<i>Attacks in Lahore: Buildup to secession?</i>
AFTER the 2 July 2010 attack on a popular Sufi Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan has once again raised the spotlight of political security in Pakistan. While recent attacks in Pakistan have been blamed on Waziristan-based Pashtun groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), the group has denied responsibility for the latest attack. However, local media reports have speculated that one of the suicide bombers did recently go to Waziristan for terrorist training purposes. As Punjab is starting to witness a new round of terrorist and sectarian clashes, the violence in the province threatens to escalate with a demonstrative effect for regional secessionist groups.
The Punjab province of Pakistan is the richest province in the country and home to 60% of the country's population. Punjab has traditionally been home to religious revisionist movements, which led to the formation of sectarian religious organizations. The religious zealots in the region, combined with the economic conditions of the downtrodden, provided easy cadre for the terrorist outfits, which have used them to devastating effect. Last year, a new splinter outfit of the TTP, the TTP-Punjab had taken credit for violence in the state. Punjabi locals have been involved in some of the most audacious terrorist attacks including the Mariott bombing in Islamabad, the attack on the Sri Lankan Cricket team and also international plots such as the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.
The formation of the TTP-Pakistan was supposed to be in response to the belief that the largely Pashtun TTP wanted to take the battle to Punjab where the Pakistan government was largely based. Indeed, the Pakistan Interior Ministry had warned that attacks in Lahore would receive much greater media coverage than attacks in the Pashtun belt region. Lahore also remains a volatile city for sectarian tensions in Pakistan. It has witnessed violent attacks against its minority Shiite population and also the Ahmaddiya sect which was targeted last month.
The continued violence in Punjab gravely threatens the continued stability and future of a coherent Pakistan state. The ability of groups to mount even more spectacular attacks against government officials and citizens would lead to an emboldened stance among other separatist groups which operate in the neighbouring provinces of Balochistan and Sind. In an online publication, Jihadist groups discussed the future of Pakistan, fearing that the continued turmoil in the state would provide an excuse for an America-Jewish-Hindu takeover, and the country would be divided with an independent Balochistan and Sind province.
The successes by Jihadist groups in Punjab reflect a deep concern for security agencies, particularly over the ability of groups based in Punjab to coordinate logistical training and tactics with their allies in Waziristan. The developments in Waziristan are starting to play an important role in the psyche of Punjab-based terrorist cadre, who are increasingly inclined to fight against the Pakistan army in Waziristan or target their military installations in the Pakistani hinterland, which in turn effectively further erodes confidence in the State's security apparatus.
As Punjab based terrorist outfits continue to garner successes against security forces which would be stretched thin, and increasingly fighting their own brethren, traditional divisions in the Pakistani state would gain strength. While the Balochi separatist movement suffered a major blow with the assassination of its leader Akbar Bugti in 2006, the renewed violence could allow for a revival of its fortunes against the Pakistan government. Taking advantage of the turmoil in Punjab, a rival state, it can attempt to sabotage the vital economic pipelines which have made Punjab prosperous at the expense of Baloch province.
The role of regional actors such as Shiite ruled Iran at such a time cannot be ruled out. The Shiite-Sunni divide in Islam is described to be the oldest conflict in the religion, with Sunnis viewing Shiites to be more heretical than even Jews. As Iran progresses towards becoming a nuclear weapons power, its interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan are significantly increasing as well.
In order to have a greater foothold in Afghanistan, in the aftermath of an eventual withdrawal by the United States, the Iranians would need to build its soft power in Pakistan. This year alone has seen Iranian successes relating to the rescue of an Iranian diplomat kidnapped in Pakistan and the extradition of the two leaders of Jundollah (a Sunni organization fighting against Iranian rule from Pakistan) as an indication of the inroads having been made into Pakistan.
Compounding to these problems are the tensions which exist in the Pashtun belt region of Pakistan, where historical tensions against the Pakistan state had led to a formal acceptance of weak sovereign rule over these parts. With a resurgent Taliban and al Qaeda, the Pashtun belt would push forward for the rejection of the Durand Line as a border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. These factors combined with the prevalent socioeconomic upheavals are likely to accentuate Pakistan's destabilization. It is therefore important for Islamabad to highlight the successes achieved vis-à-vis terrorist groups and stamp its authority over the federal polity.