Punjab’s militancy problem

10 Apr 2016


The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

A COORDINATED operation is under way against criminals and terrorists in the Indus delta, generally known as kacha areas, in south Punjab and upper Sindh. Apparently, the blatant terrorist attack in Gulshan-i-Iqbal Park, Lahore, has prompted the government to launch this operation (although no direct link between these two events has been officially reported). The operation could be the beginning of an effort to secure ungoverned spaces, and uproot long-existing militant infrastructure, in the province.

According to media reports, more than 1,600 police officials, including personnel from the Elite Force, Counter Terrorism Department (CTD), and the Punjab Rangers assisted by the Pakistan Army, are participating in this joint operation. The operation is going smoothly, and is expected to achieve its objectives.

However, there are unconfirmed reports that Ghulam Rasool alias Chotu, leader of the main gang operating in the area, has escaped to Oman via Gwadar, along with his commanders. His gang has been involved in robberies, kidnapping, car snatching and drug trafficking, and has a history of kidnapping police officials from security check posts. Five other gangs with similar credentials also operate in the Indus delta region, which provides a natural protective cover to criminal gangs.

The last operation against these gangs, conducted in May 2015 by security forces (including Ranger personnel), achieved only partial success. However, the most successful operation in the region so far was launched in 2011, planned and led by the police force from Rahim Yar Khan, Dera Ghazi Khan and Rajanpur districts. Interestingly, youths belonging to various local tribes had helped security forces in the operation.

Banned organisations create the ‘gray spaces’ which militants then exploit.

The 2011 operation provided only temporary relief to the people as criminal gangs started to gradually re-emerge — mainly due to the police’s lack of capacity and resources in monitoring the vast kacha area. The Punjab government has established the Elite Force, raised a rapid response force and restructured the CTD, but has done little to address issues of human resources and capacity of police forces to effectively function under unusual circumstances. One can only hope that after clearing the Indus delta area, the government seriously considers enhancing the capacity of police to hold its territory.

It may be unfair to link this particular operation to the elimination of terrorism infrastructure in Punjab. The nature of links and nexuses between the criminal gangs and terrorist groups in Punjab, if it exists, still needs to be studied and established.

However, there are two contexts in which Punjab is important to counter terrorism nationally. Firstly, there are small militant groups in the province (including sleeper cells), as well as support networks of regional and international terrorist organisations. Secondly, it hosts several banned militant groups and ultra-radical religious groups, which not only serve as a recruitment base for multiple militant groups, but also provide ideological direction to violent Islamist movements.

To counter the former — coordinated, intelligence-based operations should be considered the best approach, as these small militant cells and networks do not operate freely, and usually hide among communities. Such operations are already under way in parts of the country (including in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), and security and law-enforcement agencies have killed dozens of militants over the past few months. If one thinks that these operations are not effective, then there is a serious need to examine the extent of coordination and cooperation among law-enforcement agencies.

For the latter, banning groups and ultra-radical religious organisations — the state has to deny them safe spaces to operate within. Historically, the state has been reluctant to take proper action against extremist groups perceived as anti-state. That resolve is still missing when one of these groups has reportedly challenged the state by establishing its arbitrary courts in the provincial capital Lahore. There is evidence to suggest that Islamic State, Al Qaeda, TTP and groups like Jamaatul Ahrar recruit militants from these organisations; the state and even the leadership of these banned organisations have failed to stop this process.

Some segments in the government excuse their inability to intervene in banned groups’ spaces by claiming that these groups have extensive organisational structures and are apparently not anti-state. Another argument they provide is that these groups believe in the Constitution of Pakistan. However, while such groups may differ with terrorist organisations on their road maps and strategies, they share almost similar goals and objectives.

Interestingly, one of these groups recently claimed that after their liberation of Kashmir, and merger of Muslim-dominated Indian states with Pakistan, they would focus on internal revolution. These organisations create the ‘gray spaces’ which terrorists then exploit.

The government cannot absolve itself of the responsibility by simply claiming that it has no solution for this particular problem. The National Action Plan — which has been put on the backburner while an ‘Operation Everywhere’ approach has taken over the counter-terrorism discourse — categorically addresses the banned groups. The clauses of NAP that deal with hate speech, hate material, terrorism financing, and madressah reforms, are directly linked to controlling the banned militant groups. 

If the government is reluctant to apply hard pressure against banned groups, it may try an alternative model which entails reintegration of group members in order to neutralise their organisational structures. In the end, it is the government that has to decide whether or not it really wants to bring these groups under its control.

Another model, which is based on a transitional approach, recommends that limited permission to operate can be granted, if these militant groups submit a formal acknowledgement and publicly announce to obey the Constitution of Pakistan, quit and denounce all kinds of violence and militant activities (inside and outside the country), and shun all criminal activities (including spreading hate messages).

Most importantly, a mechanism for registering and monitoring such groups would need to be formulated at the federal and provincial levels. Without such a mechanism in place, banning militant groups would mean nothing. The government must refocus on the implementation of NAP in true letter and spirit.  

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, April 10th, 2016