In 1971, Bengali nationalists, intellectuals, trade unionists, and other political actors were subjected to a military operation that, for all its brutality, was unable to prevent Bangladesh’s inexorable march towards independence. Between 1973 and 1977, a similar operation was conducted against Baloch nationalists, resulting in thousands of deaths. In 1983, the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) was also met with the full force of the state, as the military intervened in Sindh to crush a pro-democracy uprising. In the early 1990s, the military was once again employed to deal with internal political problems, spearheading a series of operations in Karachi aimed at neutralizing the MQM. Over the course of the past decade, repeated military interventions in different parts of KP have resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of peoples.

Each one of the cases listed above does not represent the first instance of the state using force to enforce its writ and to ensure acquiescence to the established status quo; rather, they are simply the most notorious instances within a continuum of violence that has seen the state repeatedly unleash its repressive and coercive apparatuses against its political opponents. Indeed, Bengali activists had been targets of state violence since the early 1950s, and force was first employed in Balochistan as early as 1959 as part of a counter-insurgency operation that came to an end when Nowroz Khan and his sons were hanged for treason despite first being guaranteed safe passage in exchange for laying down their arms. Even today not much has changed, as is evinced by the ongoing insurgency in Balochistan, and the ample evidence of resistance and opposition to the state in Sindh and KP.

All of the different military operations across Pakistan have been justified in the name of eliminating ‘anti-state’ actors, and have invariably cost a lot in terms of blood and treasure. Thousands of innocent civilians have died as a result of these interventions, and thousands more have had their lives ruined at the hands of shadowy agencies making use of the slightest pretext to imprison anyone perceived to be a threat.

One thing that becomes immediately evident when examining this history of violence is that Punjab has never been targeted in this fashion. While the state has rained bombs and bullets down upon every other province in the country, Punjab has remained insulated from such threats. This does not mean that political activists and workers in Punjab have never had to face the strength of the state; the tragic and completely avoidable police firing that left several PAT workers dead in Lahore’s Model Town earlier this week illustrates this fact, as does the state’s historic use of violence against trade unions, worker’s parties, and progressive organizations like the Anjuman Muzareen Punjab. The difference lies in the use of military force, ubiquitous in KP, Balochistan, and Sindh, but conspicuous by its absence in Punjab.

As the military finally launches its much anticipated operation against the TTP in North Waziristan, there are several questions that need to be asked. Amidst the jingoistic fervor that silences all dissent and criticism of the military’s actions, it is important to know what differentiates this operation from the others that have taken place in this region since 2007. First and foremost is the question of civilian casualties and displacement; as the war is cheered on across Punjab, it is important to remember that there is a very real human cost to this operation. Independent of the merits or demerits of the course of action being pursued by the military, consideration must be given to the way in which the government is dealing within the fallout from the conflict. In the absence of any effective means through which to independently verify the costs being borne by the civilians caught in the crossfire, it is all the more important to pay attention to this question.

In the past, much has been made of the military’s strategy of differentiating between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban, with former being the militant proxies who could be relied upon to carry out the military establishment’s agenda in Afghanistan, and the latter being the renegades who have chosen to target Pakistan itself. As the narrative around Operation Zarb-e-Azb takes shape, one of the dominant tropes that has emerged is the notion that there has been a shift in the military’s thinking, and that it no longer seeks to reach any kind of accommodation with Islamist militants within Pakistan. While this would be a welcome shift in the military establishment’s strategic calculations, there is again no way to verify these claims.

The problem is compounded by the reality of the situation in Punjab. It should be self-evident that simply bombing North Waziristan will not solve Pakistan’s problem with militancy and terror. In order to truly address the root cause of the problem, urgent action will have to be taken not only against all militant Islamist groups, but also against the broader ideological and physical infrastructure that supports their continued existence. What this, in turn, would entail is a serious examination of the role that continues to be played by training camps and madrassahs in Punjab, as well as sectarian and militant organizations that continue to flourish throughout the province. Even as fighter jets pound targets in North Waziristan, individuals associated with ‘banned’ organizations in Punjab continue to move around with impunity, even going so far as to contest elections and address mass rallies throughout the province.

The reluctance to act against religious extremism and militancy in Punjab can potentially be attributed to a number of different factors; the reluctance of a Punjabi military and political elite to authorize an operation within their own province, the continued reliance of the military establishment on militant proxies to be deployed against India, and the fear experienced by politicians unwilling to antagonize forces that could react violently against them. Nonetheless, it is clear that a refusal to take action in Punjab will render meaningless attempts to combat militancy and terrorism elsewhere in Pakistan. At the same time, the state’s continued willingness to use violence everywhere except in its own heartland will only fuel the disenchantment that has historically characterized Centre-Province relations in Pakistan. Until the state overcomes its reluctance to move against ‘anti-state’ actors in Punjab, and unless it is willing to question the strategic mindset that abets the continued existence of such individuals and organizations in the province, Pakistan’s problems with extremism are unlikely to disappear.

n    The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.