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The Punjab threat: Security concerns

Updated August 12, 2013

INTERIOR Minister Nisar Ali Khan was in Quetta yesterday and once again spoke plainly about the security threats confronting the country and what will be needed if those threats are ever to be defeated. Alas, the straight-talking interior minister still does not have an actionable plan, the much-vaunted, much-promised and much-talked-about counterterrorism strategy. While it is a case of better late than never that a federal government is looking to draw up a comprehensive anti-terror strategy, it is telling that the PML-N, which has ruled Punjab for the past five years and sat in the opposition in Islamabad, has appeared so out of touch with present-day security realities. From what the interior minister and other PML-N leaders, including the prime minister himself, have said since coming to power, it appears the party simply had no idea about the breadth or depth of the terrorist, militancy and extremism problems. Troubling as that is for what it says about the quality of the country’s political leadership, it matters even more for the next great big problem on the security front: Punjab.

The reality is that no counterterrorism policy will be comprehensive, or even adequate, if it stops at addressing the threats that have already exploded into national consciousness. Lashkar-i-Jhangvi in Balochistan, TTP in KP, Fata and Karachi, Al Qaeda in the tribal areas and buried deep inside Pakistani cities — these, and many morethreats must necessarily be addressed in the government’s counterterrorism strategy. But these are threats that have already materialised and demonstrated the damage they can wreak. A policy that stops at confronting them will necessarily be backward looking. What the country needs is a forward-looking anti-terror policy, one that identifies future trouble spots and anticipates where terror can strike down the road.

Surely Punjab is not alone in playing host to a dormant militant network — dormant at least in the sense of present-day attacks on home-province soil — but there is a sense that outside of North Waziristan, many of Punjab’s cities, towns and perhaps even villages play host to the most sophisticated, well-financed, committed and trained jihad network in all of Pakistan. Going after the threat in Balochistan, Karachi, Fata and KP and leaving Punjab’s militant threat undisturbed would only create another massive, possibly unmatched, threat down the road. Quite obviously, each area and many of the threats require a tailor-made response. What is needed in the Waziristan agencies is different to what is needed to fight the sectarian threat in Quetta which itself is different from what is needed to quell the separatist threat in swathes of Baloch territory. What Punjab needs is a more forthright political leadership, its intelligence network beefed up, more robust policing and a clear sense of where and when religious conservatism crosses over into extremism and militancy.