The Punjab factor
THE persistent structural flaws in information processing and coordination among intelligence and law-enforcement agencies were once again exposed during the Supreme Court suo motu hearing of the Hazara killings.
The court observed that either the intelligence agencies were negligent in performing their duties or they did not share the gathered intelligence with police and other law-enforcement agencies.
Poor coordination among intelligence and law-enforcement agencies is a long-standing issue in Pakistan and one of the main hurdles in evolving a comprehensive strategy to counter urban terrorism. Another crucial factor is the absence of inter provincial coordination to counter common security threats.
Though law and order is a provincial subject and federating units are independent when it comes to evolving their own security policies the nature of threats posed by urban-based terrorist groups demands broader and consensual strategies and coordination among the provinces.
After February’s carnage in Quetta, the Punjab government has once again come under criticism for what is described by some political analysts as its political strategy of appeasement towards violent sectarian groups based in Punjab in return for electoral success in the upcoming general elections and its continuous denial of the presence of terrorist networks in the province.
There is evidence to suggest that the Punjab government’s conciliatory approach towards the militants has made the province relatively more secure compared to other regions of the country in the past one to two years. On the other hand, the sectarian militant groups based in Punjab continue to play havoc with the lives of people in other parts of the country.
Punjab Chief Minister Mian Shahbaz Sharif’s 2010 appeal to the Pakistani Taliban not to attack Punjab and the so-called patch-up of the Punjab government with the banned Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ) are seen as having contributed to the reduced number of attacks and the better security situation in the province.
According to the Pakistan Security Report 2012, released by an Islamabad-based research institute Pak Institute for Peace Studies, Punjab faced 17 terrorist attacks during 2012, a decrease of 43 per cent compared to 2011. Out of these attacks, 13 were sectarian in nature. Two attacks reported in Lahore were claimed by the Baloch insurgent group Lashkar-i-Balochistan while the rest of the attacks were perpetrated by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its affiliated Punjabi groups.
The suicide bombing of an Ashura procession in Rawalpindi district and an armed clash between security forces and militants at the Kamra airbase were the major incidents of terrorism in 2012; the TTP claimed responsibility for both the attacks. These attacks in the military-centric north Punjab could be seen as the TTP’s national-level terrorism campaign to show their anger against the security establishment.
Even in the first two months of 2013, four incidents of targeted killings of Shia community leaders were reported in Punjab, representing far less sectarian violence as compared to the other regions, particularly Balochistan and Karachi, where the level of such violence has significantly increased in recent months.
The Punjab government’s approach of appeasing the extremists and making deals with banned outfits could be one of the reasons behind a decrease in terrorist attacks in the province. However, such a policy would eventually lead to greater security threats for the country and also for the provincial government.
The terrorists will not only rely on using Punjab’s territory for launching attacks in other provinces, but can turn against Punjab as well once the appeasement policy is rolled back or they decide to take up arms in the province due to some other reason. More worrisome is the fact that such a policy provides the militants enough space and time to enhance their strength and capability and expand their network.
Malik Ishaq, founding member of the LJ who is considered a ‘good Taliban’ by the Punjab government, is a significant contributing factor in Punjab’s appeasement approach. Although he has been detained because of the public pressure after the killing of the Hazaras, the treatment extended to Malik Ishaq by the Punjab government has so far epitomised the state’s surrender to the terrorists.
It seems that the provincial government is using him as a communication channel to persuade the terrorists to spare the province from their attacks. It is also making compromises on the free movement of the terrorists. Security experts voiced concern over violations of the fourth schedule of the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997 (conspiracy and abetment) by the leadership of banned sectarian and terrorist organisations in Punjab.
The federal interior minister had formally taken up the matter, but it was only a political gimmick, and even the federal government failed to develop a consensus among the provinces on a single coordinated counterterrorism policy.
Punjab needs to share the responsibility of countering the menace of terrorism. Its responsibilities are paramount in the context of violent and non-violent religious organisations being the most concentrated in Punjab, where 107 such organisations have their headquarters.
Lahore, which is considered the cultural capital of the country, can also be described as the capital of religious organisations. It is the only city in the whole of South Asia where at least 71 religious organisations operate. Multan is the second major hub in the province where 18 religious organisations have their headquarters.
Kashmir and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa follow the trend with 48 and 43, respectively, but figures for these two regions also include small militant groups and Taliban factions. If these are not counted the strength of religious organisations in the two regions is not that much.
In Sindh, most of the religious organisations have their headquarters in Karachi, mainly because of the city’s ethnic diversity, its social and cultural landscape, and because it is the financial capital of the country and a major donation base for religious organisations.
These figures only take into consideration organisations at the national, regional and provincial level; the number runs into the thousands if small groups at the local level are also counted.
Though Punjab carries an immense responsibility on its shoulders, the other federating units should also come forward and take up the initiative of national-level coordination to counter the threats of extremism and terrorism. Peace and security should not be allowed to fall victim to short-lived political gains.
The writer is editor of the quarterly research journal Conflict and Peace Studies.