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6.4.2010 Extremists are growing stronger in settled areas of Pakistan

By The Economist

SOME of the gunmen stormed the minarets and fired their AK-47s down at the police and into the mosque below. Others wore suicide-vests and blew themselves, and the congregation, to kingdom come. Over 90 Ahmadis, members of a religious minority, died in frenzied attacks during Friday prayers in Lahore on May 28th. Their deaths have worsened a simmering dispute in Pakistan about the extent of Taliban influence in the country.

Many Pakistanis think the Taliban is confined to the North-West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on the border with Afghanistan. When, in 2009, militants occupied Buner, 100km (62 miles) from the capital Islamabad, it was thought of as the first time Taliban fighters had struck so deep into Pakistan’s settled areas. Of these, Punjab is the richest and biggest. “There is no organised collection of these terrorists in any district in Punjab,” says Zulfiqar Khosa, an adviser to Punjab’s chief minister.

But the police say the “Punjabi Taliban” were behind the assault on the Ahmadis. A raft of officially banned Sunni Muslim extremist outfits operates more-or-less openly in Punjab, even taking part in elections. They are not new groups. Most are well established. But in the past they have been distinct from militants in the tribal areas and, to some extent, controlled by Pakistan’s armed forces. Now, they seem to be running out of control. Ahmadis, regarded by many as heretics for believing Muhammad was not the last prophet, are not their only victims. Shia Muslims have been attacked and eight Christians were burned alive by a rampaging mob in the village of Gojra last year, in an assault involving a Punjabi militant group, Sipah-e-Sahaba.

Punjab, with Lahore as its bustling capital, contains half of Pakistan’s population. The provincial government is in the hands of the conservative, mildly Islamist party of a former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. In a speech in March his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, who is chief minister, pleaded with the Taliban to leave Punjab alone as his administration shared their ideology of keeping out “foreign dictation” (ie, Americans). Officials bristle at comparisons between Punjab, which is moderately well run, and the lawless tribal areas.

It is correct to say that there has been no territorial takeover by extremists in any part of the province, nor any enforcement of Islamic law. However, Punjab functions as an ideological nursery and recruiting ground for militants throughout the country. Distinctions between the Taliban in the north-west and older jihadi groups in Punjab have broken down. The federal government says Punjabi groups have been responsible for most of the big terrorist attacks in the province.

Punjab’s minister of law, Rana Sanaullah, went on the campaign trail in February with the reputed head of Sipah-e-Sahaba, for a by-election in the southern town of Jhang. The two rode through the streets in an open-top vehicle. The minister says that he was just trying to bring the group into the mainstream. Jhang is Sipah-e-Sahaba’s headquarters; the group makes little effort to hide its presence there.

Another outfit, Jaish-e-Mohammed, is based in Bahawalpur, also in southern Punjab, where it has a huge seminary. Former members of both organisations are integral parts of the Pakistani Taliban. Another group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, blamed for the devastating attack on Mumbai in 2008, also has Punjab as its home. “The Punjab government is not only complacent, there is a certain ambivalence in their attitude” towards extremists, says Arif Nizami, a political analyst based in Lahore. “They compete for the religious vote bank.”

Extremists have had a base in the province since the late 1980s, when Punjabi veterans of the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad returned home and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency decided they could be put to use against India. Many suspect that Punjabi groups are still accorded some kind of protection by the ISI, though the agency denies it.

Ministers and officials in the province draw a distinction between the Punjabi groups, whose activities they say are sectarian or directed mainly at India and whose avowed agenda is therefore not domestic terrorism (killing minorities apparently doesn’t count), and the Pakistani Taliban, which is attacking the Pakistani state and is therefore a domestic-terrorist outfit. They also say their focus is on terrorist cells in Punjab, not nationwide groups.

But as the death toll grows, so do concerns that even the appearance of official tolerance gives these organisations legitimacy. The killings in Lahore have brought such concerns into the open, widening the rift between the federal government and the administration in Punjab. The federal interior minister, Rehman Malik, declared that an “operation” was needed to clear out the Punjabi groups. He claimed that 44% of Pakistan’s madrassas—Islamic seminaries—are based in south Punjab and that groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba and Jaish-e-Mohammed are “part of the Taliban and al-Qaeda”. Punjab’s government said there was no need for any such operation.

The federal government may have been point-scoring but its central claim rings true: Pakistan can no longer afford to limit its fight against extremists to the north-west. They are embedded in Punjab and links between them and groups in the tribal areas are erasing the distinctions between militant groups the state is willing to tolerate and those which it is fighting.