Although Pakistani military and paramilitary forces claim to have driven militants out of most population centers in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and elsewhere in the country, Pakistan continues to grapple with militancy in Punjab, its most populous province. A case in point is the recent massacre at Lahore’s Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park on Easter Sunday, in which 72 people, many of them children and women, were killed and at least 300 were injured.
The tragedy in Lahore shocked the nation. Pakistanis believed that the recent crackdowns in FATA, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and northern Balochistan, where extremists had long held sway, had weakened militant groups. Instead, it appears the militants can strike in the very heart of the country, in a city that has hitherto remained comparatively peaceful.
Undeniably, southern Punjab is a source of extremism in Pakistan, a place where sectarian and religious outfits have been nurtured. Militant groups from southern Punjab have been held responsible for many attacks. Sectarian and religious militant groups have also fed the chaos in Karachi, interior Sindh, and Balochistan, parts of the country that have remained secular. Meanwhile, with the proliferation of the madrassa network in South Punjab, the central and northern areas of Punjab have also became radicalized, a development that can be blamed in part on the negligence of the Punjab provincial administration. In the past, the ruling party in Punjab failed to act against militant groups, either afraid of a backlash or constrained by political calculations (votes, in other words). Some security analysts believe that due to the Punjab government’s soft touch with several sectarian and religious groups, militancy was allowed to spread throughout the province.
More recently, however, Punjab Home Minister Shuja Khanzada led a crackdown on militant groups in the province, operating under the National Action Plan (NAP) that was formed in the wake of the shocking slaughter at Army Public School in December 2014. The initiative found some success, with Khanzada announcing that the chief of al Qaeda Pakistan and his accomplices had been killed on the outskirts of Lahore. This was followed by the death of Malik Ishaq, leader of the banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) group, along with his sons and 11 other militants.
Khanzada was assassinated in August last year in a suicide attack, along with 19 other people in Shadi Khan Village of the Attock district by a militant group called Lashkar-e-Islam.
One Lahore-based security analyst spoke to The Diplomat on condition of anonymity: “Following the death of Shuja Khanzada, counterterrorism efforts dwindled in the Punjab. Compared to other provinces, where actions against militant groups are being stepped up, there have been no significant attempts to curb militancy in the province of Punjab.” The analyst added that the Jamaat-ul Ahrar, a splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban that claimed responsibility for the Lahore attack, has been behind many other suicide attacks over the last few months. In the Punjab, Jamaat-ul Ahrar last year targeted Lahore’s St. John’s Catholic Church and Christ Church in twin suicide blasts, killing at least 14 Christians and injured more than 70. The group also claimed responsibility for the suicide attack on the Wagah border. Authorities have had little success in taking on the group.
Observers believe that the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) in Punjab has been adamantly opposed to military operations against local militants because of its parochial political interests. The political wings of the militant groups have also been able to use their street power to resist any planned crackdown. For example, a month ago, when the Punjab government passed the Women Protection Act, it drew scathing criticism from religious parties. As a result of this and a lack of political will on the part of the PNL-N, intelligence operations in Punjab have been scrapped or delayed.
Farahnaz Ispahani, author of Purifying the Land of the Pure told The Diplomat, “Pakistan’s smaller provinces have always felt lesser partners in the federation of Pakistan. Law and order operations have often bypassed Punjab in the past. However, if the sectarian jihadi groups are to be eliminated then operations against them must take place all over Pakistan with equal determination.”
In the past, counterterrorism efforts were delegated to the police, not the army. This now appears to have changed. Following the Lahore massacre, Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif ordered commanders and intelligence officials to immediately apprehend the perpetrators. Meanwhile, reports emerged that intelligence agencies were leading operations in Lahore, Faisalabad, Multan and Muzzafargarh against seminaries and other targets linked to extremist and terror groups, with a number of arrests apparently been made in addition to the recovery of arms and explosives.
According to Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, “Since the 1980s, many of Pakistan’s extremist groups have been sponsored and trained by the army’s intelligence services to fight for control of Indian Kashmir or, on occasion, to attack other Indian targets. Such support from the military has now mostly ended. But the real test of General Raheel Sharif’s determination to root out terrorism from Pakistan has always been in Punjab. Is the army now willing to turn on its former extremist allies and crush them, in what is now a very complex situation?”
Critics claim that the newfound vigor by the authorities in Punjab is a temporary reaction by the PML-N. Pakistan’s civilian leadership and military establishment still lack a shared strategy on extremism. For many observers, this is why the extremist groups in Punjab are still at large.
In fact, Punjab-based militant groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayabba (LT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) splintered following the ban on the groups. In some cases, splintered factions have reportedly developed relations with al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, and have been responsible for high-profile attacks, including two that targeted former General Pervez Musharraf. Local media has reported that following the assassination attempts on Muhsarraf, members of LT and JeM were arrested, only to be subsequently released without charge. Some of these militants then broke ties with LT and JeM and joined al Qaeda.
There is considerable evidence that Punjab’s madrassas, particularly in the south, are encouraging intolerance, militancy, sectarian violence, and extremism. What is surprising, however, is that university faculty have also been arrested by security forces for joining banned religious outfits or becoming involved in militancy. This points to the growing involvement of “educated jihadis” in militancy in the Punjab.
These concerns have only been underscored by the recent bombing in Lahore, which shows that the militants’ infrastructure and presence is expanding across the Punjab. Clearly militancy is far from over in the province.