ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The government of Pakistan’s heartland Punjab province is using militant groups to drum up electoral support, analysts and officials say, preventing it from admitting it has a problem with homegrown militants and from dealing with them.
High-profile attacks in Punjab, such as last month’s suicide assaults on two Ahmadi mosques in the eastern city of Lahore that killed scores, have outraged and horrified Pakistanis.
They have also sparked talk of an operation against Punjabi groups along the lines of the Pakistani army’s push against Taliban militants on the western border with Afghanistan.
The United States and India are becoming increasingly concerned about Punjab because it is Pakistan’s richest and most populous province. Any large-scale insurgency there would almost certainly destabilize Pakistan even more.
But the Punjab government, led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) that is in opposition nationally, denies Punjab is hosting militants or that a major operation is needed.
“Let’s not open a Pandora’s box,” a senior provincial official said, commenting on the possibility of a strong push against Punjab-based militants. “We don’t want widespread violence along sectarian lines.”
However, the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), experts on militancy and much of the country’s media say the PML-N is playing politics with terrorists in a bid to retain its edge in Punjab’s local elections.
The so-called Punjabi Taliban are a loose collection of militant groups that often started out as state-sponsored groups for Pakistan to use as foreign policy tools, but have since slipped the state’s leash and become entangled with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — the Pakistani Taliban — al Qaeda and with each other in a war against the state.
All are banned by the Pakistani state yet all operate with a degree of openness in Punjab, said Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s interior minister and a senior member of the PPP.
Malik surprised many last week when he acknowledged that Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Sipah-e-Sahaba-Pakistan (SSP) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) — along with 29 other banned groups — were operating in Punjab and allied with the TTP and al Qaeda.
He also that 726 out of more than 1,700 members of banned groups were from Punjab. It was the first public statement from a senior official at federal level that such a problem exists. The PML-N and the Punjab provincial government have been more reticent.
“They (the PML-N) don’t use the word ‘Taliban’,” Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, a member of the PPP, told Reuters. “Call them what they are, Punjabi Taliban or Taliban from Punjab. Don’t try to cover them up and say this doesn’t exist.”
While the Punjab government, led by Chief Minister Shabaz Sharif of PML-N, has often denounced the TTP and attacks originating in the tribal areas, he and his party have yet to denounce similar attacks by banned Punjabi groups. They have also failed to crack down on public rallies by the groups or move against militant madrasas.
Rana Sanaullah, the law minister of Punjab and a senior PML-N figure, in February campaigned with the head of the SSP, a group that has said all Shi’ite Muslims should be killed.
Shabaz Sharif was widely interpreted to have appealed publicly to the Pakistani Taliban in March not to attack Punjab because the PML-N also opposed American policy in the region.
He and the PML-N later said his words were taken out of context, but he was widely scorned in the media.
“I think there’s definitely a very mundane desire by the Sharifs to keep these groups on board so they can use their vote banks in elections,” said journalist and analyst Ahmed Rashid, an expert on militancy.
“And obviously these groups are very anti-PPP.”
A PML-N spokesman, Ahsan Iqbal, denied there was anything improper about Sanaullah campaigning for the PML-N with Muhammad Ahmad Ludhianvi, the head of the banned SSP.
“Those 48,000 votes he got, they were not extremists’ votes,” Iqbal told Reuters. “Politics in the rural areas are very tribal and clan based. When the candidates campaign, they try to maximize support.”
“They are just playing politics with Punjab because there is a PML-N government in Punjab,” he said. “It is very bad politics to play politics on the issue of terrorism.”
The United States and India have long demanded a crackdown on militant religious schools, or madrasas, key recruitment centers for banned groups. However, there has been little such action, as both parties fear a backlash from militant Islamists.
“There are many centers, madrasas, in southern Punjab, which are run by these hate organizations like Sipah-e-Sahaba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and so many of these,” Taseer told Reuters.
“I think you should recognize the fact that there are terrorists in Punjab and deal with them.”
PML-N’s Iqbal said that, unlike in Pakistan’s northwest where militants had taken control of territories, “not a single inch of Punjab is under the control of terrorist organizations.”
He added that while the groups may operate out of mosques or madrasas, they haven’t created a state within a state.
A security official in Punjab, who declined to be identified, said about 4,000 young men affiliated with various militant groups were under surveillance.
Rashid says this is business as usual.
“Is the police going after the head honchos?” he said. “You certainly don’t get that sense at all.”
A real risk of a push against the groups would be that, with so many armed militants, the state might lose. And even if operations were successful, the militants would likely scatter even more, leading to additional attacks from splinter groups.
“They don’t want to create a ... security crisis in Punjab,” Rashid said. “But actually, there is one already, because the terrorists are not giving up.”
(Additional reporting by Kamran Haider in LAHORE, Zeeshan Haider in ISLAMABAD and Faisal Aziz in KARACHI; Editing by John Chalmers and Paul Tait)
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