After North Waziristan, Is Southern Punjab Next?

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The most disquieting aspect of the recent spate of terrorist activity in Pakistan and abroad is that the planning seems to be the work the Pashtun Taliban and Punjabi groups originating in Southern Punjab, possibly at the behest of the Al Qaeda. Apparently, North Waziristan will not be the Pakistani Army’s final task – now the Pakistan heartland is gradually becoming embroiled as well. Furthermore, the Western media is once again pointing fingers at what they perceive as a military-extremist collusion.

 This Vantage Point Analysis explores scenarios for the next phase of the war against terrorism in Pakistan and elsewhere. 

Analysis

 

South Punjab is home to four key militant outfits: the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Maulana Masud Azhar’s Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM). It is widely believed that between 5,000 and 9,000 young men from South Punjab are fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan and Waziristan. The region has become critical to the recruitment, training and logistical support for terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In fact, according to media reports, Jihadist veterans in Southern Punjab are actively involved in supplying manpower and carrying out activities planned and funded predominantly by the Al-Qaeda.

Lahore has been a prime target and terrorists have executed a number of attacks there. In March 2008, a bus carrying the Sri Lankan cricket team was successfully targeted, causing severe damage to cricket in Pakistan. LeJ was widely believed to behind this. Aqeel, the chief culprit in the GHQ attack, was involved with the same group. LeJ also stands accused of carrying out several attacks in India, including the daring one on Parliament in 2001. Ajmal Qasab, the sole surviving terrorist involved in the Mumbai attacks, is believed to belong to LeT and hales from Faridkot Village, in the Okara District of South Punjab.

The conventional wisdom which says that once the US exits from Afghanistan, the extremists in Pakistan will simply disband and live in peace is fast losing validity. We at PoliTact maintain, on the contrary, that Pakistani extremists, Taliban militants and the Punjabi Jihadists are not going anywhere. Only one simple fact is required to prove this: the Punjabi Jihadist, like the Pakistani Taliban, has lost faith in the Pakistani army. The result: an increasing number of attacks on civilian and military targets across the country. Some examples: the killing of former ISI officer Khaled Khwaja and the abduction of Colonel Imam by a group of Punjabi Taliban known as the “Asian Tigers.” The North Waziristan operation might very well succeed in destroying any residual trust the Afghan Taliban might still feel regarding the Pakistani Army. If that happens, the focus of the war could dramatically shift from Afghanistan to Pakistan.

One reason why many Pakistanis might oppose a military action in Southern Punjab is the region’s Jihadist role in Kashmir. Pakistan has traditionally used Jihadism in Kashmir, as did the US during the Afghan war of the 80s, as a strategic option and Southern Punjab has played an important role in this. Religious organizations in Southern Punjab have developed a highly elaborate system for recruiting and training youth for participation in the Kashmir’s freedom movement. Extremism flourishes in the poverty-stricken suburbs of South Punjab.

A South Waziristan-styled operation will obviously not be feasible in densely populated South Punjab; the use of sledgehammer tactics to crush militancy will most likely lead to intolerable collateral damage, followed in turn by highly unpleasant consequences. Moreover, Southern Punjab is home to Punjabis and opening up a new war front in the area could inflict further damage on the already tarnished reputation of the Pakistani military. Thus, Pakistan needs to come up with a new approach to fighting extremism and militancy there.

If these new fronts open in the manner we anticipate, the fissures within the Pakistan army will grow. The alienation of the Pashtun and Punjabi elements in the military will make it impossible to avoid an adverse outcome for the Pakistani state. The emerging collaboration between TTP and Punjabi Taliban of Southern Punjab mean that one can’t end the war simply by driving terrorists out of the tribal areas and that Pakistan must prepare itself to fight on several fronts. Similarly, there is increasing evidence of collusion between international terrorists and local extremists in the region, which is forcing the war against extremism in to additional areas and countries and reinforcing the fact that this war is not limited to AfPak region alone. The New York Times disclosed yesterday General Petraeus signed a secret order in late 2009, increasing covert operations to counter militants and other threats across the region. The order authorizes Special Operations forces to operate in both allied and hostile nations in the Mideast, Central Asia and the Horn of Africa.

Obviously, the militarization of the society, caused by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has yet to be fully actualized. We believe that the US departure from the region, if and when it happens, will not mark the end of the process. This is just like the results of the Afghan Jihad of the 80s are still manifesting in the region, and the consequences of what is occurring now will take many years to fully emerge.

Faced with these scenarios, the US exit strategy has focused on weakening the local and global extremists – but without much success in addressing the causes which leads them to adopt extreme ideologies. Add to this the worsening crisis in Iran and the Horn of Africa and it appears that the region is heading towards a chaos, which will take decades before any semblance of order finally emerges.

In South Asia, as well as in many other parts of the world, there is no one-to-one match between a nation and a state and many irredentist claims exist. It seems to us that if events continue on their present trajectory, the region will gradually revert to the condition it was in prior to the establishment of nation-states. The next phase of the war against extremism seems willing to cross over borders and not be restricted by the nation-state classification. The unpopular and often undemocratic governments of these regions will be caught in the middle of this fight between extremists and the Coalition of the Willing, with both causing tremendous pressure on the often ineffective and corrupt governments.

These tensions are inadvertently weakening the supporting structures and institutions of the nation-state system, as we are in seeing in the case of Pakistan. If the nation-state based order that has existed since the end of World War II was to go, and if history is any lesson, religion and tribalism will perhaps prove to be the primary forces holding society together in these regions. Which brand and faction of religion, is a different question. PoliTact will be presenting a number of emerging patterns associated with the war against terrorism, in its soon to be released GIPSEE (Global Intelligence, Political, Security and Economic Estimate) Forecast.

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