The South Asia Channel

AfPak Behind the Lines: Punjab’s growing militant problem

The AfPak Channel is pleased to continue a new weekly feature, AfPak Behind the Lines, where we interview an expert on a hot topic in Afghanistan and Pakistan circles. Today, we speak with Hassan Abbas about the growing threat from militancy in Punjab. 1. Your article in the CTC Sentinel last spring defined the conglomeration ...

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

The AfPak Channel is pleased to continue a new weekly feature, AfPak Behind the Lines, where we interview an expert on a hot topic in Afghanistan and Pakistan circles. Today, we speak with Hassan Abbas about the growing threat from militancy in Punjab.

1. Your article in the CTC Sentinel last spring defined the conglomeration of militant groups known collectively as the ‘Punjabi Taliban.’ We hear most often, however, about the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan militant groups based in the tribal regions. What are some similarities and differences between the two? How has the ‘Punjabi Taliban’ developed since your CTC article?

First, I would prefer to tweak the title of the group to ‘Punjabi militants,’ for there are many differences between the band of militants operating in Punjab and those based in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province (previously NWFP). Though this classification may sound purely academic, it has policy implications also. These Punjabi militants, who had drifted away from their parent organizations (such as Jaish-e-Mohammad and Sipah-e-Sahaba), had moved towards FATA after 2005 because they considered the area safer to live, train, and operate from. These were called ‘Punjabi’ not because they were all ethnically from Punjab province — in fact, a few Sindhi and Urdu speaking militants were also present in this group. Hence, all non-Pashtuns (with the exception of non-Pakistanis like Uzbeks) came to be called "Punjabi Taliban."

Relations between Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan — TTP) and these Punjabi militants were complicated. They never merged and the nature of this collaboration remained restricted to distribution of tasks for a limited number of terrorist attacks in Punjab. Of course, they learned from each other, provided useful information and training to each other but their larger goals remained distinct. The Pakistani Taliban are partly a reaction to U.S. and Pakistani policy in Afghanistan and FATA, whereas Punjabi militants are frustrated from Pakistan’s policies vis-à-vis Kashmir. Unacknowledged by India as well as the U.S., Pakistan achieved some success in stopping militants from going towards the Kashmir conflict zone in recent years. There are some exceptions here of course, but by and large, Punjabi militants started challenging the state after getting frustrated that they were abandoned.

As I projected in my CTC paper, these Punjabi militants are more lethal because they are ideologically and militarily trained for Fidai missions whereas the Pakistani Taliban in FATA (who predominantly are Pashtuns) mostly use ‘suicide bombing’ as a strategy. There is a difference between these two techniques: modern day Fidai operations can be defined as an attempt to infiltrate the target area, create mayhem and terror, and keep an option to escape from the crime scene alive (e.g., the attack on Sri Lanka’s cricket team and the Mumbai attacks), whereas a suicide bomber’s only mission often is to blow himself up at a given target. In comparative terms, the first technique requires much more training, information, coordination, and networking.

Finally, Punjabi militants are returning to Punjab after military campaigns in FATA and in adjacent areas became more effective. Unfortunately, police organizations and intelligence agencies failed to track this reverse movement in recent months — hence more terrorist activity in Punjab. However, according to my interviews with police officials in Punjab, they have gone through a learning curve and now have a good idea about the modus operandi of these militants. Punjab’s police, I must add, have some of the finest police officers in the country who if provided support and independence to act, can turn the tables on Punjabi militants.

2. The Pakistani military has carried out a series of offensives against militants across the FATA in recent years, and the U.S. has a well-known program of drone strikes there. Is there any talk of similar operations in Punjab? What would the reaction be in Pakistan to either?

Any drone attacks in south Punjab will be devastating for the U.S.-Pakistan relations. Secondly, unlike in FATA, there are no areas in Punjab that are controlled by militant groups per se. As mentioned above, these Punjabi militants are not interested (at this moment at least) in taking over the reins of government or something like that. Hence, there is no space or location that can be classified as a ‘Punjabi militant controlled zone.’ This means there are no specific targets for anyone to focus on. Lastly, in case of any outside intervention, these militant groups will get more traction and political government will face a revolt-like situation.

The more worrisome development is that the returning Punjabi militants are reaching out to their comrades who had remained in Punjab and were lying low previously. Banning militant groups was not enough — they had to be decommissioned fully and the government had to focus on the deradicalization processes also. Simultaneously, more funds and training for Punjab Police could have helped significantly. It took the U.S. many years to understand that police in Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa province needs help, and thankfully that started happening around 2008 gradually. Hopefully, more international and U.S. funds will start going to Punjab’s police soon. If anyone believes that the Pakistani Army will go in these areas to operate, they will be disappointed. Such movements can only be defeated through law enforcement action as explained in my forthcoming paper on police reforms for USIP.

Lastly, contrary to general belief these militants have not all returned to South Punjab — but they are hiding around major urban centers like Lahore and Faisalabad. However, as a consequence of Punjabi militants’ terrorist activity in urban centers of Punjab, the militants who were residing in South Punjab (Jhang, Bahawalpur, Rahimyar Khan, Dera Ghazi Khan and Liyyah districts) became more galvanized.

3. What is the relationship between former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s political party the PML-N and the ‘Punjabi Taliban’? What actions has the government of Punjab taken — or not taken — to address the militant group’s actions?

There is no direct institutional relationship between the PML-N and Punjabi militants in my assessment. Yes, one of the cabinet ministers of PML-N government tried to benefit from support base of banned Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan in a constituency during elections but I doubt that was the official policy of PML-N. There is no doubt that PML-N has not been as forceful in condemning these militant groups as other major political parties have been but I have not seen any evidence to suggest that there are behind the scenes links. In recent weeks, Punjab’s law minister, Rana Sanaullah acknowledged that the problem is serious but hinted that members of these groups are in the hundreds only. I think there are a few thousand of them around. Having said that, PML-N’s failure to tackle terrorism in Punjab is very obvious. Their political strategy not to challenge them openly has fired back.

Few of us remember that in the 1997-99 timeframe, the PML-N’s Shabaz Sharif as chief minister had started targeting militant groups with success and these groups got a new lease of life only when Musharraf came on the scene in October 1999. In the last couple of years, budget for Punjab police from local sources has been increased significantly, which is a positive sign. The Punjabi government now must devise a police campaign to face this growing challenge and they will benefit from cooperation from intelligence organizations in this case. Looking the other way, as far as the banned Jamaat-ud-Dawa is concerned, is also counterproductive. For deradicalization strategy, the Punjabi government will be well served by supporting and projecting the discourse of Tahir ul Qadri (whose recent fatwa against suicide bombing received a lot of support) and Javed Ghamidi whose lectures on mainstream Pakistani media are encouraging people to approach religious ideals in a progressive and rational way. A police-intel approach will work well only if complete political backing is provided. In this regard, a smart strategy would be to take advantage of the rifts that are developing between the TTP and Punjabi militants.

Hassan Abbas is Quaid-i-Azam chair professor at Columbia University and Bernard Schwartz fellow at the Asia Society in New York, and the author of a recent New America Foundation research paper on the intersection of politics and militancy in Pakistan’s northwest.

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