World News

Raid on Pakistan Army HQ highlights Punjab risk

LONDON (Reuters) - An attack on the Pakistan Army headquarters has highlighted the threat not just from militants in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, but from those based in the country’s heartland Punjab province.

Security officials said some of the militants involved in the attack in the city of Rawalpindi, next door to the capital, Islamabad, appeared to have links to Punjab.

The attack came as the army prepared an offensive in South Waziristan, the stronghold of the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), or Pakistani Taliban, in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

“All roads lead to South Waziristan,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik said on Saturday, after a week of violence which included an attack on a U.N. office in Islamabad and a suspected suicide bombing which killed 49 people in Peshawar.

“Now the government has no other option but to launch an offensive,” he said.

But even if the military manages to pin down Pakistani Taliban fighters in South Waziristan, the country remains vulnerable to attacks by Punjab-based militants acting either in concert with the TTP or alone.

“South Punjab has become the hub of jihadism,” Pakistani analyst Ayesha Siddiqa wrote in a magazine article last month.

“Yet, somehow, there are still many people in Pakistan who refuse to acknowledge this threat,” she wrote.

The province is home to an array of militant organizations including anti-Shia sectarian groups and those originally used to fight India in Kashmir.

Security officials said a militant arrested after the 22-hour-long attack and hostage-taking at army headquarters was believed be a member of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an al Qaeda-linked Punjab-based group.

Some hostage takers’ phone calls were intercepted and they were speaking Punjabi, another security official said.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik said, however, it was too early to say whether Punjab-based groups were involved.


North West Frontier Province Information Minister Iftikhar Hussain called on Saturday for the elimination of militant bases in Punjab. Even if a South Waziristan offensive was successful militants would still get help from Punjab, he told reporters.

But targeting all of Pakistan’s militants at once could create an even more dangerous coalition by driving disparate groups closer together to make common cause with the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda in fighting the state, analysts say.

The army also draws many of its recruits from Punjab, making any efforts to root out militants there all the harder.

“Deploying the military is not an option. In the Punjab this will create a division within the powerful army because of regional loyalty,” wrote Siddiqa.

But the police force in the province is woefully inadequate and unlikely to be able to take on the thousands of armed men belonging to different militant groups.

And confronting militant organizations directly could make them more dangerous by driving them underground, and creating splinter groups that would be even harder to control, diplomats and analysts say.

Complicating the picture further are pressures from both the United States and India.

Washington wants Pakistan to target militants fighting in Afghanistan, including the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar who it says is based in Quetta in Baluchistan province.

India is pressing for action against the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group blamed for last year’s attack on Mumbai.

Yet unlike other Punjab-based groups including the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jaish-e-Mohammad, the Laskhar-e-Taiba has avoided staging attacks within Pakistan, instead targeting India, and also sending fighters to Afghanistan, analysts say.

Pakistan has focussed largely on acting against groups which represent a direct domestic threat, leading some analysts to suggest it may want to retain groups like the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba to be used as “strategic assets” against India.

But defence analyst Brian Cloughley said the attack on the army’s headquarters showed how little support Islamist militants had in the military and its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency.

“The ISI is hardly going to support militants -- even ‘selected’ militants -- when it is obvious that main targets are their own people,” he said.


The Islamist militants initially took root in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 when they were encouraged by the ISI, with U.S. support and funding, to fight the Russians during the Cold War.

Saudi Arabia also supported the mujahideen, in part, analysts say, to encourage a Sunni movement which would offset the regional influences of Shia Iran, pouring in funds which led to the creation of thousands of madrasas, or Islamic schools.

When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, some militants were turned against India in Kashmir, where a separatist revolt had broken out against Indian rule.

Now Islamist militancy thrives in the poorer regions of Pakistan, including in Punjab, picking up new recruits in madrasas while its leadership turns on its erstwhile benefactors in the Pakistani state.

“It is difficult to dismount from a raging tiger. You are likely to be mauled; and that is exactly what is going on,” said Cloughley. “Pakistan’s fight against domestic terrorism can be expected to become even more intense, but there will undoubtedly be more attacks.” (Additional reporting by Islamabad bureau; editing by Philippa Fletcher)