No extremist crackdown likely in Pakistan's Punjab province

McClatchy NewspapersJune 6, 2010 

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's heartland Punjab province is unlikely to undertake a sweeping operation against extremist groups, despite horrific attacks that many have blamed on the "Punjabi Taliban," analysts and officials said.

The federal government in Islamabad has been sounding increasingly shrill warnings about Islamic militant groups operating in Punjab, a region along Pakistan's eastern border with India.

The Pakistani military is fighting the Taliban only in the northwest, where it's taking on ethnic Pashtuns, the same group that dominates Afghanistan. Yet some analysts say the Punjabi groups pose the real existentialist threat to Pakistan. Several officially banned extremist groups operate more or less openly in Punjab.

The Punjab government, in the hands of a different political party than Islamabad, flatly deny the need for a general crackdown on jihadist groups operating in the province.

More than 90 people belonging to the Ahmadi religious minority were gunned down in Punjab's capital, Lahore, in a suicide bombing against two mosques in late May. Police and federal government officials blamed the latest terrorist attack in the province on the "Punjabi Taliban." However, the Punjab government rejects the notion that the Punjabi Taliban exist.

Punjab contains more than half of Pakistan's population, grows most of its food and is the political and culture center of the country. It is ruled by the Pakistan Muslim League-N of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a conservative religious party that appeals to voters with Islamist views.

"The Punjab government believes the (terrorist) problem lies elsewhere," said Arif Nizami, a newspaper columnist. "They are not only complacent, there is a certain ambivalence there."

Yet the last time Sharif was in power, in the late 1990s, he took on the Punjabi groups and almost eliminated some of them after they attempted to assassinate him. At the time, Sharif held power in both Islamabad and Punjab, giving him enormous power and confidence. Today, the Punjab and Islamabad governments are split and consider each other political rivals. The Pakistan People's Party, headed by President Asif Ali Zardari, controls the federal government.

A Western security expert said the focus of the Punjab government and its law enforcement agencies was on small terrorist cells, not major groups.

"The problem is much bigger and more immediate now (than in the 1990s)," said the security expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "Plus the military is telling them (the Punjab government): 'don't stir the hornets nest' while we are busy in the northwest."

Proscribed but active Punjabi groups include the sectarian Sipah-e-Sahaba, and two big anti-India movements, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Laskhar-e-Taiba — both thought to be active against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan. The groups are concentrated in the relatively underdeveloped south of the province, where Sipah-e-Sahaba has a headquarters in the town of Jhang, and Jaish in Bahawalpur.

Sipah-e-Sahaba is alleged to have been behind the burning alive of eight Christians in Gojra village in Punjab last week. Lashkar-e-Taiba, thought increasingly to have global reach including connections in the U.S., is blamed for the three-day assault on Mumbai in November 2008 in which more than 170 people were killed. Punjab province's law minister, however, Rana Sanaullah, repeatedly has said that they're not terrorist groups.

The interior minister of the federal government, Rehman Malik publicly called this past week for a military operation in Punjab modeled on the huge anti-Taliban offensives seen in the tribal areas along the Afghan border. He said that 29 banned groups were active in Punjab and the south of the province housed 44 percent of the country's madrassas — Islamic seminaries. Malik was strongly rebuffed by Punjab's chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, who's Nawaz Sharif's brother.

"The federal interior has tried to provoke provincialism by talking about the Punjabi Taliban at a time when unity is needed," Shahbaz Sharif said in a statement Wednesday.

Given that Punjab is a heavily populated area, most think that a police and paramilitary operation, not an army-led offensive, is the only feasible option in the province. Punjab's police are perhaps most wary of an operation, however, because Pakistani police have been the main target for terrorists since the current surge of violence kicked off in summer 2007.

The Punjabi extremists are more numerous and more entrenched than the Taliban of the northwest. Unlike the Pakistani Taliban, known as the TTP, however, the Punjabi groups haven't tried to seize territory or enforce Islamic law in any part of the province, meaning that there aren't any obvious targets.

"There is no area of Punjab where you can say this is the stronghold of the Taliban," said Zulfiqar Khosa, senior adviser to the chief minister of Punjab. "They are recruited from Punjab, taken to the northwest and used as operatives to hit all over."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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