The two suicide attacks against army vehicles in the Cantonment area of Lahore on March 12,2010, which caused 45 fatalities, nine of them of military personnel, were followed by six low-intensity blasts in non-military areas which did not cause any fatalities. The Pashtun Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its Punjabi associate the anti-Shia Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ) are reported to have claimed responsibility for the two suicide blasts. No responsibility has been claimed for the subsequent low-intensity blasts.
The suicide blasts highlight the continuing capability of the TTP to operate in non-tribal areas with the help of its Punjabi associates despite the losses suffered by it in the Pashtun belt in recent weeks due to the effective missile strikes by US Drones (pilotless planes) against TTP hide-outs in North and South Waziristan.
The selection of the targets by the TTP and the LEJ for their three major strikes this week in Lahore reflects their continuing anger against the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), which is the police agency for counter-terrorism coming under the Ministry of the Interior, the police of Punjab, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Army. This anger, which came to the fore after the Army's commando raid in the Lal Masjid of Islamabad in July 2007, has been kept alive by the USA's Drone strikes and by the Pakistani military operations in the Swat Valley of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and in South Waziristan and the Bajaur Agency of the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). These military operations are seen by the TTP and its Punjabi associates as undertaken under US pressure. The anti-US and the anti-Army anger are fanning each other.
The focus of the retaliatory attacks have been in the NWFP and the FATA, from where many of the Pashtun recruits of the Frontier Corps, a para-military unit officered by the Army, come, and in Punjab from where the Punjabi soldiers of the Army come. By keeping up the attacks in Lahore and other places in Punjab, including Rawalpindi, and in the Pashtun belt, the TTP and its Punjabi associates are trying to create a divide between the Punjabi officer class and their Punjabi and Pashtun soldiers and thereby weaken their loyalty to the officers.
There have already been indications of some dilution of discipline and loyalty among the Pashtuns of the FC, but there are as yet no indications of a similar dilution among the Punjabi soldiers of the Army. The military leadership would be worried that if the jihadis keep up the pressure it could over a period of time have a negative impact on the Punjabi soldiers and this could affect the Army's capability against India.
The Army's concern is how to keep up the seeming co-operation with the US against Al Qaeda and the Taliban without letting it weaken its capability against India. It cannot discontinue its co-operation with the US which has kept the Pakistani economy afloat. The Pakistani State badly needs the cash flow from the US. By expanding their operations in Punjab, the TTP and its Punjabi associates are seeking to convey a message to the military leadership that its continued support to the US operations in the FATA and Afghanistan could weaken the loyalty of its Punjabi and Pashtun soldiers and dilute its capability against India.
The TTP, despite the availability of a large number of Pashtun suicide bombers, would not be effective in Punjab without the co-operation of Punjabi terrorist organisations, which provide local sanctuaries, logistics and recruits. There are principally five Punjabi terrorist organisations--the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM) and the anti- Shia Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ). Of these, the LET has not been affected by the anti-Army anger. It continues to maintain its loyalty to the Army. It follows a dual policy of co-operating with Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban against the US and with the Pakistan Army against India. For reasons not clear, the HUM has not been very active in recent months.
The HUJI, the JEM and the LEJ have been whole-heartedly co-operating with the TTP in its anti-Army operations. Whereas the LET pays equal attention to the jihad against the US and India, the HUJI, the JEM, the LEJ and the TTP are for the moment paying greater attention to their jihad against the US and the Pakistani Army than to their jihad against India. They prefer to leave the responsibility for the jihad against India to the LET.
According to Amir Mir, the well-known Pakistani journalist who writes for the News (March 13,2010), 1,217 persons were killed in 80 suicide bomber attacks during 2009. This was the higest figure of fatalities in a year since the Lal Masjid raid. Of the 1,217 fatalities, 863 were of civilians and the remaining 354 belonged to the security and law-enforcement agencies. Of them, 137 belonged to the police, 102 were Army officers and Jawans, 51 were FC personnel, 28 were staff members of the Inter-Services Intelligence, 22 belonged to the Khasadar Force, 12 belonged to the Pakistan Rangers and two others were employees of the Pakistan Navy. On an average, 72 civilians and 30 security and law-enforcement agencies’ personnel lost their lives every month in 2009 due to suicide bombings.
According to him, there has been a steep rise in fatalities due to suicide bombings between January 1 and March 12 this year as compared to the corresponding period of last year. There have been 321 fatalities in 15 suicide bombings till March 12 this year as against only 105 during the corresponding period last year.
He writes: "Authorities investigating the unending spate of suicide bombings are of the view most of these attacks have been carried out by the Punjabi Taliban belonging to four sectarian-cum-Jihadi groups which are working in tandem with the Pashtun-dominated Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. They believe several South Punjab-based members of the banned Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami, who had taken part in the Afghan war, have now tied up with the TTP to carry out suicide attacks across Pakistan, especially targeting key military installations. South Punjab has grabbed the attention of Pakistani authorities over the past few months because of the involvement of the Taliban in a spate of Fidayeen-style suicide bombings, including the one targeting the General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi on October 10, 2009."
What would be the impact of these attacks and the resulting fatalities on the morale of the Punjabi soldiers? It is likely that many of the civilians killed were the relatives of soldiers. The Army could come to the conclusion that the only way it could maintain the morale of its Punjabi soldiers is by intensifying its proxy war against India while pretending to co-operate with the US against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.One of the tempting options for the Army will be to wean the HUJI and the JEM away from the TTP by persuading them to join with the LET against India. If it succeeds, it could reduce the pressure on the Army.
The increase in anti- Army terrorism in Pakistan Punjab has to be closely monitored by India in order to assess its impact on Pakistan's proxy war against India.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.