Jihadists in Pakistan's Punjab Enter the Fight

This past weekend, Pakistan launched a full-on offensive in its western region of Waziristan. The U.S. had long been urging an expanded war against the Pakistani Taliban, and after militants across the country stepped up attacks in urban centers and even overran Army headquarters, it was clear that the time for hesitation had passed. The attack on the nerve center of the Army, which is widely considered the most powerful political institution in the country, has the Pakistani people worrying: if the military cannot protect itself, who can protect civilians? Some are even suggesting that the Pakistani state is under siege.

Pakistan, however, is not under siege. Islamabad will put down any serious resistance, as evidenced by the nearly 30,000 troops and the fleet of F-16s that have been unleashed on Waziristan in the past few days. The real question, however, is: can the Army win if it does not deal with jihadi organizations in other parts of the country? Because as much as the Pakistani government would like to forget about them—it often willingly turns a blind eye—jihadist groups are not just in Waziristan and the tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan. A coterie of dangerous groups in Punjab, the country's populous eastern region, is now partnering with the Taliban in what could be a second front in the war.

The military claims that the spate of recent attacks was carried out at the behest of the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud. But in fact, much of the violence appears to be originating from militant groups in Punjab. The Punjabi group led by Amjad Farooqi claimed responsibility for the attack on the Army headquarters. Likewise, the three attacks in Lahore were likely undertaken with the help of terrorists from Punjab. In fact, there is a widespread reluctance on the part of both the Army and the Punjab regional government to focus on the four main Punjab-based jihadi groups: Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). Their history is complex; many of these outfits date back to the 1980s Soviet war in Afghanistan. They were funded with money from the Gulf states to fight revolutionary Iran in the 1980s, and they have also fought India in the war in Kashmir.

In recent years, however, these Punjabi militant groups have cultivated deep links with the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. A former Pakistani government official and current fellow at the Asia Society, Hassan Abbas, recently wrote, "Between March 2005 and March 2007 alone ... about 2,000 militants from southern and northern Punjab Province reportedly moved to South Waziristan." Interviews with jihadis in the region suggest that there are somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 young men from southern Punjab fighting in Afghanistan and the tribal areas. Jihadis have also said that they were either recruited by or are freelancers now directly in communication with the Pakistani Taliban.

Take the Oct. 10 attack on Pakistan's Army headquarters in Rawalpindi, in Punjab. It was executed by a breakaway faction of the Punjab-based JeM. JeM was initially established in 2000 to fight a covert war in Indian-held Kashmir, and during its initial days it received generous financial assistance from Osama bin Laden. Today the U.S. considers JeM a terrorist organization. For its recent attack, JeM recruited others, like Hizbul-Mujahedin and Hizb-ul-Jihad-ul-Islami, two organizations whose members were involved in the Afghan war in the 1980s.

The U.S. is well aware of these sleeper groups in Punjab. The recently passed Kerry-Lugar bill, which provides Pakistan with some $7.5 billion in civilian aid over the next five years, insists that Islamabad make progress in battling the Punjab-based groups, especially JeM and LeT. It very much remains to be seen whether President Asif Ali Zardari has the political capital to undertake another front in the war in addition to the one the government is already fighting in Waziristan. His popular support is abysmal, and some suspect that the Army may be close to stepping in and taking over control of the government. What's more, a significant portion of the Army doesn't necessarily consider the jihadi groups to be an impediment to a strong Pakistani state; among the military there is a tactical dependence on nonstate actors to fight the war against India.

In recent years, the Army and the Punjab government have gone into overdrive to deny the existence of jihadis in southern Punjab and claim that no Talibanization is taking place. Earlier this month, for example, Punjabi Minister Rana Sanaullah publicly played down any terrorist threat in the province. However, as journalist Arif Jamal reported extenstively in his book Shadow War, the provincial government knows that the jihadis in Punjab, who do not necessarily force the general population to a more fundamentalist version of religious ideology, are nonetheless busy creating and exporting jihad to other parts of the region, especially Afghanistan. Why the denial, then? The regional government in Punjab fears that admitting to jihadi presence could result in military action from Islamabad, or even the U.S.

Though the simple solution may seem to be to open up a second front in Punjab, more war is not the best answer. These jihadi groups could actually be thwarted by a concerted, integrated police and intelligence operation. Enough is known about groups like JeM and LeT for local police to act, if they were given a free hand to do so. Unfortunately, the civilian government in Islamabad and the provincial government in Punjab are unwilling to make any move as of yet, likely also because the jihadists could serve as a bulwark against India, if needed, as they have done in the past. That certainly complicates matters for the U.S.; Washington either has to rethink its strategy in Afghanistan with greater sensitivity for Pakistan's complicated internal political dimensions (not to mention the country's war-torn history with India), or it has to learn to live with the messy, violent, and grim reality that jihadists are likely to remain part of the current equation.