Terror in Pakistan’s Punjab Heartland

From NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS. (JUNE 4 2010)

Ahmed Rashid The massacre of over 80 worshippers at two mosques in my hometown of Lahore by Pakistani Taliban militants has exposed, in the most extreme and brutal way, the half-heartedness of Pakistan’s military and civilian leadership in confronting homegrown terrorism and the failure of the country’s intelligentsia to recognize the seriousness of the crisis.

At least nine gunmen and suicide bombers shot their way into the two mosques during the weekly Friday prayers on May 28, opening fire on those inside and exploding bombs at random. The worshippers belonged to the Ahmadi sect, just one of several religious groups that the state discriminates against or declines to adequately protect. Other groups include Hindus, Christians and even Shia Muslims. At least 74 people were killed and 108 injured during the attack, but many succumbed to their wounds over the weekend, bringing the death toll to 90, according to Ahmadi officials.

Two of the suicide bombers were captured by worshippers in one of the mosques. One of the two, who was unconscious, was transferred to the prestigious Jinnah Hospital in the center of the city, where he was put under heavy police guard. Then, on the night of May 31, another four terrorists carried out an audacious assault on the hospital in an attempt to free him. They did not succeed but killed four policemen and a female patient before making their escape in a police vehicle.

The Ahmaddiya movement is a sect that follows the teachings of a nineteenth-century religious reformer and promotes the peaceful propagation of a variant of Islam. But in the 1970s, the Pakistani government—under pressure from conservative Muslim clerics—declared the Ahmadis a non-Muslim minority and many Pakistanis today view them as heretics to Islam—something considered far worse than being non-Muslim. Although some two million Ahmadis still live in Pakistan, millions more have fled abroad. Many of the victims at the two mosques—including a retired army Lieutenant General and several retired senior judges and civil servants—were over 70 years old, showing the extent to which the younger generation of Ahmadis have largely left Pakistan.

Ahmadis are by far the most persecuted minority in Pakistan by Islamist parties and right wing media, and they are widely portrayed as subversive and cultish in school text books. Prominent journalists and politicians think nothing of publicly reviling the Ahmadis or Christians, describing them as agents of foreign powers or anti-Pakistan, while the state has again and again demonstrated its unwillingness or inability to protect them and other religious minorities. Moreover, while Christians have prominent bishops and community leaders who are outspoken about their tribulations, and the Shia priestly hierarchy is influential and is supported outside Pakistan by Iran, nobody is willing to speak up for the Ahmadis. On Friday some of the local TV channels even refused to name their sect, calling them instead “a religious minority.” Senior government officials declined to meet with Ahmadi representatives or visit hospitals where the wounded were being treated.

Pakistan has taken an awfully long time to understand that it faces an unprecedented terrorist threat that is not a result of conspiracies hatched in Washington, New Delhi or Tel-Aviv, as many in the public believe, but that is the result of the Pakistani state’s nurturing of extremist groups since the 1970s.

Part of the problem is the refusal of the army and the government to accept the fact that Pakistan faces a serious terrorist threat in its populated heartland of Punjab. Just a few days before this latest episode, federal ministers, army spokesmen and Punjab province’s Chief Minister Shabaz Sharif heatedly denied the existence of a Punjabi branch of the Taliban, maintaining therefore that no punitive action against Punjabi militants was required. Yet in recent years, Punjabi Taliban been has been responsible for attacking army headquarters, police stations and offices of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

The Punjabi Taliban are distinct from the Pashtun Taliban that have been fighting the Pakistan army in the Northwestern tribal areas and attacking US forces in Afghanistan. Although many of the Punjabi groups have developed close links to the Pashtun Taliban and al-Qaeda in the Northwest, they were originally trained in the 1980s by the military to fight Indian forces in Kashmir. Since that covert war and the Kashmir insurgency wound down in 2004, these groups have been at a loss as to what do with themselves. There has been no disarmament and demobilization program of the Punjabi Taliban because every Pakistani government has denied that they exist.

One major Punjab-based group—the former Lashkar-e-Tayaba—perpetrated the massacre in Mumbai in India in 2008 and nearly bought the two countries to war. The army is now committed to fighting the Pashtun Taliban, but it still does not publicly accept the threat to our Punjab heartland, where many terrorists now operating in the Northwest originate from, and where most of the army’s soldiers are also recruited from.

In fact, every arm of the state seems to have an interest in denying that anything is happening in Punjab. The army would like to keep these extremist groups on ice in case tensions with India rachet up again. Some unscrupulous Punjabi politicians, including the backers of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, want to use vote banks controlled by the extremists to get elected to parliament; others get kick backs from the criminal fundraising done by the extremists. The police and the state bureaucracy don’t want to get involved in a major crack down operation in Punjab, partly because they are scared of these groups, and the senior judiciary has been freeing numerous arrested extremists because the police refuse to provide sufficient evidence to convict them.

Members of the right wing intelligentsia, who hate the US and the West and hold the most powerful positions in the press and in universities, help promote myopic views of religious groups and non-Muslims. The government very rarely takes them to task, while the voices of liberal Pakistanis have far less influence.

A state of denial and a failure to provide security or governance seems to suit everyone. The country has to wake up to the cancer of extremism and intolerance that is eating away at the lives of millions of Pakistanis. Combating this threat requires something far more than a military campaign: a comprehensive social and political plan and a political leadership that is determined and clear headed and admits that extremism is today threatening the country’s largest province. All that is still missing. June 3, 2010 12:25 p.m.

12 Comments

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12 responses to “Terror in Pakistan’s Punjab Heartland

  1. Usman Warraich

    Very complex situation, with competing political, religous and military interests…
    Corruption is endemic in the society, economy has fallen off a cliff, media and judiciary have their own agenda’s….every one is sincere to himself but not to Pakistan…How you get out of this – not without God’s help ;
    1) Introspect and get out of denial. Atleast realize and openly accept that we have a problem which can not be ignored and wished away.
    2) Elect honest and principled people to govern us (if there are any left).
    3) Name and shame every one involved in corruption or misuse of power. Its interesting that media and judiciary – did not raise an eye brow over Hamid Mir’s conversation with the Taliban. There is a deathly silence on this..you scratch my back I”ll scratch yours is the unwritten code… You can not pick and choose. Unfortunately, we have too many talk shows, too many analysts and too many conspiracy theorists…one is reminded of the society in Baghdad before invasion of Halaku Khan…there used to be lengthy discussuions on all matters important and trivial, but no action…it was just the thrill of the argument that every one was consumed with and when the bare back infidel riders came, the Euphrates turned red with the blood of Muslims who had been promised victory and supremacy in the Book….Are we as a nation also reaching the end of the rope…we have been living with our head stuck in sand for far too long.
    4) Bring back the sanctity of Human Life…A muslim blood is no more sacred than a non muslim one. If there is any atrocity the administration of that area should be held directly accountable. Any one propagating hate or incitement to be tried and dealt with.
    5) Own up our history and our mistakes and commit ourselves not to repeat those.

    Honestly, the situation is so grave that I see little hope. We seem to be in a death grip of an unholy alliance of right wing media, mullah and unscruplous politicians…how will we get out of this situation baffles me and I can only pray to the Almighty that we are given an oppurtunity to find our feet again before we reach the end of the rope….

  2. Amaar

    The question is how to wake up our ‘leadership’ from its denial?

  3. neel123

    @ Usman Warraich,

    The international community is worried that Pakistan will be taken over by the jihadi terrorists.
    The truth is, Pakistan is already taken over by the jihadi terrorists, the Pakistani army……. it has the worst track record of aiding and abetting terrorists… !

    Your conclusion that “Pakistan is in a death grip of an unholy alliance of right wing media, mullah and unscrupulous politicians” has the most vital link missing …… the most notorious terrorists organization of all, the Pakistani army …… !!

  4. Jamal

    Dear Israel… thank you

    Thank God for Israel. We should be sending them bouquets right now. Great big arrangements of tube-roses and gladiolas, with a little card pinned to a leaf. Inside should be a cute drawing of a teddy bear with hearts popping around him and a hand-written message saying “Dear Israel, stay villainous! You make us look good! Love, Pakistan.”

    http://tribune.com.pk/story/18198/dear-israel%e2%80%a6-thank-you/

  5. nasir jan

    In 1974, Pakistan’s first popularly elected Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, bowed to Islamic groups and won approval of a constitutional amendment declaring Ahmadis as non-Muslims.
    The bottom line is he was weak and scared of the mullahs and needed them to hold on to power

    But much of the upsurge in militancy occurred in the late 1970s and 1980s during the “Islamisation drive” by late military leader General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq and Pakistan’s support for the U.S.-baked Afghan jihad or holy war against the Soviet invasion which saw a rapid growth of radical groups and madrasas. Again the bottom line was he was weak and and scared of the mullahs and needed them to hold on to power.

    Until their is strong leadership within Pakistan and someone grows a pair of balls we will continue to see this violence. (i dont see that happening anytime soon)

  6. Jamal

    Pak investigators suspect police officials’ role in Lahore mosque attack

    Lahore, Jun.5 (ANI): Pakistani investigators probing last Friday’s ghastly terror attacks on two Ahmedi mosques in Lahore’s Garhi Shahu and Model Town areas have got some crucial leads in the case which point fingers towards the involvement of some police officials deployed at both places of worship.

    According to sources, during interrogation, Muaaz, the militant who was nabbed alive during the terror siege, has revealed several important facts which has now led the investigators to believe that certain security officials were acting as facilitators to the terrorists.

    http://www.sindhtoday.net/news/2/144801.htm

  7. Moosa

    I think that repeal of the 1974 constitutional amendment and ordinance XX would be hugely symbolic in the rehabilition of Pakistani politics. It would take a politician of great moral courage and steadfastness to achieve this repeal, and it would be the first time in 40 years that Pakistani leadership stood up against the mullahs. A political leader like Jinnah or Winston Churchill or Nelson Mandela is needed today in Pakistan. But alas we have only donkeys and apes leading our nation today.

  8. Ali Abbas

    The article is timely but there are some inconsistencies:

    “and the senior judiciary has been freeing numerous arrested extremists because the police refuse to provide sufficient evidence to convict them.”

    What about the dossiers provided on the Mumbai massacre. Is it the police or the Intelligence agencies. Why does the senior judiciary not call them. Oh wait, they publically decided to exclude the role of the agencies in the missing person’s case. The only missing person they care for is Aafia Siddiqui and the only person they are interested in prosecuting seems to be Zardari!

    “The government very rarely takes them to task, while the voices of liberal Pakistanis have far less influence.”

    Is the author serious about the ability of the PPP-lead government to take on the powerful establishments that supports the extremists. Which “liberal” Pakistanis is he talking about; the handful of mostly PPP sympathizers. Civil society has still not woken up to this menace. Just a year ago, they were marching with these very forces to support two-time PCO judges against an elected govt.

  9. Zulfiqar Haider

    Religion is secondary and equality of all human beings is the primary objective laid down by our Quaid, but we left all the guiding principles of Quaid behind and that’s the only reason why we are failing, because these Islamist parties called the Quaid as “Kafir-e-Azam” and are still working against the state.

  10. Sadia Hussain

    I am opposed to any covert or overt support to Taliban. For those who suggest that they are lost and misguided souls this interpretation is highly. They are very clear on what they want and they are using violence as a tool to achieve their political goals. By holding a dialogue we are giving a non-state actor the recognition that it craves for, we will make them stakeholders and if we do so they will not stop until they impose upon their agenda. A rehabilitation program can be devised for former militants but holding talks with such elements would be a grave mistake

  11. Ammar Zafarullah

    We need to inspect the sources that are causing militancy. At the strategy level we need to develop a comprehensive counter terrorism strategy based on an understanding of the militant tactics. The administration also needs to chalk out an official framework for dealing with the problem of extremism and for this we need to empower the National Counter Terrorism Authority

  12. I feel really sad of what is happening to the land of five rivers. PUNJAB. Once the most beautiful places to be visited has become a terror ground. I hope normalization comes back to the state as soon as possible.