By Jane Perlez and Waqar Gillani for The New York Times
LAHORE, Pakistan — Days after one of the worst terrorist attacks in Pakistan, a senior Pakistani official declared in a surprising public admission that extremist groups were entrenched in the southern portion of the nation’s most populous province, underscoring the growing threats to the state.
The statements by the interior minister, Rehman Malik, after the killing of more than 80 people at two mosques last week here in Lahore, were exceptional because few Pakistani politicians have acknowledged so explicitly the deep roots of militancy in Pakistan. They also highlighted the seeming impotence of the civilian government to root out the militant groups, even in Punjab Province, providing a troubling recognition that decades of state policy to nurture extremism had come home to roost in the very heart of the country.
The extent of the problem has become an increasing concern for the United States, which has pressed the government to deal with the issue with renewed urgency since the failed attempt by a Pakistani-American to explode a car bomb in Times Square.
“We’re dealing with a problem that is so deeply burrowed into the bosom of the society,” said a senior Western official about the difficulty of loosening the grip of the militant groups. “And we’re dealing with a government that is unhappy within itself.”
The problem for Pakistan, Western officials and some Pakistani politicians said, is not only the specific acts of terrorism by these groups, but the far more pervasive jihadi mentality that has been nurtured in the society by an extensive network of extremist madrasas and mosques.
Mr. Malik’s remarks — in which he rattled off a host of extremist groups once supported by the state — were a nod to these larger problems. In contrast to the tribal areas at the nation’s periphery, where the military is battling the Pakistani Taliban on several fronts, militants were “now active” in the southern part of Punjab and were trying to “destabilize the country,” he said.
Though Mr. Malik seemed to hint at possible military action in Punjab, the civilian government, led by the Pakistan Peoples Party, the more secular of the political parties in Pakistan, has little leverage to make it happen.
The Pakistani military, which still holds most power, has shown little interest in taking on extremist groups in Punjab. The province is a major recruiting area for the army, and many of the militant groups there were created by the state decades ago and have been fostered since as arms of Pakistan’s enduring anti-India strategy.
To a large degree, they have slipped from the control of their handlers in the military and intelligence services, according to Western diplomats and Pakistani security experts, and have linked up with Taliban fighters and other militant groups that are now striking deeper into Pakistan in an effort to overthrow the state.
Today these militants move back and forth easily between the tribal areas for training and Punjab, where they carry out a rising number of spectacular attacks.
“They — Lashkar-e-Janghvi, the Sipah-e-Sohaba Pakistan and Jaish-e-Mohammad — are allies of the Taliban and Al Qaeda,” Mr. Malik told reporters in Lahore after the mosque attacks.
The loose conglomerate of militants that Mr. Malik listed is now being grouped by officials and others under the name of the Punjabi Taliban, a designation that itself highlights the expanding nature of the threat in Pakistan’s most important province and the militants’ shifting ambitions. Under that rubric also falls Lashkar-e-Taiba, an anti-India militant group. Like the others listed by Mr. Malik, Lashkar-e-Taiba has been banned by the state, but continues to operate under a different name and apparently with the blessing of the military.
The Punjabi Taliban took credit for the assaults on the two Ahmadi mosques last Friday. At least one of the men arrested by the Pakistani authorities in connection with the Times Square bombing case is connected to Jaish-e-Mohammed, according to law enforcement officials in Karachi. Adding to the difficulty of clamping down on the groups, the Punjabi government, led by Shahbaz Sharif, a leader of the more conservative Pakistan Muslim League-N and a chief political rival of President Asif Ali Zardari, has stopped short of condemning the militants. In some respects, he has treated them as allies.
Two months ago, Mr. Sharif asked the Taliban to stay away from Punjab, arguing that his party and the Taliban had a common enemy in the United States. The Punjab government is “in a state of denial,” said Arif Nizami, a columnist with the newspaper The News. Mr. Sharif played down the attack on the two mosques in Lahore, Punjab’s capital. Instead, he visited the wounded survivors in a hospital quietly at night without the usual television coverage.
The groups hold such sway that Pakistani politicians frequently pander to some, like the pro-Taliban Sipah-e-Sohaba Pakistan, during elections. In a bold illustration of the power of one of the militant groups in southern Punjab, the provincial law minister, Rana Sanaullah, campaigned alongside the leader of Sipah-e-Sohaba, Maulana Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, during a March by-election for the provincial assembly in the city of Jhang.
In an interview, Mr. Sanaullah, said he saw nothing wrong with campaigning with Mr. Ludhianvi. It was a good thing, he said, because it helped bring groups that he described as no longer militant into the democratic mainstream. “If they want to be law-abiding citizens, we should allow them to be,” Mr. Sanaullah said. Mr. Sanaullah was not alone in seeking votes from Sipah-e-Sohaba. A candidate for the National Assembly running for the Pakistan Peoples Party also won with its support earlier this year. Though security is a paramount concern, government officials and others acknowledge that the problem of militancy will not be solved by military force alone. Having been nurtured through generations, it will also not be undone quickly.
A program announced by Mr. Zardari two years ago to rein in the madrasas has yet to get off the ground, blocked by bureaucratic inertia and fears of a backlash from powerful conservative religious groups, Pakistani officials say. As state-sponsored education becomes too expensive for poor parents, the number of madrasas has actually increased in the past three years, to more than 17,000 in 2010 from 13,000 in 2007. At least several thousand of the madrasas churn out militant students, experts say.