Islamabad: Militants in Pakistan`s most populous province are said to be training for what they expect will be an ethnic-based civil war in neighbouring Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw in 16 months.
In the past two years, the number of Punjab-based militants deploying to regions bordering on Afghanistan has tripled and is now believed to be in the thousands, says analyst Mansur Mehsud.
He runs the FATA Institute, an Islamabad-based think tank studying the mix of militant groups that operate in Pakistan`s tribal belt running along much of the 2,600-kilometre Afghan-Pakistan border.
Mehsud, himself from South Waziristan where militants also hide out, says more than 150 militant groups operate in the tribal regions, mostly in mountainous, heavily forested North Waziristan. Pocked with hideouts, it is there that Al Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri is believed to be hiding and where Afghanistan says many of its enemies have found sanctuary.
While militants from Punjab province have long sought refuge and training in the tribal regions, they were fewer in number and confined their hostility to Pakistan`s neighbour and foe, India.
All that is changing, say analysts.
"Before, they were keeping a low profile. But just in the last two or three years hundreds have been coming from Punjab," said Mehsud. "Everyone knows that when NATO and the American troops leave Afghanistan there will be fighting between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns."
And the Punjabis in all likelihood will side with their fellow Pashtuns, who make up the backbone of the Afghan Taliban.
"We will go to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban as we have done in the past," said a senior member of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a militant Sunni Muslim group, who goes by a nom du guerre, Ahmed Zia Siddiqui.
In an interview with The Associated Press in Pakistan, he said the Taliban haven`t yet requested help, but when asked whether Punjab-based militants were preparing for war in Afghanistan after the foreign withdrawal, he replied: "Absolutely."