Friday, May 7, 2010

JHANG, Pakistan | It’s a troubling trend in Pakistan’s biggest and richest province of Punjab: Leaders there are tolerating and in some cases promoting some of the country’s most violent Islamist militant groups.

Provincial officials have ignored repeated calls to crack down on militant groups with a strong presence here, with one senior minister campaigning publicly with members of an extremist group that calls for Shi’ite Muslims to be killed.

Some of the militant groups are allied with the northwest-based Pakistani Taliban, which claimed responsibility for a failed car bombing in New York City last week. A group based in Punjab, Jaish-e-Mohammed, also has been implicated as having links to one of the people detained in Pakistan in connection with the bombing attempt.

The head of the Punjab government, Shahbaz Sharif, even asked militants not to attack his province - because he was not following the dictates of the United States to fight them - much to the dismay of the central Pakistani government.

“It makes the Punjab a de facto sanctuary for the militants and extremists that the Pakistan army is fighting in the frontier and in the tribal areas,” said Aida Hussain, a former ambassador to the United States and prominent Shi’ite leader. “In fact, this is an undermining of the armed forces of Pakistan and it is an undermining of constitutional governance.”

Critics believe the policy of tolerance is a shortsighted bid by Mr. Sharif and his brother, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, for political support in the predominantly Sunni province, which accounts for nearly 60 percent of Pakistan’s 175 million people and much of the country’s wealth.

Punjabi militants have won over fellow followers of the Deobandi sect of Islam with their radical religious interpretations and outspoken assaults on minority Shi’ites. This translates into votes that leaders of radical groups can bring to local politicians on both the right and the left.

“It’s all about political expediency rather than outright support for these groups,” said Moeed Yusuf of the United States Institute of Peace.

He said the policy was risky because it sends the wrong signal to Pakistanis who have rallied behind the military in its assault on extremists in the Afghan border areas.

Signs of a militant Islamist presence are everywhere in this region:

c In the blisteringly hot central Punjab town of Jhang, the outlawed Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, or Guardians of the Friends of the Prophet, has been emboldened by conciliatory signals from local authorities. After being courted for votes in March, the group ripped off yellow government seals and reopened its offices.

c Just a few miles from the Punjab provincial capital of Lahore is the headquarters of Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is banned in Pakistan, India, the United States and other countries but is now under provincial government protection. India blames Lashkar-e-Taiba for the deadly 2008 attacks in Mumbai and routinely harangues Pakistan for allowing its leader, Hafiz Saeed, to remain free.

c And in the southern Punjab city of Bawahalpur is the headquarters of Jaish-e-Mohammed, the group possibly linked to a suspect in the Times Square bombing case. The group’s leader, Masood Azhar, was among three militants freed by India in 1999 in exchange for the release of passengers aboard a hijacked Indian Airlines plane to Kandahar, Afghanistan.

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