Still in Pakistan’s most populous province of Punjab, where 60 percent of the country’s 180 million people live, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and other militant groups move largely unrestricted.
In 2010, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif issued a surprising appeal to the Taliban, asking them to stop attacks in Punjab Province because his government — just like the militants — opposed the dictates of the West. In a recent interview, Ahsan Iqbal, the deputy secretary-general of Sharif’s conservative Pakistan Muslim League, clarified his boss’ comments.
“What we were saying to the Taliban at the time was: ‘If you are fighting the Pakistan government because they are stooges of the US ... if that is your logic, then why are you attacking in the Punjab, because we are not stooges of the United States,’” he said.
The dramatic increase in sectarian violence has also spawned fierce political debate in parliament, with rivals firing volleys of accusations and counteraccusations.
The ruling, liberal-leaning Pakistan People’s Party has accused its conservative rival, the Pakistan Muslim League, which governs Punjab Province, of patronizing radical Sunni groups, including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. In response, Punjab parliamentarians have shot back, charging the Pakistani federal government with inaction and ineptness for failing to establish a coordinated, nationwide anti-terrorist campaign during its five years at the helm.
Iqbal said his Pakistan Muslim League has “zero tolerance” for extremists, yet its provincial law minister last year campaigned alongside the leader of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’s parent organization, Sipah-e-Sahabah Pakistan (SSP), which is outlawed in Pakistan.
“It is political expediency in the Punjab, that they think they need the support from the SSP in some parts for votes,” Hazara said. “However, the policies of these extremists will destroy political parties in Pakistan. It will destroy Pakistan.”
Today, the SSP operates in Punjab Province under a new name, Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat. It runs scores of religious schools unencumbered by government restrictions. The schools churn out students, who graduate with a loathing of Shiite Muslims, a willingness to be foot soldiers for other Sunni militant groups and ambitions of making Pakistan a radical Sunni state.
Both organizations also have links to Afghanistan’s Taliban and in 2011 Lashkar-e-Jhangvi carried out an attack in Afghanistan, killing nearly 70 Shiites in a series of coordinated strikes in three Afghan cities.
The attacks raised concern that insurgents wanted to further destabilize Afghanistan by adding a new and deadly sectarian flavor to the conflict already being waged between insurgents and Afghan and foreign forces.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi operated militant training camps in Afghanistan during the Taliban’s rule that ended in 2001, said Waliullah Rahmani, an ethnic Hazara and executive director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies, a private think tank in the Afghan capital, Kabul.