|Image courtesy: www.khyberwatch.com|
In discussions on the ongoing war against militant groups in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, representatives of nationalist, progressive and democratic political parties as well as representatives of civil society have been focusing on a new threat: the so-called ‘Punjabi Taliban’, an entity unheard of until 2007, but now commonly used to describe a variety of Punjab-based militant groups. As Dr Said Alam Mehsud, a leading anti-militancy campaigner in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, said recently, ‘Any progress against militancy that we make in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa will be wasted if militants gain strength in Punjab and the government there does not take action.’
This concern was raised weeks before the shocking attack by two suicide bombers on 1 July at the Lahore shrine of Hazrat Ali Hajveri, popularly known as Data Ganj Bakhsh, one of the earliest saints to introduce Sufism and its spirit of egalitarianism in Punjab. The attack, which has been seen as the handiwork of the Punjabi Taliban, left more than 40 devotees and visitors dead and more than a hundred injured. Even as Pakistan lives with the trauma and aftershocks of this ghastly attack, the country’s main opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, has proposed negotiations with extremist groups, a move many see as a sign of ‘weakness’. Sharif´s proposal, however, has been warmly received by the groups themselves.
Defining a new identity
The term ‘Punjabi Taliban’ originated in Wana, the summer headquarters of South Waziristan, when residents spotted people from Punjab who could not speak the local Pushto language. The local tribesmen began calling them the ‘Punjabi Taliban’, and the term thus came to represent militants from Punjab, Pakistan´s largest province in terms of population. This umbrella identity, however, was formally ascribed to them by the media and commentators.
During the Taliban rule in Afghanistan (1996-2001), militant groups based in Pakistan sent their recruits to training camps being run near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border by ageing Afghan warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani. After the Taliban ouster in October 2001, these camps shifted first to Waziristan and then to other parts of the tribal belt. Young men from Punjab who were trained in Afghanistan during Taliban rule were also believed to have quietly moved into Waziristan after former president General Pervez Musharraf banned certain militant groups, such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), in 2002, under pressure from the United States.
Things on the ground, however, did not change much after the banning – most of the banned groups restructured themselves and continued to operate under new names. The Sipah-e-Sahaba became the Millat-e-Islamia Pakistan; the Jaish-e-Muhammad now called itself al-Furqan; the Khuddamul Islam and the Tehreek-e-Jafria became the Islami Tehreek Pakistan; and, most well-known of all, the Lashkar-e-Toiba began to operate under the ‘humanitarian’ veil of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. These organisations began to establish roots in Waziristan and other tribal areas, making their tribal hosts believe that they were a ‘good force’. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leadership seized the opportunity with both hands and used the Punjabi Taliban as a springboard to expand its activities into the non-tribal regions of Pakistan. The support they have became evident when in March 2008, a bearded tribesman handed the late TTP chief, Baitullah Mehsud, a bundle of around 500,000 Pakistani rupees, which he distributed among lieutenants within five minutes in front of two journalists. When asked where he got the money from, Mehsud replied: ´It makes no difference who gives money to us. What matters is that we get the money which we need for our operations.´
Given the extreme levels of poverty in the area, the southern Punjab districts of Bahawalpur, Dera Ghazi Khan and Muzaffargarh have provided fertile ground for recruitment and networking for the Punjabi Taliban. Some reports suggest that training camps for new recruits have been set up in Muzaffargarh, Khushab and some parts of Rahim Yar Khan district. In the meantime, a campaign has been launched, primarily by the Pakistan Muslim League – Quaid (formed under General Musharraf by cobbling together dissidents from the Pakistan People´s Party and the PML-Nawaz), to declare these districts as a new province to improve standards of living in these areas and stop the youth from becoming cannon-fodder for militants. As things stand now, however, given their years of training, the Punjabi Taliban have proved that they can take on and engage the world’s sixth largest army for hours at the army’s own headquarters.
There are groups among the Punjabi Taliban, however, which do not want to challenge the state, as they believe that they can cobble together an Islamic revolution within the existing State security system. Among them is the JeM, whose chief Maulana Masood Azhar condemned in the strongest possible words the attack on Data Darbar, saying that suicide attacks inside Pakistan were ‘haram’ (forbidden).
Coming home to roost
Within Pakistan, meanwhile, many are divided between the imagined ´good Taliban´ and ´bad Taliban´ binary. The ones who do not stage attacks inside the country are welcomed as ´good Taliban´, a reference to the Afghan Taliban. The TTP, on the other hand, are the ´bad Taliban´ for attacking fellow citizens.
The national security apparatus has, in the past, wasted two opportunities to finally decide that all Taliban must be handled with the same way, and that there was no such thing as ´good Taliban´. The first time was when a suspected Taliban attacked Musharraf. The second was after the brazen attack last year on the GHQ. On both occasions, the top leadership sat down and debated whether to continue with the binary. No consensus was reached, however, and the country therefore continues to pursue the same policy: that of going after the ´bad Taliban´ while surreptitiously condoning the ´good Taliban´.
During a briefing on 8 July for the 18-member Parliamentary Committee on National Security headed by Senator Raza Rabbani, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Director-General Lt.-Gen. Shuja Pasha claimed that ´some foreign forces´ were ´creating a disturbance´ in various parts of the country. The Pakistani security establishment thus claims to believe that ´enemy [intelligence] agencies´ are fuelling these attacks to destabilise the country internally, and suggests that the violence is being funded ´from outside´. When asked to explain, they point to the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, and maintain that no Pakistani or Muslim would or could have done it.
An important factor that is being ignored while debating false binaries is that while ´anti-Americanism´ appears to be the common ground between the Punjabi Taliban and the TTP, the local agenda of the Punjabi Taliban also has a strong sectarian aspect, with several attacks on the rival Barelvi sect which opposes the Deobandi maxim of jihad and suicide attacks. Moreover, while Shias appear to be a prime target of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, other opponents have not been spared. Maulana Sarfraz Naeemi, a prominent religious leader known to oppose the Taliban, was killed in June last year in a suicide attack inside a mosque in Lahore.
This new dimension of sectarian violence, in a country already plagued with violence in the name of religion, should have set alarm bells ringing in the national security establishment. Many, including a leading Barelvi leader, Hanif Tayyeb, fear that these attacks on people belonging to the Barelvi school of thought by some elements that subscribe to the Deobandi school could push Pakistan to the brink of a civil war.
– Iqbal Khattak is a Contributing Editor to Himal Southasian and the Peshawar Bureau Chief of Daily Times.