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One jab in Punjab — by Salman Tarik Kureshi

It is clear that there is such a thing as the Punjabi Taliban. One can no longer refer to the Taliban as a uniquely Pakhtun phenomenon. Punjabi militants are running training facilities and have established cells across the province to conduct their murderous operations

This city by the sea, with its ethnically complex population and relatively cosmopolitan attitudes, presents an excellent vantage point for regarding the rest of the country. Nestled here, between the Baloch foothills and the empty mouths of the severely depleted Indus, up which the bitter seawater tides now wash far inland, this southern city confronts such elemental challenges — economic, demographic, ecological — that it cannot avoid taking a clear-eyed view of things.

Looking north towards Pakistan’s largest province from here, what do we see today? We observe the perennially-in-denial government of Punjab reeling from acts of violence perpetrated by jihadi groups. Terrorists, said to be associated with the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Sipah-e-Sahaba, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), along with remnants from the Lal Masjid and other less known factions, work on behalf of the TTP-al Qaeda-Afghan Taliban insurgents in the northwest. All these entities share a common, violent mindset, which it would be blasphemous to label ‘Islamic’.

It is clear that there is such a thing as the Punjabi Taliban. One can no longer refer to the Taliban as a uniquely Pakhtun phenomenon. And this is the first point of today’s essay. Punjabi militants are running training facilities and have established cells across the province to conduct their murderous operations. They comprise members from a number of groups formerly focused on Indian-administered Kashmir or on sectarian attacks against the Shia community. Thus, these are in fact much older militant groups than the Taliban, who were sent into Afghanistan in 1994 with such disastrous consequences for the Muslim world in general and for Pakistan in particular. Terrorism is their response to the Pakistan Army’s counter-insurgency (COIN) campaigns in Malakand and FATA.

This brings us to the next point, which is that COIN campaigns are military in nature; however, counter-terror measures are a police matter. They are an issue for the law enforcement agencies, under the provincial governments, which are responsible to civilian assemblies, and which are called to task for shortcomings by civilian political parties, courts of law and media commentators. And this is where the major failure lies.

In September 2008, militants of Punjab origin were interrogated in the wake of the Marriott Hotel bombing in Islamabad. In March 2009, Punjabi militants attacked the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team. Later the same month, the police training centre just outside Lahore was attacked. The unprecedented assault on the GHQ in Rawalpindi in October 2009 displayed the growing sophistication and intent of the network. In the same month, three teams of militants launched a coordinated assault in Lahore, attacking the regional headquarters of the FIA, the Manawan Police Academy and the Elite Police Academy. The attacks in 2010 are still horrifically fresh in memory.

We have seen, again and again, that massive quantities of explosives have been procured, processed, mobilised and utilised in one terrorist act after another, but no intelligence or investigation has been able to penetrate the elaborate financial, logistical and human trails involved. We have seen, during the attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore, how the law enforcement agencies simply melted away at the first sign of trouble. After the recent series of bombings, Lahore’s Iqbal Town yielded a cache of 1.6 tonnes of high explosive. These are hardly the kinds of substances you can buy at your local pharmacy or hardware store. Only a vast — and rich — organisational network could assemble such a lethal stockpile. Fortunately, it was detected…after enormous destruction had already taken place.

What is at issue here is the Punjab ruling group’s response, both administrative and ideological, to the onslaught. Consider this in light of the solid electoral support that the PML-N possesses in this province — support that would easily swing public sentiments behind any strong anti-terrorist measures they may undertake — and the long-recognised executive capabilities of the province’s chief minister.

And so to the third point: the stomach-turning mercy appeal by Mian Shahbaz Sharif to the forces of mass murder and anarchy, on the grounds of “common outlook”!!! In hindsight, this is really not surprising. Mian sahib’s senior minister has long denied the existence of any Taliban in the province. Worse, this same worthy publicly campaigned for a PML-N candidate along with the head of a banned sectarian organisation. The party also allowed another banned organisation to freely convene public meetings on Kashmir Day.

Shuja Nawaz, brother of the late army chief, General Asif Nawaz, and a historian of the Pakistan Army, has recently described how the LeT exploits the socially disadvantaged areas of central and southern Punjab as a fertile recruitment territory. According to him, the LeT is emerging as a trans-regional force, linked with the Students Islamic Movement of India, as well as with Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami of Bangladesh. It poses a serious threat to regional stability, he warns.

In this context, the Punjab chief minister’s outlandish statement and the antics of his senior minister and of certain other PML-N leaders begin to have quite frightening implications. The eminent commentator Dr Ayesha Siddiqa has written in a recent op-ed piece that Shahbaz Sharif was so dumbfounded by the recent terrorist attack in Lahore that he was unable to hide his surprise at the jihadis “breaking their promise yet again”. Dr Siddiqa suggests that the PML-N struck a deal over a year ago with the terrorists, not to attack Punjab, in return for certain concessions.

The point is that there may or may not be an overt ‘deal’ between the Punjab PML-N and the terrorists. However, their common ideological propensities and their common gestation in the workings of General Zia and his ISI (obvious differences in methodology notwithstanding) do suggest that the apple of the PML-N may not be falling too far from its tree.

And this brings me to my fourth, and most troubling, point. The PML-N is not merely a Punjab party. It is the other large, potentially trans-regional political party. And therefore it is the shadow government. But, considering its cohabitation with violently anti-state elements, the PML-N can scarcely be regarded as a mainstream party. Or as the “loyal opposition”. Or as a democratic alternative of any kind.

If the PML-N is the other major option for the Pakistani voter, against a PPP now controlled by a narrow elitist cabal, then there seems little hope for the survival of democracy here.

The writer is a marketing consultant based in Karachi. He is also a poet

Source: Daily Times

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