Editorial: Non-state actors in South Punjab

A report published in London’s The Telegraph alleges that the outlawed terrorist organisation Jaish-e-Muhammad has acquired a 4.5-acre compound outside the city of Bahawalpur in addition to the madrassa named Usman-o-Ali inside the city. While the local authorities acknowledge that Jaish has spread out of the city, they deny that the new acquisition is anything more than a cattle farm to supply milk to the Jaish seminarians.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik has repeatedly pointed to the growing menace of terrorist activity in South Punjab. A number of acts of terrorism carried out on behalf of the Taliban have been traced to militants coming north to Lahore from the south. Individuals with large caches of explosives and weapons have been arrested in the region. And reports about variously designated jihadi groups owing allegiance to Al Qaeda have featured in the national media.

It is going to be difficult to dismiss various reports in the media after what one has heard from a number of MNAs and MPAs about the danger of terrorist insurgency in South Punjab. A majority of the “non-state actors” now operating in the region and also targeting the state of Pakistan have come from South Punjab, with Bahawalpur as epicentre, simply because first Sipah Sahaba and then Jaish-e-Muhammad have found the backwardness of the region suitable for recruiting terrorists. In 1998, Sipah boys were part of the Taliban force that took Mazar-e-Sharif and killed Iranian Revolutinary Guards personnel stationed in the city under diplomatic cover and assisting the Northern Alliance which the Taliban were fighting. Later, Jaish emerged as the organisation that fought Indian occupation forces in Occupied Kashmir but also feasted itself bloodily by attacking Shias inside Pakistan.

Pakistan and India have fought overtly and covertly and while they may be making noises to normalise relations, the covert battles carry on. India is said to be fishing in Balochistan and there are allegations that Pakistan continues to look at the extremist elements in terms of “good” and “bad”. The problem with such a policy, if it exists, is that these elements cannot be controlled effectively; they have their own agenda which goes against the security and sovereignty of Pakistan. Jaish is linked to Al Qaeda and cannot be said to advance Pakistan’s interests. The report says that the new compound acquired 5 km outside Bahawalpur has wall graffiti issuing dire threats to “Hindus and Jews” along with a picture of Delhi’s historic Red Fort. This is nothing more than a ruse because Jaish is more concerned right now about fighting Pakistani security forces than taking on any external “enemies”. Moreover, it is not permissible that the local administration should tamely accept the expansion of one madrassa while the city already has an estimated 1,000 of them, all presumably teaching a brand of Islam that never suited the state of Pakistan.

Pakistan has reason to be worried about Jaish and South Punjab because there are 3,000 to 8,000 youths from this region fighting on the side of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The Punjab government and its law enforcement agencies should look into this and other such reports to ensure that this seminary is not up to any mischief.

The leader of Jaish, Maulana Masood Azhar was once very close to Osama bin Laden and went with him to Sudan when Al Qaeda relocated there after the jihad against the Soviet Union. He was an important fund-raiser for Al Qaeda and was caught in India after he landed there allegedly on a false passport. He was sprung from an Indian jail through a plane hijack in 1999 by elements linked to Al Qaeda.

What is most worrisome about the dominance of Jaish and other terrorist organisations in South Punjab is the fact that the local centres of power in the region are likely to succumb to it in the same way that the people did in Swat after warlord Fazlullah was allowed by the MMA government in the NWFP to establish his satrapy there. The Seraiki movement in South Punjab is against the political dominance of North Punjab but carefully skirts the real issue of the dominance of non-state actors there. This is not a good trend. Pakistan must re-evaluate its options in regard to regional security and review the policy which gave rise to the phenomenon of non-state actors. Our internal security demands that. *


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