A group of criminals based in Rajanpur has killed six and seized 15 policemen in the course of an operation to take down the group. The gang outgunned and outfought the police, deploying mortars and Soviet-era heavy anti-aircraft guns. They had constructed a defensive trench system and were well prepared to repel any assault short of a full-scale military operation backed by airpower. The police have requested airpower and two helipads are reportedly constructed, but the use of air assets is a new departure for the police. Drones have been deployed, presumably for reconnaissance, but it is clear that rooting this group of criminals out is going to be no small undertaking. The gang is now seeking to negotiate the release of some of its own members in exchange for the police they are holding.
Thus far, there has been no suggestion that this particular operation is anything but targeted against criminals and not terrorists with an ideological agenda. As such, it is an indicator of just how deeply embedded in local culture this group is. That has not happened overnight. Such dominance takes years to achieve and the ability to operate with impunity is founded on years of corruption within the law-and-order agencies. The Chhotu group was allowed to become inappropriately powerful because their criminal activities were of direct benefit to a wider circle. It is no great stretch of the imagination to see how terrorist and extremist groups are able to take hold once they have the support and compliance of those agencies, which are nominally tasked to defeat them. South Punjab is home not only to banned and extremist elements but also a powerful criminal subculture. It is not unreasonable to assume a nexus between criminality and terrorism, an overlap of mutual interests. Terrorists and criminals attain ‘local hero’ status and by extension, the protection of the communities that host them. Breaking the connection is going to be difficult, but broken it must be. And if a few political noses get bloodied in the process, well, so be it.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 15th, 2016.
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