Analysis: A Taliban in every mind

Published December 10, 2014
A Taliban militant.    — AFP/file
A Taliban militant. — AFP/file

“The Taliban are wrongly blamed for the bomb blasts in Pakistan, it is actually India that is responsible,” says Pir Saifullah Khalid, the imam of a large madressah in Lahore.

Much like the imam, the Punjab government and many politicians have been in denial about the existing structure of militant groups in the country.

From Punjab’s longest serving law minister Rana Sanaullah to Bashir Bilour, the deceased former home minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, there has been a consensus amongst officials in charge of security that Pakistan will continue to be plagued with terror, unless there is a complete operation against the Taliban in the tribal belt, believed to be a safe haven of many syndicates of terrorists.

Sanaullah insists that there are no safe havens of the Taliban in Punjab and that all suicide bombers are trained in North Waziristan. “All those kidnapped for ransom by the Taliban (whether it is Shahbaz Taseer or a foreigner) are taken to North Waziristan. They can launch attacks in Punjab but they are on the run here and eventually they retreat to Waziristan, where they have their safe havens,” Sanaullah explains.

He gives the example of a terror attack on an Ahmadi worship place in Lahore in 2010, where the suicide bombers were arrested alive and confessed to have received training in North Waziristan.

“The six young suicide bombers were trained at Badar Mansoor’s camp in North Waziristan. The militants stayed at Raiwind in Lahore to plan the attack. Hundreds of people pray at Raiwind and at least five to ten thousand are fed every day, therefore it was difficult to intercept the attackers.”

Experts who have been reporting on terror networks speak of the protection that militants enjoy in Punjab and disagree with Sanaullah that there are no safe havens in the province.

Journalist Mubashir Bokhari says, “In many cases we have found that before launching attacks, militants took refuge in big organisations in Punjab. It was discovered that those involved in the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in March 2009 stayed in Raiwind. Militants involved in the attack on the Manawan police academy had stayed at the headquarters of a religious political party. The authorities response has been that these are places of worship, where hundreds of people visit each day and therefore it is difficult to carry out a raid or catch any terror activity. So this means that these are places where militant activity goes unchecked. What else are safe havens?”

Mohammad Amir Rana, who is the director of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, argues that the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz government found a political solution to combat terrorism instead of strengthening its security agencies to counter terror. “They held political negotiations with sectarian religious groups and as a result there was a reduction in terror attacks in Punjab.”

Bokhari is harsher in his criticism of the Punjab government. He alleges that the Punjab government has struck a clandestine ‘deal’ with the militants, whereby they allow militants room to operate in return for not launching attacks in the province. “What do you make of Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s statement when he said that the Taliban should spare Punjab, because the PML-N and the Taliban have a shared enemy: the once American-backed dictator Musharraf.

When the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf dharnas began, those banned militant outfits that have strongholds in Punjab, organised rallies in support of the PML-N government.”

There appears to be some credence in accusations made against the Punjab government for being soft on extremists.

According to an official document, the Punjab government gave Rs61.35 million in aid to the chief administrator of Muridke, the headquarters of the Jamaatud Dawa.

Former finance minister of Punjab Mujtaba Shujaur Rehman announced that the provincial government intends to establish a ‘knowledge park’ in Muridke and allocated Rs350 million to be spent on the park amongst other initiatives.

In the financial year 2010-2011, chief minister Sharif, using his discretionary powers, allocated two separate grants for JuD facilities, one amounting to Rs79.77 million and the other Rs3 million.

But when questioned about it, former law minister Sanaullah claims that the grants were meant for the schools and hospitals that are so efficiently run by JuD.

Rana says it would be unfair to single out the PML-N for being soft on militancy. He explains that a certain mindset that tolerates extremism exists in every party in Punjab.

Over the years in Punjab militants have been arrested and large amounts of explosives seized from madressahs.

Some of the most high-profile cases include the Lal Masjid in Islamabad and the madressah run by Master Riaz in Mian Channu, south Punjab, where in 2009 hidden explosives detonated accidently, destroying over fifty homes in a village.

Ayesha Siddiqa, another expert on militancy in the region, says that the support structure that exists for militants in Punjab is not in proportion to the incidence of terror; in short there are more terror hideouts and fewer attacks in the province.

However the buck does not stop with the civilian governments: they have insisted that security has never been completely their domain when in power. Does that mean we give them a clean chit? While they have busied themselves fighting their political opponents, a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy has taken a back seat.

But Sanaullah says that the government does not take the lead in forming a counter-terrorism strategy because it faces a lot of resistance from society where extremism is widely accepted. “Society does not condemn acts of extremist violence; in fact there is a wide acceptance of them. In the case of Mumtaz Qadri, he was showered with petals by the public.”

The sad truth is that Sanuallah appears to be right: there is a Taliban sitting in every Pakistani mind. Till we can get rid of it, we may have to suffer.

Published in Dawn, December 10th, 2014

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