Bowing to intense public pressure, Pakistan’s largest province has finally moved against some local militant groups. The Punjab government, which had until now preferred to look away, last week ordered a crackdown after a series of vicious terrorist attacks on religious groups branded by the militants as heretics, apostates or infidels. Over 40 people were killed on July 1 in an attack at Lahore’s most famous Sufi shrine, sparking outrage across the country as even moderate Muslims staged armed demonstrations and vowed to tackle the militants themselves if the Punjab government declined to act.
Punjab, Pakistan’s largest and wealthiest province, is home to a toxic mix of sectarian and Kashmir-focused jihadist groups that have operated with state patronage since the 1980s. The province also houses the greatest concentration of hard-line madrasahs that supply young, impressionable recruits to jihadist groups. Some of these groups have been responsible for some of the deadliest terror attacks in Pakistan and also in neighboring India and Afghanistan.
Punjabi authorities are now trying ease fears of militancy run amok with a crackdown that police say has already seen over 150 arrests. But analysts and critics of the Punjab government are skeptical. “The feedback I’m getting is that it’s just an eyewash,” Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab and a loyalist of President Asif Ali Zardari, tells TIME. “They claim that there have been lots of arrests, but there are no details of whom they’ve caught and whom they haven’t.” Taseer is a rival of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose right-of-center Pakistan Muslim League–N (PML-N) leads the Punjab government.
Taseer believes the PML-N is unwilling to launch a determined crackdown because it seeks political support from the religious right.
The problem, says security analyst Muhammad Amir Rana, is that the police have only arrested relatively low-level activists already known to them. “They have not arrested any members of the big terrorist organizations operating in Punjab. No one has been arrested from Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) or Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), for example,” he adds, in a reference to two major Punjab-based jihadist groups formed with backing from the Pakistani military to fight India in Kashmir but banned in 2002 after a terror attack on the Indian Parliament brought strong U.S. pressure to rein them in. LeT was also responsible for the November 2008 Mumbai massacre. Just last month, its leader Hafiz Saeed held a rally with thousands of supporters in the center of Lahore with no hindrance from authorities — a clear sign, analysts say, that the security establishment continues to see the group as an asset in its strategic rivalry with India.
The political class also appears to have been inclined to indulge militant groups. One of the groups that has seen some of its members, although not leaders, arrested in the current crackdown is the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) — a banned sectarian organization that has been accused of attacks on religious minorities in Punjab over the past year, including the May massacre of nearly 100 members of the Ahmadi Muslim sect. Despite being banned since 2002, the group re-emerged under a new name earlier this year. In the central Punjabi town of Jhang, masked members menaced residents, wielding Kalashnikovs and chanting bloodcurdling anti-Shi’ite slogans. But during a special election there in February, the Punjab law minister assiduously courted the group’s votes, touring the town with the SSP’s leader. He was not alone. According the SSP, the group has — sometimes discreetly, sometimes publicly — helped up to a dozen parliamentarians from the ruling Pakistan People’s Party win their seats. Senior members of the party struggle to deny the charge. “If one or two people, for local political advantage, have a few surreptitious meetings, who knows?” says Taseer.
Authorities in Punjab also face questions about how best to tackle the province’s militants. Last month, Interior Minister Rehman Malik raised the prospect of a military operation “on the pattern” of those conducted in the northwest and tribal areas. But the Pakistan Army, which says that it is overstretched along the western border, is in no mood to open a new domestic front. And many analysts dismiss such proposals as alarmist. “There is a problem in Punjab,” says security analyst Rana. “The Punjabi Taliban networks, sectarian groups and Kashmiri jihadist groups are active there. But it’s not going to be the next Swat Valley. There’s a huge difference. The militants lack public support that they have in Pashtun areas and with a clear policy they can control the situation.”
The immediate challenge is to enhance the counterterrorism capability of local law-enforcement institutions. While police pay has been improved, repeated attacks on Lahore, Punjab’s capital and Pakistan’s second largest city, demonstrate that the force remains unable to thwart attacks. Part of the answer lies in better training and equipment; the rest in making the best use of existing resources. “A real crackdown would mean arresting those terrorists who are providing the logistics, the hideouts and the madrasah recruits,” says Rana. “To do that, the police need to have better coordination with the intelligence agencies.”
Institutional weakness is also clear in the judicial system, which often results in the release of arrested terror suspects. “The law-enforcement authorities will have to do a lot of work to make sure that the evidence is there to be able to prosecute them,” says Rana. Those steps are important not just in ensuring justice is done, but also in giving the police the confidence to take on the militants. “If a police officer is afraid that the militants will be let off the hook and take revenge, who is going to have the confidence to stand up to them?” says a senior Punjab official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “You have to make sure they stay behind bars, or go for extrajudicial killings and hope for the best. Right now, neither is happening.”