Pakistan conflicted over targeting rising extremists in its heartland

Map of Punjab, Pakistan
Gene Thorp/The Washington Post - June 22, 2010
By Karin Brulliard
Tuesday, June 22, 2010

LAHORE, PAKISTAN -- Even as its army battles insurgents on the mountainous western border, Pakistan's government remains deeply ambivalent about tackling extremist Sunnis it says are a rising menace within its populous heartland.

In the vast lowlands of Punjab province, fundamentalist and sectarian organizations banned for terrorist links operate openly and with occasional support from officials. The groups' encouragement of violence against minorities and others considered infidels is tolerated, one top provincial official said, because it is part of Pakistan's political "mind-set," and confronting it might spawn more radicals.

Extremists have violently flexed their muscles in this eastern metropolis over the past year, with attacks against Shiites and most recently with sieges on two mosques that killed nearly 100 Ahmadis, a long-persecuted minority sect. While authorities acknowledge that the attackers had roots and found shelter in Punjab, they insist that the crux of the problem lies in training camps in the Taliban-riddled borderlands, an area viewed here as a distant backwater.

But critics say that the lines between the Taliban in the tribal areas and extremist organizations in Punjab have long since blurred and that their collusion represents a time bomb. The provincial government has muzzled itself out of fear, political analysts say, because it relies on the backing of religious conservatives who hold great sway, even if their radical views represent a minority.

"The Taliban have people across Punjab, but the government doesn't want to admit that," said I. A. Rehman, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. "And these terrorists are not fighting for small stakes. They are fighting to capture Pakistan, including Punjab."

The growing reach of Punjabi militants is a rising concern to U.S. officials. In April, Robert O. Blake, the assistant secretary for South and Central Asian affairs, told reporters in Washington: "We think there also needs to be progress against these Punjab-based groups, many of which, by the way, are targeting Pakistan. . . . There's a compelling reason for the government to take action against those groups."

The Taliban and other insurgent groups do not control territory or run vast training camps in Pakistan's mainland, unlike in the mountains. But the south of Punjab, the most populated province in this quickly growing nation, is the home base for an array of extremist Sunni organizations, some of which once operated as state proxies. It is also poor and rife with sectarian tensions.

Officially banned militant groups such as Jaish-i-Muhammad and Lashkar-i-Taiba run mosques and seminaries that serve as incubators for aspiring jihadists, analysts say. In the aftermath of the Ahmadi attacks, the federal government -- a political rival of the conservative Punjab ruling party -- seemed to agree. Interior Minister Rehman Malik hinted at a military operation in southern Punjab, where he said 44 percent of Pakistan's Islamic schools are. With the military occupied in the tribal areas, that is viewed as an empty threat.

Punjab officials and law enforcement authorities say there are no organized terror cells in the province, although Lahore Police Chief Mohammed Aslam Tareem said the Taliban has "infiltrated" it. He said the city police are planning an anti-terror task force and that they, like provincial authorities, actively monitor hate speech and raid madrassas. Pakistani media reported last week that the province was planning a dragnet of the banned groups and that intelligence agents were persuading the groups' leaders to rein in their followers and break ties with the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Skeptics say those efforts will not amount to much, if the government's history is any guide. Numerous suspects arrested for sectarian slayings have been quietly released, Rehman said. Banners threatening death to Jews, Christians and Ahmadis hung over Lahori boulevards before the Ahmadi killings. Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a banned group that the United Nations says is a front for Lashkar-i-Taiba, staged a major rally in Lahore this month.

Earlier this year, Punjab's law minister -- considered the right-hand man of Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif -- campaigned in the southern city of Jhang by riding in a convertible alongside the purported leader of Sipah-i-Sahaba, a banned militant group.

Rana Sanaullah, the law minister, defended that move in an interview. He said that up to 20 percent of banned organizations' members might be terrorists but that they are in the tribal areas. The remaining members should be encouraged to participate in Pakistan's democracy, he said, and going after them for waving a prohibited group's flag would only encourage radicalism.

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