After the capture of some key Taliban members in the aftermath of Baitullah Mehsud’s death, security agencies have been able to make unprecedented discoveries. The latest is the arrest of seven terrorists in Sargodha, including a person identified as “chief of Tehreek-e-Taliban Punjab”. They were ready to implement their plot “to blow up several police stations, towers of different cellular companies, the imambargah in Chiniot and textile mills in Faisalabad, during Ramazan”.
The police knew where to find them and, after the arrest of the six, may know, as a result of “interrogation”, where to find the rest of the Punjab franchise of the Taliban terror. A day earlier, the Karachi police equally knew where to find seven Lashkar-e-Jhangvi terrorists making ready to blow up some landmarks in the port city. The explosive material and suicide jackets found on them could have sufficed to start a mini-war in Karachi. Tellingly, they had heroin with them, linking them to the Al Qaeda-Taliban payment network.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has become a blanket term just as Sipah-e-Sahaba had in the 1990s. It is today the organisation whose handiwork has been owned by the late Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud. The Lashkar remains based in South Punjab and some of its big jobs are planned in Jhang, as in the case of the attack on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. In Multan, its big leaders like Akram Lahori are under trial in a court which is said to be ready to let them go because the eye-witnesses keep on dying mysteriously, a fate that might visit the judges too if they are not careful.
These are the Taliban of Punjab, in some ways more lethal than the Taliban of South Waziristan and other tribal regions. They have been trained by Al Qaeda and they have enjoyed, for decades, the patronage of the Pakistani state as its non-state actors for jihad in Kashmir. They also predate the Taliban in the art and craft of terrorism, having done it across two borders in what was called low-intensity or proxy war. Anyone who fools himself by saying that Punjab is free of the Taliban must surely be unaware of the damage he is doing to the state of Pakistan by holding and articulating such views.
The interior minister, Rehman Malik, may be aware of what he is up against. South Punjab is a tough nut to crack because this is where the nursery of non-state actors was first sown. He has seen the chief of one organisation — accused by the entire world of fomenting trouble in India — being let off; he might yet see Akram Lahori released for “lack of evidence”. And he may dream fruitlessly of bringing to trial the leader of Jaish-e-Muhammad, “hiding” in full public view, in a South Punjab city.Mr Rehman was not without knowledge about the coming revelations about South Punjab. On June 27, 2009, he had told the London-based Financial Times, “We suspect something similar to Swat may arise in South Punjab”. He had added: “You know Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jaish-e-Muhammad…all those people basically hail from that area. What we suspect is perhaps all those terrorists who fled from Waziristan or Swat might take refuge in south Punjab”. He didn’t fully realise that South Punjab was already well supplied with its own terrorists.
South Punjab terrorism is big business and it can be run with remote control. It is also safe because the Punjabis either don’t want to know about the terrorism buried in their guts or wish to remain in denial. But the JUI of Maulana Fazlur Rehman has made a bid for this bonanza by backing the Waliur Rehman Mehsud faction in the post-Baitullah Taliban infighting. Waliur Rehman as the new Taliban leader has sworn allegiance to Al Qaeda, designated President Obama as “enemy number one” and, more importantly, pledged more attacks inside Pakistan.South Punjab is a trophy that may spell defeat for Pakistan but may yet be too heavy for the JUI to lift. This is a bride waiting for its bridegroom in the person of Osama bin Laden. The region is in the grip of a truce between feudal landlords and big madrassa-based clerics who once mass-produced non-state actors. And the writ of the state is weak in the face of this fear-based truce.