Thursday November 30, 2023

Militancy in Punjab

The suicide attack on the Punjab Home Minister Col (r) Shuja Khanzada, in the backdrop of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) Chief Malik Ishaq’s killing, indicates the magnitude of the problem the security forces will have to deal with when counter-terrorism operations are expanded to Punjab. The attack is a grim reminder to

By our correspondents
August 21, 2015
The suicide attack on the Punjab Home Minister Col (r) Shuja Khanzada, in the backdrop of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) Chief Malik Ishaq’s killing, indicates the magnitude of the problem the security forces will have to deal with when counter-terrorism operations are expanded to Punjab.
The attack is a grim reminder to the ‘naysayers’ of the militant problem in Punjab that the terrorist infrastructure is not only thriving in the south but is spilling over to northern parts of the province as well.
The attack on Shuja Khanzada is instructive in many ways. First, it is a verdict against claims substantive gains against terrorism. The attack exposes the gaps in our current counterterrorism strategy. Undoubtedly, there is a visible decline in terrorist violence across Pakistan. However, it is more absence of violence (in the short term) rather than restoration of peace (in the long term). Subsequently, the gains made in Operation Zarb-e-Azb are fragile and reversible. So, a revision of the current counterterrorism plan is required with an aim of converting tactical victories into strategic gains.
Second, the attack shows that the operational capabilities of various militant organisations are still intact. Through their sleeper cells the militant groups still possess the capability of carrying out large-scale militant attacks in Pakistan. The amount of planning and preparation that went into the attack on Shuja Khanzada shows that militant organisations are still in business.
Once again, it seems the militants have weathered another counterterrorism operation after absorbing the initial setbacks. Now they are in the process of regrouping and reorganisation. The timing of this regrouping and reorganisation process is extremely critical. It is taking place against the backdrop of the Pakistan Army’s announcement that Operation Zarb-e-Azb has entered its final phase. This reduces the efficacy of our counterterrorism operations to swatting flies: as long as you swat, the flies stay away, but the moment you stop they return.
Third, so far the focus of the ongoing counterterrorism operations under the 20-point National Action Plan (NAP) has been Karachi, Balochistan and Fata but it is actually Punjab where the real source of militancy and terrorism lies. Punjab is the ideological sanctuary and recruitment ground for different extremist organisations. According to data from the interior ministry, there are around 57 militant organisations of different stripes and colours operating in and out of Punjab. The majority of the militant leaders and ideologues of Kashmiri jihadi organisations and sectarian outfits are products of radical madressahs in Punjab.
Four, the attack on Shuja Khanzada was believed to have been the handiwork of the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and LeJ.
This trend is nothing new as most of the high-profile terrorist attacks in mainland Pakistan – including the assault on the military headquarters in Rawalpindi, the Marriot Hotel attack in Islamabad, and the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore – were carried out by the nexus of the Pakistani Taliban, Al-Qaeda and Punjab-based militant organisations. Moreover, the nexus between Jaish-e-Muhammad, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Pakistani Taliban is an open secret.
From a policy point of view, it is important to ponder over how to break or weaken the nexus of various militant organisations in Pakistan. This nexus cannot be broken without revisiting our policy of the so-called ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban. As long as there are good Taliban there will always be bad Taliban because the line between the two is very thin.
The bad Taliban draw the legitimacy of their existence from the good Taliban. It is the good-Taliban that provides the bad-Taliban with the space to re-group, re-organise and return to the centre stage. Both entities exist side-by-side, share same ideology, similar worldviews, and use the same training facilities and same recruitment methods. Their only difference lies in different theatres of conflict and targets. Some focus on Afghanistan and India while others hit targets in Pakistan.
The policy of using militant proxies for foreign policy purposes worked for us in the 1980s and 1990s because of a less complicated militant landscape and clarity of issues. It was somewhat possible to forward foreign policy interests in the garb of Islamism. However, post 9/11 Islamism has superseded nationalism with the emergence of new actors like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS).
In such a complicated environment continuing with the same old policies is not only counter-productive, but foolhardy as well. Such policies have resulted in three negative fallouts for Pakistan: i) negative image regionally and internationally as enablers of terrorism; ii) increase of terrorist violence inside the country; and iii) providing other militant groups to coexist with, and benefit from, the space afforded to the so-called good Taliban.
Finally, to make meaningful headways against extremism and terrorism our approach has to go beyond operational aspects of this phenomenon. Pakistan requires a paradigm shift instead of doctrinal adjustments in its counterterrorism policies to achieve sustainable peace internally and externally. As Operation Zarb-e-Azb enters its final phase, along with focusing on militant networks in Punjab attention should also be paid to countering terrorist financing and ideological aspects of extremist challenge. A militant group can survive without sanctuaries but its elimination becomes certain if it is discredited ideologically and its financial sources are choked.
It is true that the real battle of freeing Pakistani from the clutches of extremism and terrorism will have to be fought in Punjab. So the war against home-grown terrorism cannot be taken to its logical conclusion without indiscriminately dismantling the militant networks in Punjab.
The writer is an associate research fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. Email: