The below piece on the recent Lahore bombings and the Punjabi militant nexus was first published on Foreign Policy‘s AfPak Channel, where I’m excited and honored to be a new contributor:
The last week has been tough for Pakistan. A series of attacks occurred throughout the country, including a siege of the World Vision International office in Mansehra last Wednesday that killed six aid workers, and a suicide bombing in Swat over the weekend that killed around a dozen people and wounded at least 37. However, the wave of bombings targeting the city of Lahore garnered the most attention. Last Monday, a car bombing targeted the Special Investigations group of the Federal Investigative Agency, the Pakistani equivalent of the FBI, killing at least 14 people and wounding 89 others. News correspondents said the amount of explosives “was so large it brought down the two-story building.”
This past Friday, two suicide bombers struck within 15 to 20 seconds of each other in R.A. Bazaar in Lahore, killing at least 45 people and injuring scores more. The attacks, dubbed by news agencies as “the bloodiest strike in Pakistan this year,” were later followed by six “low-intensity blasts” in the middle class residential neighborhoods Iqbal Town and Samanabad in Lahore. Although the bombs were reportedly locally made and used “a very small quantity of explosives,” the six blasts appeared to be a well-coordinated attempt to ignite panic and chaos in Lahore. Residents rushed out of their homes. Punjab’s police were filmed rushing from one site to another as the deafening sounds of another blast were heard. As Pakistanis remained riveted to their television screens, Lahore was paralyzed with terror.
In the aftermath of the bombings, it is not so much a question of “Why Lahore?” but rather, “Why not Lahore?” The series of attacks does not necessarily mean the center of violence has shifted from one major city to another. It means there was no epicenter at all. Whether or not the escalation of violence was in revenge for the death of Qari Zafar, a leader of the Punjabi militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi who was killed in a U.S. drone strike, militants are sending the message that they have the ability to strike anywhere at any time. Despite the Pakistani military’s successes in northwest Pakistan over the past year, this war is far from over.
While it is convenient to attach the broader “Taliban” label to the problem, the network of players is far more complex and nebulous. Although the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan swiftly claimed responsibility for Monday and Friday‘s suicide attacks in Lahore, this organization has only been able to conduct large-scale attacks in Pakistan’s major cities with the coordination and help of militants in the southern Punjab nexus, groups that make up the oft-labeled “Punjabi Taliban.”
In the April 2009 issue of the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) Sentinel, Hassan Abbas defined the Punjabi Taliban as “a loose conglomeration of members of banned militant groups of Punjabi origin — sectarian as well as those focused on the conflict in Kashmir — that have developed strong connections with Tehrik-i-Taliban, Afghan Taliban and other militant groups based in FATA and NWFP.” These organizations, including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, and Jaish-e-Muhammad, provide weapons, recruits, finances and other resources to the TTP and are responsible for planning many of the attacks attributed to the Pakistani Taliban.
A counter-militancy strategy in Pakistan could be successful if this TTP-Punjabi Taliban alliance is targeted and weakened. However, the clampdown has so far been insufficient as Pakistan’s leaders continue to point fingers everywhere but Punjab. Following the recent spate of violence, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters that India was the “foreign hand” behind several attacks in Pakistan. Punjab’s law minister Rana Sanaullah further alleged that India’s intelligence agency RAW was involved in the attacks in Lahore, adding, “Israel and other countries could also be involved.”
At the same time, Sanaullah, a member of Punjab’s ruling party, the PML-N, chose to campaign for last week’s by-election alongside the anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan leader Maulana Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi. Whether Sanaullah’s informal alliance with the SSP was merely an attempt to get votes or a more dangerous indication of his relationship with these groups, his actions further illustrate the state of denial that exists within Punjab’s leadership, as well as parts of the country’s leadership as a whole.
Pakistani political and defense analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi noted in the Daily Times, “Pakistan’s top civilian and military leadership have come to the unanimous conclusion that the Taliban and other militant elements are a threat to Pakistan’s internal harmony and stability.” However, there has been a lack of cohesion in identifying the nuances of that threat and how to strategically address it. Khalid Aziz, the chairman of the Peshawar-based RIPORT (Regional Institute of Policy Research & Training) told me on Friday, “The Pakistani military is afraid of conducting operations that would create another Waziristan in Punjab, which it can hardly afford.” Ejaz Haider, the Lahore-based national affairs editor of Newsweek Pakistan, further emphasized to me that the Army “is already spread thin in areas where the TTP tried to capture territory — i.e., FATA.” What we need instead, he said, “is good, actionable intelligence to bust the [Punjabi militant] cells,” something Aziz stated can and should be done by Pakistan’s police force.
At the end of the day, the stream of bombings and the subsequent deaths of innocent civilians will continue to undermine Pakistan’s tactical successes against the Taliban. Regardless of the TTP’s actual strength, these attacks enforce the perception that no citizen in Pakistan is safe and the state is inept at protecting them. The blame game exercised by Pakistan’s leaders in Punjab and across the country will get us nowhere. Before we can address the problem properly, we must recognize it for what it is.