FINALLY we seem to have a national counterterrorism plan and it is now time for the government to fight the battle against militancy. Notwithstanding the controversy over the decision to set up military courts and the resumption of executions, overall the plan does provide a coherent framework for action.
But the plan by itself may not suffice. Have we not had some tough anti-terrorism laws operating already? So the real question is how effective can the government be in its actions. What we have seen thus far is the prime minister doing more of the mundane: he has been busy setting up committees, more committees and sub-committees. There’s no sign of urgency.
The foremost challenge for Mr Sharif will be how he deals with the problem of militancy and religious extremism in his home province of Punjab. For long, counterterrorism efforts have been focused entirely on the tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhawa and the state has conveniently shut its eyes to militant activities in the country’s most powerful province. This inaction cannot be dismissed as just a state of denial, and has more to do with expediency.
Radical madressah networks in Punjab lie at the heart of Pakistan’s terrorism problem.
Deliberately wrapped up in the jargon of ‘good militants’, they were considered a useful cog in our twisted national security paradigm. The fear of retaliation was also the reason for handling them with kid gloves. Will the new counterterrorism strategy really be a game-changer? One is not so sure.
Indeed, a crackdown on Punjab-based militants is a part of the 20-point action plan and both the civil and military leadership have pledged to end the dubious distinction between ‘good Taliban’ and ‘bad Taliban’. Yet, there is still no indication of this much-touted policy shift coming into play, at least in Punjab.
While the focus has remained on the TTP and some other militant groups engaged in fighting security forces in the northwest, it is actually Punjab that had turned into the main centre of militancy and religious extremism. Most of the banned militant and sectarian outfits have their base in the province. What the civilian and military authorities conveniently tend to ignore is that many of the terrorist attacks in the country were linked to Punjab-based groups.
In fact, the venues of some of the most horrific and audacious terror attacks have been in Lahore, Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Be it the attacks on the FIA building, a police training centre, Moon Market, the Data Darbar massacre in Lahore or the brutal carnage in Rawalpindi’s Parade Lane mosque and the attack on GHQ and the devastating bombing of Islamabad’s Marriot, all were carried out by a nexus of the TTP, Al Qaeda and Punjab-based militant groups.
A loose coalition of militants of Punjabi origin calling themselves Punjabi Taliban came into prominence after those attacks. A significant number of Punjabi Taliban were involved in fighting along with the TTP in Swat and the tribal areas. Since 2005, thousands of militants from southern and northern Punjab reportedly moved to Waziristan and worked in close alliance with the TTP in planning attacks on Punjab’s cities. Many of them had also established their training bases in North Waziristan.
The Punjabi Taliban are mostly drawn from the ranks of outlawed militant and Sunni sectarian outfits like Jaish-e-Mohammed, Harkatul Mujahideen and Lashkar-i-Jhangvi that have operated with impunity under new banners in the province and outside.
The Punjabi Taliban are relatively more educated, better trained and more ideologically motivated than their Pakhtun allies. Hence it is not surprising that they have been the masterminds behind some of the most high-profile terrorist attacks. Investigations into the 2008 Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing have established a strong Punjab connection.
Despite the growing evidence of terrorist attacks involving these militants and other groups operating in the province, even the mention of Punjabi Taliban would evoke a fierce reaction by the Sharif government and security agencies. It did not stop at that. There have been some reports of the PML-N entering into deals with sectarian groups in the last elections.
It is an open secret that the prime minister stopped the execution of two LeJ militants convicted for sectarian killings after threats from Asmatullah Muawiya, the self-styled chief of the Punjabi Taliban. He was also believed to be the commander of one of several Al Qaeda military cells operating in Punjab. Interestingly, a few months later Muawiya announced the end of the group’s armed struggle against Pakistani security forces, limiting its activities to fighting US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. Many believe the truce was the result of a deal.
Radical madressah networks in Punjab lie at the heart of Pakistan’s militancy problem. Most of the Punjabi Taliban leaders received their ideological training in those hardline seminaries, nurtured and expanded under state patronage in the 1980s. Many of these madressahs are also linked with LeJ, a group closely connected with Al Qaeda.
Rightly described as the epicentre of sectarian militancy, the province has also been the main venue of attacks on religious minority groups such as Ahmadis and Christians. The rise of religious extremism in the province is mainly linked to the growth of foreign-funded Salafi seminaries and the failure of the state to check their activities.
Then there is the question about organisations, which may not be engaged in fighting at home, but are deeply involved in terrorist activities in neighbouring countries. Will people like Hafiz Saeed and Maulana Masood Azhar still be allowed to operate freely under the new counterterrorism action plan? It is not clear yet whether our security agencies have finally cut the umbilical cord with their former clients. Acceptance of militant organisations under any pretext will defeat the entire counterterrorism effort.
It is Punjab where the real battle against violent extremism will have to be fought to reclaim the country’s original identity of a progressive Muslim state. Reluctance to tackle the militancy and sectarian problem in the province raises serious doubt about the country winning this battle.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, December 31st, 2014