For the past 13 years, Pakistan has strafed the country’s western mountainous regions bordering Afghanistan as jihadists killed more than 60,000 Pakistani civilians and soldiers.
But Islamabad appears to have turned a blind eye to parts of its eastern Punjab Province, bordering India, where an array of radical jihadist groups have quietly prospered and now pose significant threats to regional security.
According to a report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) this week, the southern districts of Punjab, collectively dubbed south Punjab, “must be central to any sustainable effort to counter jihadist violence within and beyond Pakistan’s borders.”
The report said Pakistan will need to “end the climate of impunity” that allows hard-line Sunni militant groups such as Jaish-e Mohammed and Laskhar-e Jhangvi who have “local, regional, and transnational links and an endless source of recruits, including through large madrasah and mosque networks” to operate from southern Punjab.
Ilyas Raza, a journalists based in Bahawalpur, a city in southern Punjab, agrees with the ICG’s findings.
He told Radio Mashaal that militants have established strongholds in Bahawalpur, Rajanpur, and Multan districts and the Sulaiman Mountains, which connect southern Punjab to the restive provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.
“They have established training camps where recruit are trained with firearms and explosive devices,” he said. “Some of the safe havens come in handy for hiding wealthy traders and notables who are frequently kidnapped for ransom.”
Raza says periodic raids by Pakistani security services on militant hideouts in southern Punjab have not dented their network in the region.
Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistani security expert, shines more light on the mushrooming growth of jihadist groups in the region.
Siddiqa, who has closely followed the rise of Islamist militants, says that unlike some militant networks in the Federally Administrated Tribal Area and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, those in southern Punjab have not attacked Pakistani security forces and are instead accused of attacks in neighboring India and aiding militants active in Afghanistan.
“State policies are ultimately responsible for the problem of militancy in this region,” she said, pointing to Islamabad’s longstanding reliance on jihadist groups as covert allies to foment violence in India and Afghanistan.
Hawks in the Pakistani security establishment view the two neighbors as existential enemies.
India blamed Jaish-e Mohammed for the January attack on its air-force base. At least eight Indian civilians and soldiers were killed in the attack, reported to be mounted by four perpetrators. While Islamabad initially offered a joint probe into the incident, little progress appears to have been made in the investigation.
“Pakistan doesn’t need to attack the militants in southern Punjab,” she noted. “Instead, it needs to amend its policies.”
The ICG said Islamabad’s approach to countering militants in the region is highly selective. “While the anti-India Jaish continues to operate freely, paramilitary units use indiscriminate force against local criminal groups, and the Punjab government resorts to extrajudicial killings to eliminate the Laskhar-e Jhangvi leadership and foot soldiers,” its report noted.
Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanullah, however, claims Islamabad has abandoned covert support for militant groups.
“Pakistani civilian and military leadership is adamant in ensuring that Pakistan’s soil will not be used for terrorism inside the country or against a neighboring country,” he told the BBC.
He too, however, acknowledged that despite an official ban on Jaish-e Mohammed and other groups, it was difficult to prosecute them for alleged crimes.
“If the state was behind something, then how can you prosecute these groups?” he asked.