On March 2, militants gunned down Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s only Christian cabinet minister. They left a leaflet signed by al Qaeda and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Punjab warning that the “targeted killings” would continue until “the infidels and the Satan are eliminated.” Bhatti had long opposed Pakistan’s blasphemy law that makes insulting Islam a capital offense, and which some Pakistani officials use to persecute minority faiths.
The attack came only two months after the assassination of Punjab’s governor Salman Taseer, who had sought reform of the blasphemy law and defended Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to die for blasphemy against Islam. Taseer had been the most vocal voice against rising militancy in the Punjab, home to more than half of Pakistan’s 170 million people and the country’s political, economic, and cultural center, and had often criticized officials for failing to crack down on terrorist groups.
The Pakistani government appears willing to allow Punjab to become a safe haven for terror. The Punjab government is run by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League, which courts the terrorists for political support. Both the military and intelligence service protect the terror groups as a strategic tool to use in conflicts, not only against Indian interests in Kashmir, but also against U.S. and NATO interests in Afghanistan.
Terror support is often quite blatant. Last year, Punjab's law minister Rana Sanaullah campaigned for by-election in Jhang district together with the leader of one banned group and, between 2009 and 2010, the Punjab government budget allocated about $1 million to Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the charitable wing of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai hotel and train station attacks.
American officials consider President Asif Ali Zardari’s ruling Pakistan People’s Party the only sincere partner in the fight against terrorism in Pakistan. Under increasing pressure from religious parties and the military and intelligence services, however, the Pakistan People’s Party has lost the resolve to fight terrorism and promote democracy. The party had backed off from reforming the blasphemy law even before the spate of political assassinations began—a move that emboldened the terrorists. Human Rights Watch described Bhatti’s killing as a result of the “bitter fruit of appeasement of extremist and militant groups.”
Rising militancy in Punjab poses a more serious threat to Pakistan's stability and American national security than the Pashtun Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Over the past two years, the Taliban’s large-scale terrorist attacks have targeted Punjabi cities more than the tribal agencies. On March 8, a car bomb in the industrial city of Faisalabad killed at least 24 and wounded more than 130 people. Punjabi militants are also more hard-line and more ideological. They have enjoyed decades of both al Qaeda training and state patronage and are now expanding operations beyond South Asia. The Punjab safe-haven can sow violence far beyond Pakistan: The four major militant groups operating from Punjab—Jaish-e Mohammad, Lashkar-e Taiba, Sipah-e Sahaba Pakistan, and Lashkar-e Jhangvi—are engaged in plots not only inside Pakistan, but also increasingly against Western targets in the region and globally.
It is against this backdrop that Western counterterrorism myopia becomes evident. For the past decade, the United States has focused its counterterrorism efforts in the region on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and surrounding tribal areas. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have offered Pakistan billions of dollars in aid and development to win Islamabad’s cooperation in counter-terror operations.
If the Pakistani government is sincere about countering Taliban and al Qaeda activity in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, however, it is because they know that the border area is no longer the central problem. Bhatti and Taseer’s deaths should be a wake-up call: A new, more serious terrorism threat now emanates from Pakistan. Neither U.S. drone attacks nor Pakistani Army operations will be able to target terrorists in the Punjab’s densely-populated cities, for collateral damage from any operation there would increase exponentially. Forcing Pakistan to take a zero tolerance approach to radicalism is the only solution. No longer should any country accept Pakistan’s a la carte approach towards Islamist militancy, for if militants take firmer root in Punjab, they will be near impossible to excise. If the Punjab goes the route of Peshawar or Waziristan, then Pakistan is on the path to becoming the world’s most populous failed state.
Ahmad Majidyar is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.