Combating terrorists in Pakistan's borderlands was hard enough. Just wait until they take over the country's most populous province.
Pakistan's Punjab province is not usually cited among the areas in danger of imminent takeover by terrorists, but that will likely soon change. On July 1, suicide bombers had no problem launching a triple attack on a famous Sufi shrine in Lahore, its bustling capital city. At least 35 were killed and over 175 injured in the assault. In fact, it was only the latest in a string of terrorist attacks that have rocked Pakistan's densely populated heartland over the past year. Last month, Taliban gunmen torched 50 U.S. and NATO supply trucks headed for Afghanistan just outside Islamabad in northern Punjab. And the problems are likely to get worse in Punjab before they get better.
While U.S. and Pakistani military strategists focus on the terrorist threat in Pakistan's tribal areas, the Taliban and al Qaeda are expanding into Punjab and teaming up with local terrorist organizations such as Jaish-e-Mohammed, the alleged recruiter of Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.
Punjab is an attractive refuge for the Taliban for two reasons. First, the area allows a convenient strategic retreat as the Pakistani military recaptures key Taliban strongholds in the Swat Valley and South Waziristan and mulls a further offensive into North Waziristan, the key power base of Pakistani Taliban groups, the Afghan Taliban's Haqqani network, and al Qaeda. The Taliban has reason to think of Punjab, home to nearly half of Pakistan's 20,000 madrasas, many of them incubators for radicalism, as an accommodating new home.
The second reason is that militants know that in Punjab, with its dense cities and a population of more than 90 million, they can hide in plain sight, safe from U.S. drone strikes, which according to CIA officials, have killed more than 500 militants, including high-profile Taliban leaders, in the past two years. After all, with the international community already harshly criticizing drone strikes in which a dozen Pakistani civilians are killed, al Qaeda calculates correctly that the White House would never risk hundreds of civilian casualties by ordering a strike in the heart of Rawalpindi.
Suicide attacks in Punjab doubled in 2009 from the previous year, and this year will likely be deadlier. In a March interview with Rediff.com, Qari Hussain Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban's deputy commander, promised, "A new series of suicide attacks will take place soon" and said, "The focus would be on Punjab, where policies are made." Al Qaeda's al-Jihad Punjab group claimed credit for the March 8 assault on the Special Investigation Agency in Lahore, as well as a series of attacks there in May that killed 80. In some villages, the extremists openly demand Islamic law, ban video and music shops, and urge the local population to prepare for an Islamic revolution, the same process that preceded the Taliban's seizure of Swat.
The Pakistani government's willingness to turn a blind eye to militancy exacerbates the problem. The Punjabi-dominated Pakistani Army is unwilling to fight its brethren. In a June 24 interview with the BBC, Pakistani Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas ruled out a Waziristan-style military operation in Punjab. "There needs to be a political decision to crack down on the jihadi organizations," he noted. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League runs the provincial government and openly courts the terrorist groups for political support.
In February, Punjab's law minister, the Pakistan Muslim League's Rana Sanaullah, campaigned for by-election in Jhang district together with Maulana Muhammad Ahmad Ludhianvi, the leader of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, a banned organization that facilitates al Qaeda recruitment in Punjab, in an official vehicle escorted jointly by police and militants. He also paroled two terrorists ahead of the polls. Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, Nawaz Sharif's brother, pleaded with the Taliban to "spare Punjab" because his party shares the Taliban's anti-Western agenda.
The Punjabi government's support to banned terrorist groups recently came under fresh scrutiny after last year's budget allocated around $1 million to Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a charity on the U.N. terrorist watch list and a front organization of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a group responsible for the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks.
The fight in Pakistan will not end when the U.S. and Pakistani armies expel terrorists from the border regions with Afghanistan. For Pakistani leaders, violence in the tribal areas is an irritant; they seem not to realize that the same type of militancy in Punjab threatens to rock Pakistan to its very core. Barring effective action in Islamabad, Washington must plan for a greater terrorist threat emanating from Pakistan over the horizon.
What can the White House do? Walking away from the region -- irrespective of President Barack Obama's July 2011 deadline -- is not an option. If the situation in Punjab worsens, the war in Afghanistan will seem mild compared with the coming conflict. And Predator drones won't be the answer this time. Targeting Taliban in an open field is one thing; targeting them in a teeming apartment block is quite another. But the American public likely won't have the stomach for another far-off urban ground war.
Only preventive medicine will do: The Obama administration must not allow Pakistan to evade U.S. and international pressure to attack the terrorist cancer eating away at its heartland. Rather than military attacks, counterterrorism and intelligence operations are the best way to make inroads. But above all, Pakistani leaders must end their selective approach toward terrorist organizations. Pakistan's elites must realize that if Punjab becomes a terrorist safe haven, they will not be spared.