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Attack On Pakistani Army Spotlights Punjab Province

In Pakistan over the weekend, extremists staged a bold attack on army headquarters right in the heart of the country. By the time the siege ended, at least 23 people had died. Now Pakistan is left wondering: Just how vulnerable is its most populous province?

Pakistani troops take up positions at army headquarters during an encounter with militants Sunday in Rawalpindi. Pakistani troops stormed army headquarters to end a day-long hostage drama, freeing 39 people held by militants who brazenly struck at the heart of the country's military establishment.
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Above: Pakistani troops take up positions at army headquarters during an encounter with militants Sunday in Rawalpindi. Pakistani troops stormed army headquarters to end a day-long hostage drama, freeing 39 people held by militants who brazenly struck at the heart of the country's military establishment.

Emerging from the drama is the importance that Punjab province plays in the Taliban militancy. Mired in poverty, Southern Punjab has become "an important area for recruitment, training and logistical support" for insurgents, according to defense analyst Ayesha Siddiqa.

She says the logic behind the insurgency in the wild Afghan border region — where people's grievances are related to the war across the border — is different from the Punjab, where indoctrination could be more dangerous.

"In one way, it's much more intense because at one level it's purely ideological," she says. "When I say ideological, it means their reasons have greater religious connotations."

The sole surviving attacker and alleged ringleader of the assault on army headquarters is Aqeel, aka "Dr. Usman." He's a Punjabi whom authorities say also led the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore earlier this year.

Aqeel is believed to be affiliated with the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an organization that Imtiaz Gul of the Center for Research and Security Studies says has been instrumental in providing foot soldiers and carrying out attacks conceived by al-Qaida.

"They are very radical, rabidly anti-Shia, anti-America, very close to the Taliban, followers of Osama bin Laden," Gul says. "So they have all the elements of what would qualify them as rabidly anti-Western, anti-Shia outfit."

Siddiqa says militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi are "comfortably ensconced" in Punjab. Despite the mounting evidence that the sprawling province, which is home to the capital Islamabad, is hosting terrorist cells, Siddiqa says many in Pakistan refuse to acknowledge the threat.

"It's very real, and the sad part is that — less so on the political level but more so at the level of the military — there is a state of denial about existence of militancy in Punjab," she says.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared to downplay the unsettling events in U.S.-allied Pakistan over the weekend. She said the United States sees "no evidence" extremists are "going to take over the Pakistani state." Nor is there a risk, she said, of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal falling into terrorist hands.

Gul says the fact that Taliban militants were able to meticulously plan and execute an attack on the doorstep of the country's most powerful military institution is deeply "worrying." But, he adds, even if the authorities were forewarned, which they reportedly were, it wouldn't make much difference.

"The terrorists choose the timing and the venue and the date of their own liking," he says. "Security agencies, even if they get enough warning, can't prevent people who are ready to kill and who are ready to die."

The daylight attack on one of the most secure installations in Pakistan suggests a need for greater intelligence and security. Retired Col. Inam Wazir, however, insists that Pakistan lacks sophisticated technology and basic equipment that it needs to crush the insurgency.

"The force is there, the capability is there — the only thing is the bullet which is to be fired, that bullet is just a shell," Wazir says. "There is no bullet ... so definitely if the money is not there, there'll be no bullet."

And in the aftermath of the attack, commentary has focused not on the country's overall vulnerability, but rather on Pakistani pride in the way the army brought the surprise siege to an end.

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