While much focus is on Pakistan's struggle against insurgents in tribal areas along its western border with Afghanistan, the real danger to regional stability -- indeed, to Pakistan's survival as a viable state -- is on the other side of the country, in Punjab, which borders India. Punjab is population-wise Pakistan’s largest province, and its power is visible in the Punjabi-dominated military, bureaucracy, academia and media. Politically, Punjab sends the maximum number of seats to the National Assembly. And, culturally, Punjab's famed city of Lahore is said to lie at the heart of Pakistani culture.
Punjab has been the center of radical Islamist ideological organizations and their militant jihadist offshoots for over twenty years. Today's actual battlefield might lie across the country in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) but the cannon fodder of recruits, who have been fed a revivalist version of Islam in numerous Islamic schools dotting the Punjabi landscape, comes mainly from Punjab, not from Pakistan's Taliban or from the conservative Muslim culture of Afghanistan. Jihad groups are a prominent feature of the very heartland of Pakistan, not just a borderland phenomenon, and it has been this way for decades.
By the 1980s, after fighting three unsuccessful wars with India -- proving India's conventional military superiority -- many in the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment concluded that covert warfare was the only way they could compete effectively against India. In particular, they saw these radicals as "assets" to be encouraged by facilitating a vast network of ideologically linked Madrassas across Punjab, with India as their main target. Pakistan's leadership calculated that as long as India had to deal with various insurgencies, especially a very deadly one in Kashmir, Pakistan would have no fear of a conventional war. Moreover if the insurgency became too deadly, India might be convinced to discuss territorial changes, favorable to Pakistan, regarding Kashmir.
Pakistan's president from 1977-1988, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, provided legitimacy to military rule as well as undercut secular parties, like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). Under Zia-ul-Haq, not surprisingly, Punjab's jihadist population grew rapidly.
Simultaneously, Pakistan's security planners have long sought "strategic depth" in Afghanistan to offset close Indo-Afghan ties and to dissipate irredentism among Pashtun nationalists who span the disputed Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Their support of Islamist Pashtun groups during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and its subsequent continued engagement in Afghanistan has to be seen in this light. With the defeat of the Soviet Union, many Mujahidin redeployed in Punjabi jihad groups like Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba that are focused on bleeding India through terrorist activities in Indian Kashmir. At the same time, Pakistan tolerated, and even encouraged, jihad groups in FATA because they were seen as helping Pakistan to achieve a key goal: A pro-Pakistan Pashtun Afghanistan which was anti-India.
Despite different regional objectives, these groups share a common ideological base: Sunni-Deobandi Islam with radical Salafi-Wahhabi influence. Jihadists, whether the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan groups based in the FATA region or the Punjab-based jihad groups, owe their ideological training to the massive Deobandi-Wahhabi Madrassas network created during Zia-ul-Haq’s years of promoting Islamization in the 1970s-1980s.
Patronage from Pakistan’s intelligence agencies also helped build anti-Shia Sunni sectarian organizations centered mainly in Punjab in response to the spillover of the Islamic Revolution from next-door Iran. This fear was exacerbated when Shia groups laid siege to Islamabad and forced Zia-ul-Haq to exempt Shias from paying zakat, the obligatory religious tax to help poor people. After 9/11, signs of growing collaboration emerged between the anti-Shia jihadi groups based in Pakistani Punjab and those groups located in the frontier areas, especially in the Khurram Agency, which has a significant Shia minority. A revealing example of this intermarriage was provided in February 2009 by Tariq Pervez, the head of Pakistan’s National Counterterrorism Authority. He observed that “ideas, logistics, cash [come] from the Gulf. Arab guys, mainly Egyptians and Saudis, are on hand to provide the chemistry. Veteran Punjabi extremists plot the attacks, while the Pakistani Taliban provides the martyrs.”
The attacks have increasingly turned inward, directed at Pakistan's security forces rather than at India. After the October 10, 2009 attack on the army's headquarters in Rawalpindi, military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas noted that two Punjab-based jihadi groups, Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, had built a presence in South Waziristan where the attack was planned. The April 2009 Swat offensive and the October 2009 South Waziristan offensives against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan was directed mainly against this diffuse organization, which had increasingly focused its attacks on Pakistani security forces and political leaders, including former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Under General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan joined the war against terror. But it has always been a reluctant ally. This is because the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies do not see eye to eye with the Americans – and others – on the nature of the real threat to Pakistan. For the last eight years Pakistan has been willing to take action against "foreign fighters" like al Qaeda and others, while it has been reluctant to go up against jihad groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba or the Pakistani Taliban. They have preferred to negotiate ceasefires with some groups while allowing others simply to change their names and reappear a few months later. In this way, they avoid having to address the growing problem of radicalization in Punjab. Indeed, many security planners continue to see these virulent radicals not as threats to the state but, to the contrary, as available warriors to defend a Pakistan they believe is besieged from all sides.
Meanwhile, Punjab's struggles continue. It is hard to imagine Pakistan surviving as a democratic state, or even as a state at all, if Punjab is engulfed by jihadist movements.
Aparna Pande is a research fellow at Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.