Myth & reality of Punjabi Taliban

Akbar Jan Marwat

THE term ‘Punjabi Taliban’ has an interesting background. The term was apparently first used by the Pakistan tribesmen, when Punjabi-speaking Taliban affiliated with various Punjabi based militant group first arrived in the tribal areas, after the US invasion of Afghanistan and Musharaf’s U-Turn on local militants. The term ‘Punjabi Taliban’ was increasingly used – to the chagrin of PML-N Punjab leaders – whenever an act of terrorism took place in Punjab. The term ‘Punjabi Taliban’ was also regularly invoked: whenever there was talk of conducting a full-fledged operation in Punjab against militancy.
The question of dealing with militancy in Punjab came up once again after the suicide bombing at Gulshan-i-Iqbal Park in Lahore, killing a large number of citizens. After this bloody incident, the Army decided to conduct a full-fledged operation against militancy and all forms of lawlessness in Punjab. The Punjab government had no choice but to join in. The operation, which was expected to start against religious militancy, somehow got bogged in eliminating the so-called Choto gang in Punjab’s Rajanpur district. Now that the leader of the gang Ghulam Rasool alias Choto has been arrested, and the gang sufficiently degraded, it is accepted that the operation against the real bad boys, the religious extremist or the so called Punjabi Taliban would begin in earnest.
To understand the myth and reality of the somewhat convoluted nomenclature, ‘the Punjabi Taliban’ it would be imperative to delve a little deeper into the origin and on wards journey of the non-specific group of militants, who had only one common denomination: that they spoke Punjabi and were from Punjab. There was no specific militant faction that could be called ‘Punjabi Taliban’: rather militants belonging from all hue of Jihadi religious and sectarian organisation from Punjab, come to be known as ‘Punjabi Taliban’ because of their common ethnicity.
These Punjabi militants, some of who were even close to the establishment, fled to the tribal areas and KPK, after the US invasion of Afghanistan. Many of the Punjabi militants were also fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, and fled along with the Taliban, when the US took over the country. These Punjabi militants, took refugee in all the tribal agencies including: Bajour; Mohmand; Khyber, Kurram, Orakzai, and the two Waziristan agencies, to escape the arm of law in their native Punjab. These Punjabi fighters acquired further training in the use of arms, explosives and guerrilla warfare. They fought along sides local Pakistan militants as well as Taliban in Afghanistan. The local tribal militants thus started referring to them as ‘Punjabi Taliban’.
The co-habilitation of militants of different ethnicities also led to the use of colorful Punjabi Monikers like ‘Sajna’ “ for an important Pakistani Taliban Commander Khan Said. Then there were different types of Taliban, literally meaning seekers of knowledge. The first group of Taliban emerged in 1994, under the leadership of Mullah Omer in Kandhar Afghanistan. Then the Tehrik-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was founded by Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan in December 2007 as in umbrella organisation of all Pakistani Taliban factions. To differentiate the groups, terms like Afghan Taliban, and Pakistani Taliban were invented.
Subsequently when the Punjabi militants joined the dominant groups of Pakistanis Taliban, they came to be known as Punjabi Taliban. It is however, interesting to note, that Pakistani militants were not known as Pakistani Taliban in the manner in which the Punjabi affiliates were known as Punjabi Talibans. This perhaps, had to do with the fact that, it were predominant Pukhtoon areas in which both set of Taliban operated, but only the Punjabi ones, were considered to be the other or the outsider, hence a need for naming them by thier ethnicity.
Most of the militants, both Pakhtoon and Punjabis, knew each other after having trained and fought together in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some of the factions of Punjabi Taliban publically called themselves Punjabi Taliban. While other only accepted the title, when the term become their identity. Many readers would remember the verbal sparring between Rehman Malik, the interior minister in PPP’s government from 2008 to 2013, and Shahbaz Sharif the Chief Minister of Punjab. Mr. Sharif had angrily objected to Mr. Rehman’s use of the term Punjabi Taliban, categorically denying that such an entity did not exist.
Mr. Sharif may have been only technically correct, that no specific group of militants operated under that nomenclature. But there was no gainsaying, in the fact, that militants belonging to all hue of extremist religious and sectarian outfits, very much existed, and were collectively known as Punjabi Taliban. These Punjabi militants or Taliban were an important part of the militant and terrorist infrastructure of the TTP, which used the expertise and help of these Punjabi Talibans in carrying out attacks in Punjab, the federal capital Islamabad and other sites in Pakistan.
The present ruling classes mostly from Punjab, were generally, in a state of denial, till the Gulshan-i-Iqbal bombing took place. Although leaders like Malik Ishaq of Lashkari-Jhangvi, were killed in police encounter, but the government was not in a mood to carry out a full-fledged operation in Punjab. It has to be reiterated, that most opposition parties as well as the ruling parties of KPK, Sindh and Baluchistan asked for a sustainable military action against militants in Punjab.
After Zarb-i-Azb, it seems the amalgamation of Punjabi militants known as ‘Punjabi Taliban’ are now scattered and weakened just like their pattern organisation, the TTP. They have mostly been evicted from FATA; due to military action and the US drone attacks. Some of the Punjabi Taliban, have dispersed to Afghanistan, or gone underground in Pakistani Cities and villages. The so-called Punjabi Taliban has thus been weakened considerably, but they have not been completely taken out. Many of them are dormant in the major cities of Punjab, but can become active with the right stimulus. Many of these Punjabi militants, who have taken training in firearms and explosives, also prove useful for newly emerging militant groups like ISIS.
The Pakistani state and its defence establishment also has to make a principle discussion of moving against all militant organisations based in Punjab, including the ones considered to be friendly towards our deep state like the Jamat –i-Dawa and the Jaish-e-Muhammad. Because till such time, that all the militant and sectarian organisation are not eliminated, all kinds of militants including the Punjabi militants would be in demand and would easily move from one organisation to the other. Even after the killing of Malik Ishaq, and some other leaders of Lashkar-jhangvi, the outfit is still present, and would always be in need of militant manpower.
In conclusion it has to be said that, to eradicate militancy in Punjab, the ideological swamps spewing radicalisation leading to extremism have to be drained. The ubiquitous and Mushroom growth of madaris through out Punjab have to be strictly controlled and if possible contained. All these madaris may not be preparing terrorists and suicide bombers, but these madaras are certainly preparing a mind set which is favorably predisposed towards radicalisation, extremism and eventually militarism.
—The writer is author, citizen journalist and entrepreneur based in Islamabad.

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