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ISLAMABAD – Tackling extremism is a political minefield in Pakistan, where politicians openly consort with leaders of banned militant groups and sympathy exists within the security forces and civil administration for perpetrators of crimes committed in the name of religion. As a result, many remain skeptical of the state's ability to put an end to the militant violence that kills hundreds of Pakistani civilians each year.
A suicide bombing in a park in Lahore that killed 72 people, many of them Christians celebrating Easter Sunday, brought renewed international attention to Pakistan's extremism problem. In the aftermath, security forces arrested hundreds of suspected militants.
At the same time, however, demonstrators calling for the implementation of Islamic law and expressing their support for the man who murdered an anti-blasphemy campaigner were allowed to congregate freely in the capital. On social media, pictures circulated showing senior members of Pakistan's elite police forces praying at the grave of Mumtaz Qadri, the policeman charged with killing the secular, left-leaning politician Salman Tanseer because he defended a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. When Qadri was hanged for the murder in February, tens of thousands of Pakistanis rallied in his support.
The sincerity of authorities' efforts to tackle extremism was further called into question when Rana Sanaullah, the law minister for Punjab province — of which Lahore is the capital — issued statements denying that militant groups operated in the area.
Yet outlawed and violent Sunni Muslim militant groups are widely known to be headquartered in Punjab province, though many hide behind different names, according to Zahid Hussein, an expert on militancy in Pakistan.
Among them is Jaish-e-Mohammed, which operates under several banners according to Hussein, and has been implicated in a number of bombings. Its leader, Masood Azhar, was freed from an Indian jail — where he was being held for attacks in Indian-controlled Kashmir — in exchange for the release of passengers aboard the 1999 hijacked Indian Airlines plane.
The U.S.-declared terrorist group Lashkar e-Taiba also operates in the province, under the name Jamaat-ud Dawah. It was banned in Pakistan in 2015, but its leader Hafiz Saeed travels freely around the country and gives speeches inciting people to attack western and Indian interests. Punjab is also the headquarters of Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP), whose military arm is responsible for scores of attacks on Pakistan's minority Shiite Muslims, according to Hussein.
Law Minister Sanaullah might be expected to know that SSP operates in Punjab. He openly campaigned with the SSP leader during provincial elections, although the group is officially outlawed.
Pakistan is regularly witness to deadly militant attacks — on schools and universities, buses, parks, churches, temples and Imam Bargahs, Shiite places of worship. According to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 4,612 people were killed in bombings and other violence in the country in 2015.
Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, the group that claimed responsibility for the Easter Sunday bombing, has roots in the tribal region and has declared its sympathy with the Islamic State group. According to Michael Kugelman, Senior Associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, it shares many views in common with the scores of other militant groups operating in Pakistan.
"If there is one thing that can be said about all Pakistan-based terror groups, it is that they are all cut from the same cloth," Kugelman wrote in an email to The Associated Press. "They all share the same violent extremist views, and many of them retain strong links to al-Qaida. And though they focus on different targets — some target Pakistan, others India, others Afghanistan — there are many examples of operational collaborations across the board. In effect, the terrorist landscape in Punjab — and beyond — is essentially one large, overlapping network."
Thousands of Pakistani soldiers have been killed or wounded in battles against militants in the tribal regions, which border Afghanistan in the northwest of the country. Yet the Pakistani military has historical links to militant groups — raising further doubts abroad about whether the security services are up to the job.
It was the military that spawned the likes of Lashkar-e-Taiba, offering it financial, organizational and operational assistance. Others like Harakat-ul-Jihad, whose fighters attack Indian targets inside the disputed Kashmir region, are known to have links with Pakistan's Intelligence Agency (known by its acronym, the ISI).
Pakistan's military rulers have also often aligned themselves with the country's extremist groups. In the 70s and 80s, military autocrat Zia-ul Haq used extremist groups to push his agenda of restricted liberties and more Islamic laws. More recently, U.S.-backed Gen. Pervez Musharraf positioned himself a bulwark against extremism while patronizing groups when it suited him, striking deals with them to keep him in power.
"In reality, the fundamental cause of mayhem on Pakistani streets is not a malicious foreign power or inept civilians, but blowback from the military's own long history of using jihad as an instrument of national security," Aqil Shah wrote last month in the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations publication, Foreign Affairs.
The military's spokesman and three star general, Asim Bajwa, strongly refuted the suggestion.
He did not acknowledge the military's past links to militant groups, but said in an interview that today the army has a "zero tolerance" policy toward extremists. "It is a different time," Bajwa said.
"Our operations (against militants) are indiscriminate," he said. "It is not possible to differentiate from the air and from the ground. You just go in. We are determined to eliminate the menace of terrorism."
The army led the offensive in Punjab following the Easter Sunday attack, carrying out raids throughout the province, sometimes in joint operations with police and paramilitary rangers. Bajwa says that 20,000 militants were rounded up in one week. The majority were subsequently released.
Despite the Lahore bombings, there are modest signs of progress. In its 2015 report, the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said violent attacks by militants halved between 2014 and 2015.
"Pakistani army operations in North Waziristan have killed many terrorists and destroyed their networks, but many more terrorists remain," said Kugelman of the Woodrow Wilson Center. "So long as Pakistani society continues to provide a fertile environment for extremist thought, and so long as the Pakistani state does not counter such dangerous ideologies, then more terrorists, nurtured and fueled by these hateful narratives, will keep regenerating."
Pakistan's military spokesman Gen. Bajwa insisted, however, that the military is determined to eliminate extremism. "We want to progress. We want to move ahead," he said. "And we want the world to stand with us."