Dera Ghazi Khan (Pakistan), Apr.14 (ANI): The Taliban and local militant groups continue to make inroads into Pakistan's Punjab province that is home to more than half of the country's citizens.
Tell tale signs of creeping militancy abound in a belt of towns and villages near Dera Ghazi Khan. Militants have gained strength considerably in the district, which is a gateway, both to Taliban-controlled areas and the heart of Punjab, police and local residents say.
Some villages, just north of here, are so deeply infiltrated by militants that their neighbours already consider them no-go zones.
In at least five towns in southern and western Punjab, including the midsize hub of Multan, barbershops, and music stores and Internet cafes offensive to the militants' strict interpretation of Islam have received threats. Traditional ceremonies that include drumming and dancing have been halted in some areas. Hard-line ideologues have addressed large crowds to push their idea of Islamic revolution. Sectarian attacks, dormant here since the 1990s, have erupted once again.
According to the New York Times, Pakistani and American authorities say this poses a serious risk to the stability of the country.
Police officials, local residents and analysts warn that if the government does not take decisive action, the dusty and impoverished fringes of Punjab could become insurgent strongholds.
"I don't think a lot of people understand the gravity of the issue. If you want to destabilize Pakistan, you have to destabilize Punjab," the NYT quoted a senior police official in Punjab, as saying.
"It's going from bad to worse. They are now more active. These are the facts," said a senior police official in Dera Ghazi Khan.
American officials agree.
Bruce Riedel, who led the Obama administration's recently completed strategy review of Pakistan and Afghanistan, said the Taliban now had "extensive links into the Punjab."
"You are seeing more of a coalescence of these militant groups. Connections that have always existed are becoming tighter and more public than they have in the past," said Riedel, a former C.I.A. official.
The Punjabi militant groups have had links with the Taliban, who are mostly Pashtun tribesmen, since the 1980s. Some of the Punjabi groups are veterans of Pakistan's state-sponsored insurgency against Indian forces in Kashmir. Others made targets of Shiites.
The present alliance is based on more than shared ideology.
"These are tactical alliances," said a senior American counter-terrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss intelligence matters.
The Pashtun Taliban and Arab militants, who are part of Al Qaeda, have money, sanctuary, training sites and suicide bombers. The Punjabi militants can provide logistical help in Punjabi cities, like Lahore, including handling bombers and target reconnaissance.
The cooperation between the groups intensified greatly after the government's siege of the Lal Masjid or Red Mosque in Islamabad, in mid-2007, Pakistani and American security officials say.
That siege has since become a rallying cry.
However, the situation in south and west Punjab is still far from what prevails in the Swat Valley, a part of North-West Frontier Province that is now fully under Taliban control after the military agreed to a truce in February. But there are strong parallels.
The Taliban here exploit many of the same weaknesses that have allowed them to expand in other areas: an absent or intimidated police force; a lack of attention from national and provincial leaders; a population steadily cowed by threats, or won over by hard-line mullahs who usurp authority by playing on government neglect and poverty.
Punjab Chief Minister Shabaz Sharif says he is painfully aware of the problems of insurgent infiltration and is taking steps to restore people's faith in government, including plans for new schools and hospitals.
"Hearts and minds must be won. If this struggle fails, this country has no future," he told the NYT on Monday.
But people complain that landowners and local politicians have done nothing to stop the advance and, in some cases, even assist the militants by giving money to establish religious schools.
The police are left alone to stop the advance. But in Punjab, as in much of the rest of Pakistan, they are spread unevenly, with little presence in rural areas. Out of 160,000 police officers in Punjab, fewer than 60,000 are posted in rural areas, leaving frontier stations in districts virtually unprotected, police officials said. (ANI)