Added September 22 2009: While many people felt the risks for Punjab were over-stated in the NYT report below, they have just been repeated by the Financial Times in a report – Militants regroup in Punjab, say officials – with up-to-date information on Taliban militants from the Swat area taking refuge in Punjab, which, said one official “is ready to pop”. _________________________________________________________________
There is a worrying story in this morning’s New York Times that Taliban activists are linking up with militant groups in Pakistan’s Punjab province and have been jointly staging terrorist attacks such as those on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore last month and the attack on Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel last year. [See also this NYT story April 17]
This underlines the seriousness of the Taliban gaining control of the Swat valley north of Islamabad, and yesterday’s approval by Pakistan’s parliament for Sharia law to be implemented in the entire Malakand division of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Malakand includes not just the Swat valley, but districts such as Chitral and Dir as well as Buner, just 60 miles north of Islamabad, where there has been recent Taliban violence.
The Swat Sharia deal, negotiated in February, arguably only reinstates a form of Islamic law that has been practised earlier in the area, where it is being welcomed by some because of its quick and efficient justice.
But the more important point is that the Pakistan government has in effect ceded control in return for an end to Taliban violence and killings – with a vague and unrealistic hope that extreme Taliban policies such as banning schools for girls, publicly flogging offenders and human rights abuses would end.
That makes it a government surrender and a military victory for the Taliban’s Sharia rule of law that the extremists will no doubt want to replicate elsewhere, as the violence in Buner district shows.
Apart from the MQM political party, which walked out and abstained in the Assembly yesterday, no other party opposed the Sharia vote. The Taliban had threatened that anyone opposing the law would be executed.
The risk is that the Taliban will then want to expand its Sharia influence in other areas of NWFP and then across Pakistan.
To destabilize Pakistan, destabilize Punjab first
The New York Times says today that Punjab police officials and local residents are warning that, if the government does not take decisive action, the poorest parts of the province could be the next areas facing an insurgency. “I don’t think a lot of people understand the gravity of the issue,” a senior police official told the newspaper. “If you want to destabilize Pakistan, you have to destabilize Punjab.”
Militants already control several areas of the province. The article says that barber shops, music stores and Internet cafes offensive to the militants’ strict interpretation of Islam have received threats in at least five towns in southern and western Punjab, including the city of Multan. Traditional ceremonies that include playing drums and dancing have been halted in some areas.
I have heard it argued in Delhi that the Taliban would be resisted by Pakistan’s Punjabis, who are culturally different from the NWFP’s Pashtuns, and that the prospects of the Taliban’s Sharia regime gaining a hold near to Pakistan’s India border are therefore remote. But that argument surely does not apply if the Taliban and Punjabi militant groups are combining forces.
Writing in the The Times of India last week, G Parthasarathy, a former Indian high commissioner in Pakistan, warned that India would “have to face up to the reality of the growing radicalization across its western frontiers, rather than entertaining illusions that civil society or political parties in Pakistan have the ability, or will, to take on the radicals”.
So how long will it be before a Swat Sharia situation develops in India? Would the Taliban-Punjabi militants target an area in Kashmir, adding to the terrorist activity there and elsewhere in the country?