MANY people believe that Islamabad lacks a coherent and comprehensive strategy to stem the tide of religious militancy. But the government argues it has set up the National Counterterrorism Authority (NACTA) to examine the problem and devise a viable policy in this connection. It is not clear how much time the authority will take to accomplish this job and, more importantly, if it will be able to invest â€˜extraâ€™ thinking and rescue the countryâ€™s security doctrine from the shadows of the Afghan-Soviet war. Pakistanâ€™s present security narrative was developed in the context of that conflict, making it easier for its defence establishment and political administrations to blame external forces and factors for all its domestic problems. Unfortunately, this approach did not keep new threats from emerging.
The countryâ€™s militant landscape has significantly changed in recent years and the Punjabi Taliban are a product of the same phenomenon. It is somewhat ironic that despite the gravity of the situation, the federal government and the provincial administration of Punjab are sniping at each other. Their differences can have serious implications for counterterrorism strategies. It is therefore important to understand the ideological and political leanings and the composition of these groups not only for accurate threat assessment but also for putting in place an effective strategy to counter their activities. The term â€˜Punjabi Talibanâ€™ refers to militant and sectarian outfits â€” or their breakaway factions â€” that have been operating in Indian-administered Kashmir and Afghanistan or have remained involved in sectarian violence in Pakistan. The Punjabi Taliban have emerged from the militant and sectarian landscape of Pakistan and share a similar worldview, ideology and political and sectarian ideas. Yet, there are a few things that must be highlighted here. Firstly, these groups detached themselves from their parent militant organisations over multiple strategic and tactical differences, mainly after describing the leaders of their parent organisation as puppets of state intelligence agencies.
The Punjabi Taliban thus acquired complete freedom from official control and maintained that they were following the true path of â€˜jihadâ€™. This is despite the fact that Pakistan-based militant organisations such as Lashkar-i-Taiba, Jaish-i-Mohammad and Harkatul Mujahideen oppose terrorist activities inside the country. Secondly, the Punjabi Taliban have borrowed their political narrative from Islamist political parties but they have been following Al Qaedaâ€™s takfiri ideology, despite the fact that these groups are not formally affiliated with the transnational militant group or Islamist political parties operating in the country. Historically, the Punjabi Taliban are a product of the sudden U-turn in Pakistanâ€™s pro-jihad, pre-9/11 policy. At that time, at least 104 militant organisations were operating in the country.
The government clamped down on the leadership of these groups at a time when Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban were calling for jihad against the United States and its allies. The middle- and lower-rank militants lost contact with their leadership and they were swayed by Al Qaedaâ€™s call to arms. Many of them thus decided to join the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Soon after that, Pakistan began to feel the repercussions of the emerging trend among the militant groups. On Jan 30, 2002, several newspapers in Pakistan received a leaflet from an organisation calling itself Al Saiqa. The leaflet described Pakistan as darul harb (abode of war) and darul kufr (abode of the infidels), asking the masses to wage â€˜jihadâ€™ against the government and its security forces. The message from the previously unheard of organisation Al Saiqa was among the first signs that militants were turning against the state itself. A church in Bahawalpur was attacked a few days after the release of the Al Saiqa leaflet and a new group, Lashkar-i-Omer, claimed responsibility.
Around the same time, Harkatul Mujahideen Alami surfaced in Karachi, which later claimed responsibility for many terrorist attacks in the city. Later, it was established that these groups were formed by junior operatives of various militant factions that were previous fighting Indian troops in Kashmir. Sectarian outfits such as Lashkar-i-Jhangvi also joined these groups since it had lost sanctuaries in Kabul and Kandahar after the fall of the Taliban government in Afghanistan. During the Taliban regime, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi had developed close links with Al Qaeda, which later led to logistical and operational cooperation between them. At the same time, several new militant groups surfaced, which had no prior connections with these militant organisations. Although a recently released report, quoting intelligence sources, claims that at least 17 banned terrorist organisations are operating in Punjab, independent sources confirm that the number of Punjabi Taliban outfits is at least 37. Overall, the Punjabi Taliban phenomenon unveiled a new approach in the name of religion in Pakistan. Earlier, two discourses were dominant in the country:
1. Islamisation and sectarian supremacy through political means: religio-political parties, such as the Jamaat-i-Islami, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan and sectarian parties, such as Sipah-i-Sahaba and the Tehrik-i-Jafaria subscribed to this approach.
2. Jihad against external forces (mainly other states) to safeguard Pakistanâ€™s ideological and geographical boundaries: the manifestos of militant organisations before the events of 9/11 emphasised the significance of jihad against â€œoppressive forcesâ€, usually a reference to India, Israel and the United Sates.
The motto of the militant group Harkatul Jihad-i-Islami was â€œsecond defence line of every Muslim stateâ€. The two approaches were in sync with the national ideological narrative, which had remained strong for nearly six decades since the countryâ€™s creation. But the Punjabi Taliban appropriated both the agendas and pursued them through violent means. In this context, the involvement of the Punjabi Taliban in targeting sectarian, communal, foreign, political and security institutions or their support for the militants in Swat hardly seems surprising. The Punjabi Taliban belong to the Deobandi school of thought, which is not a majority sect in Pakistan.
At the same time, they do not enjoy popular support even within their own sect. The sectarian limitations may prevent them from getting popular support for their movement but their potential to generate terrorist violence â€” and their links with Al Qaeda and Taliban â€” make them a serious security concern not only for Pakistan but also for the rest of the international community. It may not be possible to crush these groups immediately because of their loose organisational structure. But vigilant intelligence and better policing may yield positive results and prevent these groups from getting stronger. The long-term solution is linked with the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistani tribal areas from where these militants are getting their ideological, logistical and operational support.
Courtesy Dawn, July 9, 2010