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In A State Of Denial Regarding Pakistan's 'Punjabi Taliban'

  • Shaheen Buneri

 A resident walks past the wreckage from a deadly car bomb blast in Faisalabad on March 8.

A resident walks past the wreckage from a deadly car bomb blast in Faisalabad on March 8.

While pro-Taliban militant groups are largely united by their terror agenda, Pakistan's political leadership has failed to define a shared vision and develop a unified strategy to defeat militancy and religious bigotry.

Recent developments show that ethnic, political, and religious ties of the country's political parties prevent them from objectively analyzing the security situation or demonstrating the political leadership needed to guide Pakistan to a stable future.

Moreover, this kind of failure of the political leadership to build a consensus on national issues has emboldened the army to interfere with political processes in the past.

Across the nation, we are witnessing a rising tide of violence in the name of Islam. At the same time, the situation is exacerbated by a crumbling economy, a growing energy crisis, and the impact of last summer's devastating floods. And after a decade of fighting Taliban militants primarily in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Pakistan's leadership has failed to realize that the insurgency is no longer restricted geographically or ethnically. It is now a strong network of militant, sectarian, and extremist religious groups that spans Pakistan.

The 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benezir Bhutto, the murder in January of moderate Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, and the killing last week of Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti attest to the fact that resolving political, constitutional, and legislative disputes in Pakistan is now done through violence, terror, and murder.

Heart Of Pakistan

Prosperous Punjab Province is the heart of Pakistan. And it has lately become nearly as much a battleground as the FATA. On March 8, militants targeted a gas station in a sensitive area of Faisalabad city with a car bomb that killed some 25 people. According to media reports, the extremist Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) group claimed responsibility for the bloodshed.

Nonetheless, Punjab's leadership is in a state of denial regarding the ability of Taliban militants to carry out attacks in the leading urban centers. Shehbaz Sharif, chief minister of Punjab and a key leader of the right-wing Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), expressed irritation when Interior Minister Rahman Malik used the term "Punjabi Taliban" in a cabinet meeting after Bhatti's murder. Sharif warned Malik to refrain from linking terrorist acts with the people of a province.

But Malik, who represents the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of Benazir Bhutto, minced no words when addressing the National Assembly on March 4: "Punjab seminaries are a safe haven for terrorists."

"Where is the general headquarters that was attacked? Where is the FIA Lahore office that was attacked? Where is the Moon Market? And where was Sarfraz Naeemi killed?" Malik continued, listing some of the recent major terrorist attacks in Punjab.

Critics may say that Malik is highlighting this issue to score political points or absolve his own ministry of responsibility. But it is clear that these attacks cannot be attributed to the Taliban from the FATA or Afghanistan -- a position that Pakistan's political and military leaders usually take when terrorist attacks occur.

Still Ignored

Last year, Sharif was reduced to pleading with the Taliban to "not carry out terrorism in Punjab" because his PML-N party also refuses to "accept external dictation" and opposed the regime of former President Pervez Musharraf. He seemed to be implying that terrorism is acceptable in provinces where the leadership doesn't share so many of the Taliban's key positions.

Militant and sectarian organizations like Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP), Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), and Lashkar-e-Jhangawi (LeJ, a splinter militant group of the SSP), have their headquarters in Punjab. LeJ reportedly provided technical and logistical support to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and sent fighters across the border to fight against U.S. and NATO forces after the fall of the Taliban.

According to official data, there are 20,000 religious seminaries in Punjab, with thousands more not registered. But the presence of Punjabi Taliban groups and their extended national and international networks are still ignored by the civilian and military leadership of the center. And that is why the security situation is getting worse and worse.

Shaheen Buneri is a broadcaster for RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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