The arrest this week of two ranking members of the “Punjab Taliban” has raised fears the Taliban are spreading their operations beyond the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and into the Pakistani heartland.
Officials say two Punjabi militants, Commander Iqbal and Gul Muhammad, helped plot the attack on Pakistan Army Headquarters as well as other recent suicide bombings in Lahore and Islamabad. Until recently, “Taliban” was a word associate with Pashtuns.
“Today the bulk of attacks in heartland Pakistan are carried out by Pakistanis from Punjab or Sindh, or by Pashtun fighters assisted by heartland Pakistanis,” says Rohan Gunaratne, author of Inside Al Qaeda. Punjabi militant groups, Notably the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT), were long encouraged by Islamabad.
“Punjab-based groups, especially the LeT, were initially the creatures of the Inter-Services Intelligence, and had a Kashmir focus,” says Teresita Schaffer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The change began when President Pervez Musharraf outlawed two Punjabi militant groups —Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) — because of their attacks on Shias.
Many Jhangvi fighters then moved to the NWFP. “Jhangvi is now the eyes, ears and operational arm of Al Qaeda and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan [based in Waziristan],” says Gunaratne. “It is hard to distinguish between the three.”
Islamabad has struggled to keep the third Punjabi militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammad, from joining the Taliban. “The Jaish are ambivalent when it comes to fighting the Pakistani state,” says Ajai Sahni of the Institute of Conflict Management.
So far the 50,000-strong LeT, the fourth and largest Punjabi militant group, has largely resisted the Taliban siren call.
“LeT and, to an increasingly diminishing extent, Jaish, have strong umbilical cords to the system,” says Sahni. It helps that LeT is Wahabi AND the other Punjabi groups embrace the Deobandi school. “Not one LeT member has been involved in a single terrorist attack inside Pakistan,” Gunaratne notes.
That’s a key reason Islamabad shies from an LeT crackdown. But how long can the LeT be firewalled from the Taliban?
There are already an estimated 5,000 to 9,000 South Punjabi youth fighting in Afghanistan and Waziristan.
Tariq Pervez, the chief of Pakistan’s new National Counter-Terrorism Authority, says jihad veterans in South Punjab provided foot soldiers and implemented terror plans conceived, funded by Al Qaeda. But officialdom differs on the degree of Punjabi radicalisation. Bahawalpur regional police officer, Mushtaq Sukhera, says reports about South Punjab “were nothing more than a figment of the Western press’s imagination.”
Ayesha Siddiqa, a security analyst, says that while there is a new focus on South Punjab, the Punjabi Taliban phenomenon is not new. Gunaratne traces Punjabi Taliban fighters to 2002. “While in the past Punjabis were recruited from the NWFP, today they are being recruited in the mainland areas.”
Rising poverty levels in South Punjab, the Seraiki belt, have helped turn the area into a fertile breeding ground for militant outfits. The government has been surprisingly slow to recognise this trend, says Siddiqa. Even North Punjabis can now be found among the Taliban.
The total number of Punjab madrassas rose from 1,320 in 1988 to 3,153 in 2000, an rise of almost 140 per cent. Many are Saudi funded. One concern, says Farzana Shaikh, Pakistani expert at Chatham House, “is whether public opinion will support a tough campaign against these groups after having been told for years that they supported Pakistani security objectives vis a vis India.”
Many believe Talibanisation cannot take place in a region where Sufi Islam is strongly entrenched. South Punjab is dotted with Sufi shrines and for generations its people have practiced the Barelvi version of Islam and turned their backs on the Deoband school. But this is changing. The madrassas and the funding they have received have made the Deobandi school popular among lower income groups.
If the Taliban spread their tentacles across Punjab, said one Pakistani analyst. “This would change the battlefield completely.”
Gunaratne argues that when Musharraf curbed LeT infiltration into Kashmir, this eroded the military’s control of the group. “Al Qaeda has made inroads,” he says. “Hence the attack on the Jewish house in Mumbai. The LeT is presently idling and if it is not rehabilitated, more of its members will join the Taliban.”