Assessing stability in Pakistan’s heartland Punjab

July 7, 2009

India’s South Asia Intelligence Review (SAIR) has just produced a detailed assessment on the stability of Pakistan’s heartland Punjab province and its conclusions are unsettling.

The base for militants including anti-India groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed along with the sectarian Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Punjab has largely escaped the attention given to the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where the Pakistan Army is fighting the Taliban. As a result a spate of bomb attacks in Punjab tends to be viewed, rightly or wrongly, as a spillover from the fighting in NWFP and FATA, with little attention given to the situation inside the province.

“A deeper scrutiny indicates that the state of affairs in Punjab is, in many ways, precarious – and this will have far-reaching consequences for Pakistan,” SAIR says in its report. An inadequate police force, vast militant networks and a sense of deprivation and injustice among the people, particularly in South Punjab, all combine to create an unstable environment, it says. “As disorder spreads in the other provinces of Pakistan, its heartland, Punjab, is bound to come under intense pressure in the immediate future.”

The SAIR report is worth reading in detail, not least because of an intense debate about how far, and how quickly, Pakistan can be expected to act against Punjab-based militant groups without creating even greater instability. India is pushing hard for Pakistan to take action against the Lashkar-e-Taiba, blamed for last November’s attacks in Mumbai.

The usual view you hear from analysts is that the Pakistan Army would never allow Punjab to spin out of control, and would deploy troops if necessary to defend the heartland.  And it is that view of the army as the ultimate safety net that tends to underpin risk assessments of Pakistan – the assumption being that the worst case scenario of the country’s nuclear weapons falling into militant hands can never happen as long as the military is there to stop it.

What you see less, are detailed assessments of what the Pakistan Army would be up against if it ever had to be deployed in Punjab. The SAIR report provides a good start. While a report from a think-tank based in India may not be seen as neutral, it may be even more useful, since the Indian government is likely to be making similar assessments in deciding how far it can push Pakistan to act quickly against groups like the Laskhar-e-Taiba.

If anyone else has seen detailed reports about Punjab and the militant groups there, please post the links.

(A word on comments: keep them short and avoid rhetoric and repetition.  I am specifically interested in links that provide real insight into the subject of the post.)

(Photos: Lahore’s Badshahi mosque/Mohsin Raza; Pakistan Army chief Gen. Kayani with Prime Minister Gilani)

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