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Pakistan’s Jihadist Heartland: Southern Punjab
Pakistan’s Jihadist Heartland: Southern Punjab
National Ambitions Meet Local Opposition Along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor
National Ambitions Meet Local Opposition Along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor
Supporters of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa Islamic organization take part in an anti-India demonstration to condemn the hanging of Mohammad Afzal Guru, Rawalpindi, 10 February 2013. REUTERS/Mian Khursheed
Report 279 / Asia

Pakistan’s Jihadist Heartland: Southern Punjab

Once-tolerant southern Punjab has become a base for jihadist groups. Socio-economic grievances, political alienation and poor education provide a near endless source of recruits. To reverse the tide, the government must end a climate of impunity, block hate speech, improve rule of law, and refocus counter-terrorist action to target all jihadist groups.

Executive Summary

Southern Punjab must be central to any sustainable effort to counter jihadist violence within and beyond Pakistan’s borders, given the presence of militant groups with local, regional and transnational links and an endless source of recruits, including through large madrasa and mosque networks. The region hosts two of Pakistan’s most radical Deobandi groups, Jaish-e-Mohammed, held responsible by India for the 2 January 2016 attack on its Pathankot airbase; and the sectarian Laskhar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which was at least complicit in, if not solely responsible for, the 27 March Easter Sunday attack that killed more than 70 in Lahore. To reverse the jihadist tide, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)’s federal and Punjab province governments will have to both end the climate of impunity that allows these groups to operate freely and address political alienation resulting from other governance failures these groups tap into. 

Southern Punjab was once known for a tolerant society, but over the past few decades, state support for jihadist proxies, financial support from foreign, particularly Saudi and other Gulf countries, combined with an explosive mix of political, socio-economic, and geostrategic factors, has enabled jihadist expansion there. Bordering on insurgency-hit and lawless regions of the country and also sharing a border with India, it has long provided a convenient base where these outfits can recruit, train and plan and conduct terror attacks. Although jihadist groups still harbour a fringe minority in a region where the vast majority follows a more tolerant, syncretic form of Islam, their ability to operate freely is largely the result of the state’s policy choices, particularly long reliance on jihadist proxies to promote perceived national security interests. The absence of rule-of-law, combined with political dysfunction and inept governance, also allows these organisations to exercise influence disproportionate to their size and social roots.

With state sponsorship and a pervasive climate of impunity enhancing jihadist groups’ recruitment potential, the risks of joining are far lower than potential gains that include employment and other financial rewards, social status and sense of purpose. These are all the more compelling in Punjab’s largely rural and relatively poorly developed southern regions, where perceptions of exploitation by the industrialised central and north Punjab, referred to by southern Punjabis as Takht Lahore (throne of Lahore), are high, the result of political marginalisation, weak governance, economic neglect and glaring income inequity.

After the December 2014 attack on the Peshawar Army Public School by a Pakistani Taliban faction that killed over 150, mostly children, the civilian and military leadership vowed to eliminate all extremist groups. Yet, the core goal of the counter-terrorism National Action Plan (NAP) it developed – to end distinctions between “good” jihadists, those perceived to promote strategic objectives in India and Afghanistan, and “ bad” jihadists, those that target the security forces and other Pakistanis – appears to have fallen by the wayside.

A highly selective approach still characterises the ongoing crackdown on militant outfits in southern Punjab and undermines broader counter-terrorism objectives. 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 LeJ leadership and foot soldiers. Overreliance on a militarised counter-terrorism approach based on blunt force might yield short-term benefits but, by undermining rule-of-law and fuelling alienation, will prove counterproductive in the long term. 

The lack of progress on other major NAP goals, particularly reform and regulation of the madrasa sector, has especially adverse implications for southern Punjab, with its many Deobandi madrasas. The children of the poor are exposed to sectarian and other radical ideological discourse. The state’s unwillingness to clamp down on it in sectarian madrasas and mosques so as to counter hate speech and prevent dissemination of hate literature increases the potential for radicalisation in the region.

In the poorest region of the country’s richest and most populous province, where economic hardships are compounded by periodic natural disasters, including droughts and floods that destroy homes and livelihoods, jihadist groups, often with state support, their access being facilitated by the bureaucracy, are given opportunities to win hearts and minds through their charity wings. At the same time, civil society organisations capable of filling the gaps in the state’s delivery of services are often subjected to restrictions and intimidation.

Despite jihadist inroads, the vast majority in southern Punjab still adhere to more moderate syncretic forms of Islam: Sufism, and Barelvism, with practices and rituals that Deobandis and Wahhabi/Salafis portray as heretic. Yet, a general climate of impunity is encouraging extreme religious, sectarian and gender discrimination and exclusion. If left unchecked, these groups’ influence will likely spread within and beyond the region.

Lahore and Islamabad should enforce the law against all jihadist organisations, without exception. If they do not, many in southern Punjab may continue to see the rewards of joining such organisations as far outweighing the costs.

Recommendations

To end the climate of impunity 

To the federal and Punjab governments:

  1. Replace selective counter-terrorism with an approach that targets all jihadist groups that use violence within or from Pakistani territory, including by thoroughly investigating the alleged role of Pakistan-based jihadists in the Pathankot attack, extending beyond individual operatives to the organisations that sustain them.
     
  2. Focus counter-terrorism efforts on reforming and strengthening the criminal justice system, with a properly resourced, authorised and accountable provincial police force at its heart, so as to moderate reliance on lethal force.
     
  3. Investigate and monitor under the Anti-Terrorism Act or UN Security Council Resolution 1267 and its blacklist all madrasas, mosques and charities with known or suspected links to banned groups, as well as those that maintain armed militias, or whose administrators and/or members incite violence and other criminal acts within or from the country; and act first against those madrasas in southern Punjab already identified as actively training militants and having direct or indirect links with jihadist outfits. 
     
  4. Prevent circulation of hate literature and enforce laws against hate speech in madrasas, mosques and other forums, including by following through on all current cases against hard-line preachers and others accused of violating them.

To redress policy that favours a jihadist fringe over a moderate and diverse civil society

  1. Remove arbitrary official and unofficial restrictions on NGOs and other civil society organisations in southern Punjab and assume responsibility for protecting against jihadist threats.
     
  2. Repeal all legislation that discriminates on the basis of religion, sect and gender and refrain from backtracking on provincial pro-women legislation or yielding to Islamist party pressure to dilute its provisions. 
     
  3. Protect southern Punjab’s religious minorities, in particular Christians and Hindus, and take action against perpetrators of violence against women by acting through the legal system on reports of intimidation and abuse.

To redress the political, social and economic alienation in southern Punjab that contributes to recruitment opportunities for jihadist groups 

To the federal and Punjab governments:

  1. Reform and expand the public school network, including by removing intolerant religious discourse and distorted narratives glorifying jihadist violence from the classroom; and accompany education reform with assistance along the lines of the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) to help poor families afford to send their children to school.
     
  2. Increase southern Punjab’s development budget, accompanied by meaningful consultations with communities on development programs; and establish and implement requirements to hire a significant proportion of local labour for such programs and provide it related training.

To the ruling and opposition parties:

  1. Respond to the political alienation in southern Punjab by including local leaders within party decision-making processes and structures, and giving them a voice at the local, provincial and national levels. 
     
  2. Redress local grievances by addressing them in the provincial and federal parliaments, including through appropriate legislation.

Islamabad/Brussels, 30 May 2016

Op-Ed / Asia

National Ambitions Meet Local Opposition Along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor

Originally published in The Diplomat

Pakistan’s central government is all-in on CPEC. But at key points, local communities are resisting.

In the run-up to Pakistan’s general election on July 25, most political parties stand united in their belief that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will transform Pakistan’s ailing economy. In May, Pakistan’s ambassador to China asserted that “regardless of any political change in Pakistan, our commitment towards the successful completion of CPEC will not change.”

But if political support at the national level appears unwavering, local opposition is growing over the lack of consultation and concerns regarding the inequitable distribution of the prospective benefits. In few places is this more noticeable than the southern Balochistan fishing town of Gwadar, the entry point of the corridor and a microcosm of the center-periphery tensions elsewhere that threaten CPEC’s implementation.

An Ambitious Vision

Aiming to develop a “growth axis and development belt” between China and Pakistan, CPEC could involve investments of some $60 billion. The corridor connects Gwadar, in the southwestern province of Balochistan, to China’s Xinjiang region via a 2,700 kilometer route through the mountainous terrain of Gilgit-Baltistan in northernmost Pakistan .

For China’s and Pakistan’s foreign policies, the potential payoffs are clear. CPEC is a flagship project of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a geopolitical ambition to develop trade and infrastructure with over 60 economies across Eurasia, Africa, and beyond. For Islamabad, CPEC brings the hope of not only economic dividends but also potentially a geopolitical reconfiguration. Some Pakistani strategists believe deepening ties to China will offset rising U.S. diplomatic and economic pressure aimed at ending Islamabad’s support to Afghanistan- and India-oriented militant proxies.

CPEC’s prospective economic benefits are forecast to materialize slowly across Pakistan between 2017 and 2030. But policy planning has been opaque, omitting details of how development projects will actually impact local economies, infrastructure and business. An urban planner and expert on Gwadar said the government’s plan lacks even “cosmetic consultation.” As more details slowly emerge, local alarm is growing about what CPEC will bring to Balochistan.

Stirring Local Unrest

In Gwadar, the Arabian Sea town in southern Balochistan that CPEC aims to transform into a bustling commercial port, inner city locals fear displacement over government plans to expropriate land, bulldoze the old city, and resettle residents. The state-led land grab is estimated to claim at least 290,000 acres to make way for development, in large part through ultimatums issued to local residents. Those who refuse to sell land or property could simply have it seized by the federal government and would likely face forced resettlement.

Local livelihoods also appear to be under fire. Fisher folk, whose daily catch provides them just enough to feed their families, have on occasion been denied access to the sea and could face the permanent closure of Gwadar’s jetty. Unskilled workers resent exclusion from the port’s construction, as federal authorities favor importing labor from other provinces. One official in Gwadar said that “the plan seems to be to make life so miserable for the residents that they leave on their own.”

Anti-Chinese sentiment is rising in step with suspicions of Beijing’s intentions.

Nor is it clear that those who stay in Gwadar will reap the fruits of Chinese investment. At the start of the project, Pakistan transferred leasing rights for Gwadar port to the China Overseas Port Holding Company, sealing a deal that grants China 91 percent of the port-generated profits and Islamabad just 9 percent, while denying Balochistan’s provincial government any revenue. With such lopsided terms, China is under minimal pressure to ensure local prosperity.

Anti-Chinese sentiment is rising in step with suspicions of Beijing’s intentions. Some Pakistani security analysts see China’s development plans as a mask for broader geopolitical ambitions. In Gwadar, they perceive Beijing as less interested in developing a transport link to Xinjiang or a commercial waystation to the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf than eventually transforming the port into a military or naval base, another in a string of installations dotted across the Indian Ocean that affords Beijing the strategic initiative vis-à-vis regional rival India.

Regardless of China’s true intentions, the net result for locals is the same. Economic marginalization is stirring local dissent, which could lead to significant security risks. Balochistan’s insurgency has long rested on popular demands for greater political and economic autonomy. The failure to provide Gwadar the benefits of CPEC development is heightening hostility toward Islamabad and Beijing, and affording Baloch insurgents a chance to expand their outreach and recruit disgruntled locals. Since 2017, Baloch militants have already killed scores of Pakistanis employed on CPEC projects and future attacks might target Chinese construction workers or Chinese nationals living in Pakistan.

A Chance to Reverse Course

Instead of addressing the causes of this dissent, Pakistani authorities have opted to respond through crackdowns of anti-CPEC protests, an overbearing security presence, and harassment and intimidation of local residents. The best chances for the country’s stability – not to mention CPEC’s success in Gwadar and elsewhere – lie in giving provinces and communities a voice in shaping development projects.

In particular, the government should make greater efforts to consult communities and experts regarding the impact of development and reconsider the ongoing policy of rampant land expropriation. It should also put in place measures to ensure the employment of local labor on construction projects to ensure that they reap the dividends of outside investment. Chinese and Pakistani companies, too, ought to take similar measures to assess the risks associated with controversial development initiatives.

Whatever the result of Pakistan’s elections, the new parliament should seize the opportunities of a fresh mandate by informing a new government policy. That policy should have the well-being of Pakistani citizens at its heart, rather than treating it as expendable in the pursuit of mega-development.