By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
KABUL, March 30 -- The brazen occupation of a Pakistani police academy Monday by heavily armed gunmen near the eastern mega-city of Lahore was the latest indication that Islamist terrorism, once confined to Pakistan's northwest tribal belt, now threatens political stability nationwide.
The precisely orchestrated assault by a squad of young men, which left at least 11 people dead and took security forces nearly eight hours to quell, was also a likely sign that Islamist militant groups in Punjab province, once tolerated and even supported by the Pakistani state to fight in India and Afghanistan, have turned openly against the government.
The assault in the once-peaceful Punjabi heartland came four weeks after an attack in Lahore in which gunmen opened fire on a visiting Sri Lankan cricket team, killing seven people. The latest attack raised new questions about the vulnerability of Pakistan, a nuclear-armed Muslim state with a weak civilian government that only recently emerged from a decade of military rule. Lahore, home to more than 10 million people, is a bustling provincial capital and is generally considered the cultural heart of the country.
"The realization that this problem is now no longer confined to a buffer zone with Afghanistan must dawn on everyone in Pakistan," said Shuja Nawaz, a Pakistani American military expert, speaking from Washington. "Pakistan has the wherewithal to deal with the problem, but does its leadership have the will to do so?"
Pakistani officials, normally given to blaming India or other foreign adversaries for fomenting anti-government violence, were unusually frank in denouncing Monday's attack as the probable work of domestic terrorists, who they said were attempting to destabilize the country.
Rehman Malik, the government's top civilian security official, told journalists in Islamabad, the capital, that there are "thousands of trained workers of banned militant organizations present in Pakistan who could be used by foreign elements." He mentioned three armed Islamist groups -- Lashkar-i-Taiba, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and Jaish-i-Muhammad -- and said the perpetrators had staged an "assault on the integrity of the country."
At least a dozen young assailants traveling on foot used grenades, assault rifles and rockets to commandeer a rural training compound in Manawan, just a few miles from the border with India, as hundreds of police recruits were beginning early morning parade drills. The attackers took dozens of trainees hostage and held security forces at bay until late afternoon, when a commando team stormed the complex, killing several gunmen. Some of the gunmen who survived the raid surrendered, while others blew themselves up.
Witnesses to the siege, including police trainees who managed to escape the compound as the fighting continued, said they heard the attackers speaking in Punjabi and in a southeast Pakistani dialect.
The escapees described seeing 15 to 20 armed men in their 20s, many of whom had beards and some of whom wore suicide vests. They said some of the attackers were dressed in police uniforms, while others were wearing masks.
No group has asserted responsibility for the attack, but Pakistani experts said the most likely source was Lashkar-i-Taiba, or Army of the Pious, a militant Punjabi group. With help from the military, it was formed in the early 1990s to fight in the disputed region of Indian Kashmir, but later broadened its Islamist agenda and was banned by the government several years ago.
The group is affiliated with a large religious school based at a campus near Lahore. Officials have found evidence linking it to several other recent terrorist attacks, including a three-day siege in the Indian city of Mumbai that killed more than 170 people in November, and a suicide truck bombing that killed more than 50 people at Islamabad's luxury Marriott Hotel in September.
Pakistan has been an incubator for Islamist militant groups for the past several decades. Until recently, they were focused on external conflicts, especially the dispute over Indian Kashmir, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s and the presence of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001.
In the past several years, extremist groups along the Afghan border have turned inward, spreading violence and religious fanaticism among the ethnic Pashtun populace in Pakistan's northwest. Pakistan has tried to contain the problem through a combination of military offensives and political negotiations, which are underway in several conflicted border districts.
The Obama administration, faced with a protracted war against Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, has just launched a regional anti-terrorist strategy that conditions economic aid to Pakistan on tougher Pakistani action against insurgents based in safe havens along the border. U.S. officials have publicly charged that some elements of Pakistan's army and intelligence services still support the fighters as a counterweight to India.
Now, however, the increasing pattern of insurgent assaults against high-profile government and civilian targets in other regions of the country -- especially in Punjab, the traditional home of Pakistan's large and powerful armed forces -- suggests that militancy has spun out of the government's control.
"The nexus between the militants in Punjab and in the tribal areas has been clear for some time now," Nawaz said. "Now the question is whether the government can penetrate and dismantle these networks. The army is overstretched, so we have to start dealing with the causes of militancy -- the vast gap between rich and poor, the lack of governance -- that Pakistan has neglected for so long."
Special correspondent Aoun Sahi in Lahore contributed to this report.