Pakistan’s political and socially active circles need to come out of their state of denial. Pakistan will not be able to overcome the threat of terrorism unless its political and social elites accept the reality that terrorists have their roots within Pakistan
Terrorism is not a new phenomenon in Lahore. There have been several deadly incidents during the last two years. What distinguishes the terrorist attacks on October 15 is the coordinated assault at three different locations belonging to law enforcement agencies.
The Lahore incidents are part of the latest series of terrorist attacks that began with the suicide bombing at the UN Food Programme office in Islamabad on October 5, followed by the suicide attack at a marketplace in Peshawar and a daredevil attack on the outer perimeter of the army headquarters in Rawalpindi.
On October 15, when attention was focused on Lahore, two attacks took place in Kohat and Peshawar, raising the total number of attacks to five in one day. Never in the past have five attacks taken place in one day in urban areas. On October 16, Peshawar experienced two suicide attacks.
The string of terrorist attacks is a reminder of what many people in official and non-official circles tend to deny, that terrorist groups continue to be entrenched not only in the tribal areas but also in the mainland. These groups have a tendency to proliferate and regroup after security agencies take some action against them.
The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has claimed responsibility for these attacks, demonstrating that it has overcome the problems associated with leadership transition from Baitullah to Hakimullah Meshud. It has also shown that it has the capacity to strike at any place in Pakistan and at a time of its choosing. This is an attempt to wrest the initiative from the security forces for deciding the venue of confrontation. The TTP wants to deter military action in South Waziristan by building security pressure in cities.
These attacks also aim at demoralising security personnel and weakening the confidence of people in Pakistan’s civilian and military authorities. If anything, the latest attacks appear to represent a renewed attempt on the part of the Pakistani Taliban and their associates in Punjab to overwhelm Pakistani state authorities.
Initially, local Punjab-based groups had limited interaction with the Taliban. The former generally facilitated the suicide bombers as they reached some city on a suicide mission. Their interaction has expanded by now, and is a lot more than just facilitation. Now, Punjab-based groups directly take part in TTP-sponsored attacks. This is expected to make Punjab and other parts of Pakistan more vulnerable to terrorism.
There are two broad categories of militant groups in the Punjab: sectarian and Kashmir-oriented groups. Their activities were curtailed as the government banned them and came hard on their activists. The security agencies also stopped facilitating their cross-LoC movement. Some of these groups resurfaced under new nomenclature while the leadership and the hardcore developed linkages with the Taliban because they could get safe haven as well as training for new recruits in the tribal areas.
Militant elements linked with various groups are to be found in the southern as well as central regions of Punjab. Some are remnants of old sectarian groups; others defected from parent groups to create new ones that function autonomously. There is no single command directing these groups. They may cooperate with each other or work separately. Some of them undertake joint operations with the Taliban; they also secure new recruits through their connections with local clergy and madrassas.
A lot of attention is now focused on Southern Punjab with reference to reported increased involvement of Punjab-based groups. Two factors, hitherto neglected, are mainly responsible for increased religious extremism and pro-militancy trends in Southern Punjab.
First, Deobandi and Ahle Hadees madrassas have proliferated in this region over the last two decades against the backdrop of acute poverty and aimlessness of youth. These madrassas create a narrow, sectarian and bigoted state of mind, which makes students vulnerable to recruitment appeals of militant leaders who are either based in the area or visit for recruitment. They also approach non-madrassa youths through local preachers, especially prayer leaders in mosques who are invariably linked with religious parties or militant groups.
Rampant religious orthodoxy and extremism makes South Punjab a fertile recruitment ground for militancy. It may also be mentioned that militant groups also attract young people in other parts of Punjab through madrassa-mosque linkages. Islamic political parties that openly oppose security operations against the Taliban and others facilitate these linkages.
Second, government authority is weak in some parts of Southern Punjab, especially the areas that border the NWFP and Balochistan, turning these areas into a haven for criminals and militant elements. Some of these areas serve as transit points for travel to and from the tribal areas. This also serves as meeting place for the Taliban and other militants.
There is a need to step up intelligence gathering about Punjab-based militant groups and the madrassa-mosque network in the southern and central parts of the province. The Special Branch and other intelligence agencies should be activated to obtain data on these matters. This information will help guide efforts to contain extremism and militancy in Punjab.
However, many officials in the Punjab government are not convinced about the resurgence of religious extremism and militancy in the province. They are equally sceptical of reports of the strong presence of some militant groups in southern Punjab. If the Punjab government does not recognise the problem, it will be difficult to adopt remedial measures.
Political circles with strong Islamic orientations do not believe that the Taliban and other Islamic militants could engage in violence. They are opposed to any punitive measures against Islamic hardliners and militants. Such a pro-orthodoxy and militancy state of mind pervades Islamic parties and others with strong Islamic-nationalist orientations. A large number of PMLN leaders share this perspective and think that no tough action is needed in South Punjab.
The pro-militancy state of mind also maintains that India, Israel and the United States sponsor terrorism in order to destabilise Pakistan. Some also name Russia and Afghanistan as sponsors of terrorism. Within hours of the three terrorist attacks in Lahore on October 15, the Commissioner of Lahore talked of involvement of the Indian intelligence agency, RAW, in the attacks, although he did not offer any evidence to substantiate his claim.
The divided mindset runs deep in the politically active circles, the government, the bureaucracy and the military. This is the major obstacle to developing consensus on how far the Taliban and other militant groups constitute a threat to Pakistan’s internal stability and how should they be dealt with.
Pakistan’s political and socially active circles need to come out of their state of denial. Pakistan will not be able to overcome the threat of terrorism unless its political and social elites accept the reality that terrorists have their roots within Pakistan. Even if they get support from external sources, they have declared war on Pakistan in order to pursue their own (rather than a foreign) agenda of undermining the Pakistani state and society.
Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst.
Source: Daily Times - Leading News Resource of Pakistan