Patrolling Pakistan’s South Corridor

It’s a short, inconspicuous drive for militants travelling from the riverside city of Dera Ismail Khan in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa to Dera Ghazi Khan, the second largest district in Punjab. Cross-country, the hilly trek from one province to the other can be completed in under a day.

As army airstrikes on militant hideouts in the Khyber Agency up the national security ante, there is mounting empirical and anecdotal evidence that militants – both the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and others – have cashed-in on the breathing space afforded to them by their halting 40-day truce with the Pakistani government. The return-on-investment: mobility and internal migration, most notably to southern Punjab.

For militants in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the simplest entry-point into Punjab is Dera Ghazi Khan, a district made especially vulnerable to penetration by virtue of its geography: a vertical, semi-mountainous strip that borders three other provinces. By road, the N55 of the Indus Highway from Bannu connects to Dera Ismael Khan. From there, it feeds into northern Dera Ghazi Khan. There are presently 18 security check points manning the roads, bridges, and some 68 Indus river crossings that connect Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa to South Punjab but most of these decades-old pickets employ random methods of checking travelers and vehicles.

The de-localization of the TTP into Pakistan’s agrarian breadbasket, however, is more than just an accident of geography. The South Punjab belt is the established home of a lethal radical-extremist conglomerate that includes the Punjabi Taliban. And Pakistan’s militant hybridization is a two-way street: While the TTP is increasingly referencing the sectarian element in its agenda, South Punjab’s extremists are also becoming more militant in their articulation of the extremist idiom. Rahim Yar Khan, Rajanpur, Sadiqabad, and Bahawalpur house the banned echelons of the Sipah-e-Sahaba and Jaish-e-Mohammad right-wing militant Deobandi franchises. Along with Dera Ghazi Khan, these districts have seen a surge in violent extremism in recent years, backed by a growing push to rehabilitate the leadership’s public face, according to a Jinnah Institute Extremism Watch study.

In their bid to effectively manage conflict fallout, successive civilian administrations in Pakistan have certainly pushed hard, and often at personal expense, to reclaim an embattled public space. But with increasing ground now being ceded to militant interlocutors, it is questionable whether the articulation of a new counterterrorism policy is indicative of a new goalpost, or simply an expedient stop-gap measure. Growing political accommodation with sprawling terrorist networks in South and Central Punjab is matched by executive lethargy in the government’s negotiations with the TTP. As the leadership’s costly strategic shift elevates the Taliban to a higher level of legitimacy, terrorist ingress into Punjab’s extremist laboratory will be even harder to curtail.

Structural transformations, meanwhile, have also been taking place within terrorist franchises. The inclusion of the Punjabi Taliban commander Asmatullah Muawiyah in the TTP’s central shura, for instance, is telling of how the organization’s dynamics have transformed under Fazlullah’s leadership. Muawiyah, once considered a rival by former Taliban commander Hakimullah Mehsud, is the TTP’s passport to sanctuary in Punjab where Pushtun and Uzbek militants with passable Urdu language skills can benefit from target reconnaissance support and access to training sites. To add credence to this view, police investigations traced the terrorist bombing of an Islamabad fruit market back to fruit farms in Qibola, South Punjab this April. With the TTP on the operational retreat in the tribal areas, tactical alliances are likely to increase between them and their more established South Punjab cousins who comprise 40 percent of the country’s most-wanted criminals.

For the elected government, relinquishing control over the strategic land corridor linking South Waziristan to South Punjab could set a dangerous precedent. The narrow but contiguous strip comprising of Bannu, Dera Ismael Khan, Layyah and Dera Ghazi Khan (an approximate area of 1,07,000 square kilometres – thrice the size of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas) allows safe passage to militants and couriers.

The corridor also signals a graduation in guerrilla warfare for Pakistan’s militants. It offers inroads into Punjab’s teeming cities that have largely been forbidden fruit, while Khyber-Pakthunkwa has burned. Relatively untainted by IEDs, and completely untouched by drone strikes, this is where elections are made and won. Militants looking to turn Pakistan’s recent democratic project into a bonfire are banking on the weakness in the corridor.

The militant flood into Punjab is simultaneously compounded by an exodus of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from the frontier: as droves of FATA inhabitants empty into urban KP, Punjab, and Sindh, there is little check on the growth of militant nurseries, mushrooming along satellite towns in peri-urban Pakistan. In February, some 15,000 IDPs poured out of Waziristan after news of an impending military operation began to circulate.

The economics of South Punjab – low literacy, crushing poverty, and state neglect – match social indicators in eastern and central India’s poorest states where a Maoist insurgency has formed a Red Corridor and is bleeding the state dry. Socio-economically speaking, the environment here is enough to make the Taliban’s graduate recruitment program sell for another decade. A sparse urban population and a growing call for separate provincial status can offer the religious right greater sway with a Seraiki-speaking majority of agriculturalists.

It does not help, either, that less than a third of Punjab’s total police presence is deployed in the province’s southern belt, stunting the potential for counterterrorism crackdowns. Counterinsurgency will be just as hard: compared to Waziristan, South Punjab is home to five times as many people, with districts averaging 500 persons per square kilometre.

These demographics will forcibly increase the state’s reliance on surgical operations, and are likely to test the mettle of Punjab’s Counterterrorism Force, a function of the new National Internal Security Policy (NISP). The security blueprint has already called for an enhanced border control regime, but has not made reference to intra-provincial militant movement that is likely to be the next major challenge for planners and framers of Pakistan’s new security architecture, as well as border military police.

Importantly, Pakistan’s eastward militant diffusion stems as much from the International Security Assistance Force’s failings in eastern Afghanistan as it does from the beleaguered capacity of Islamabad’s anti-terror machinery. Recent reports detailing the penetration of militant organizations by foreign intelligence is also a cause for worry: as prime real estate for a new terrorist empire, land grab in South Punjab can further the transformation of sectarian agendas into new strategic capital for militants laid off from the post-2014 Afghan theatre.

With escape routes into Afghanistan finding little or no interdiction from Kabul, the borderland will continue to be unstable. Larger efforts to terror-proof Pakistan will thus continue to depend on regional externalities. But their success will also be determined by Islamabad’s ability to check, if not choke, militants’ inter-provincial migration to Central and South Punjab where an arguably deadlier cadre of extremists awaits with open arms. Any operational rollout in Waziristan today will thus have to be doubly cognizant of the extremist militant wave swelling across Punjab, and be complemented by vigilant patrolling along the banks of the Indus. For as long as the DI-Khan-Layyah-DG Khan intersection remains a political, strategic and intelligence blind spot, classic drain-the-swamp approaches in Miranshah and Wana will be futile.

Fahd Humayun is a Project Manager for Jinnah Institute’s Strategic Security Initiative. Follow him on Twitter: @fahdhumayun

A version of this was published in Foreign Policy on 7 May 2014.