and society in the country make a secular politics or a regulation and moderation of religious politics impossible. Further, the Army has long been mobilised on precisely the same ideology and principles of an aggressive, conquering Islamism that motivate the Islamist terrorist groupings in the country, even as the idiom of national politics has been dominated by Islamism and the ostensible threat to the Faith from within and without. Pakistan’s strategic overreach, its quest for a widening influence beyond its borders, moreover, is far out of proportion to its natural resources and national capabilities. The only instrumentality that can allow it to retain these ambitions – which have become integral to the national imagination – is jehadi terrorism projected outwards into the neighbourhood.

These proclivities have been enormously compounded by the conduct of powerful external players in the region. Despite the immense harm terrorism has done to Pakistan, it is now the source and justification of massive and augmenting flows of international finances into the country – in the name of counter-terrorism, developmental and relief aid. It is now abundantly clear that there is tremendous resistance in the West to putting more ‘boots on the ground’ in Afghanistan, and no risk whatsoever of Western Forces attempting a direct intervention in Pakistan. Crucially, with Western powers, including America, seeking a face saving ‘exit strategy’ in Afghanistan and the ‘AfPak’ neighbourhood, there is a clear realization among Islamist militarists in the Pakistani establishment and of non-state Islamist extremist formations that the West has no real stomach for war, yielding a strategic calculus that the present crisis can be ‘waited out’. Once the Western (particularly US) presence has ended in the region, the radical project of Islamist expansion would have no significant challenger in South Asia – indeed, in all of Asia and along its Eurasian periphery – even as the externally imposed conflict of interests between the Pakistani state and radical non-state actors vanishes.

Pakistan’s enduring pathologies intersect with this perverse calculus to undermine the state’s will to act effectively and without distinction against all Islamist terrorist groupings in the country. As long as this enveloping mindset defines the state’s policies, an effective campaign against Islamist terrorism cannot be mounted in Pakistan – or in any of its constituent Provinces. Fitful and selective action against particular groups has only heightened conflict and weakened the state’s structures – and will continue to do so. The tempest of terror that has long been raging along Pakistan’s borders is now buffeting its heartland – Punjab – and there appear to be no effective institutional bulwarks to stall its inexorable momentum.

(Published in August 2009)





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