ISLAMABAD (AP) -- Two Pakistani research groups have noted that the country saw a significant drop in militant violence last year, crediting the military for the decrease in attacks.
The two Islamabad-based groups say that large-scale military operations in the lawless tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, in the chaotic port city of Karachi and the sparsely populated Baluchistan province are behind the drop. But for the trend to continue, they say, authorities need to disband sectarian and anti-Indian extremists based in the populous Punjab province.
The findings, which are based on the groups' records, were released last week and on Sunday.
One of the groups, the Center for Research and Security Studies, said there was a 45 percent drop in violence-related deaths in 2016, compared to the previous year. The Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, which tallies violent incidents, registered a 28 percent drop in attacks in 2016, compared to 2015.
Still, both organizations tempered the findings by warning that the trend could be halted unless militant groups are disbanded and called for improving relations with neighboring India and Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif echoed some of those sentiments last week, when he told a writers' conference that Pakistan needs to create an effective narrative that promotes tolerance.
"We are forgetting how to speak of mutual love, integrity, compassion and empathy," he said. His government introduced legislation in 2016 outlawing hate speech and denying clerics from rival Islamic sects the right to use their loudspeakers at their mosques.
However, Sharif's government has not succeeded in disbanding outlawed sectarian groups that re-emerge later under a different name.
Also, lawmakers from his own Pakistan Muslim League have been seen on campaign platforms with members of the outlawed Sunni extremist group Sipah-e-Sahabah, which has links to the banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, another violent Sunni extremist group that has been blamed for several attacks last year, particularly in southwestern Baluchistan.
"A government that is going into an election next year doesn't want to lose votes," said Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the Center for Research and Security Studies, which authored one of the reports. "The banned outfits have madrassas that still operate, they have sympathies and influence."
A mostly Sunni Muslim country, Pakistan has for years been convulsed by brutal sectarian violence that has killed thousands. Most of the victims have been minority Shiite Muslims.
Asadullah Khan, an analyst with Pakistan's Institute of Strategic Studies says that "it isn't enough to ban" militant groups, which then surface under a new name.
"We have to get rid of them altogether," Khan said.
Prominent on the militant landscape dotting Pakistan are also the Afghan Taliban, Pakistan's own Taliban group and its splinters, as well as the feared Haqqani network. Then there are several anti-Indian groups, labelled terrorists by the United States and India --- such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was banned but remerged as Jamaat-ud-Daawa and Jaish-e-Mohammed.
Pakistan has fought three wars with archrival India, most often over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.
Pakistan's reluctance to abandon militant groups altogether is inextricably linked to its perceived security concerns, said Marvin Weinbaum of the Middle East Institute in Washington
"They remain viewed as valued proxies in a Pakistani strategic security calculus focused on Kashmir and the perceived threats posed by an India-aligned Afghanistan," said Weinbaum.
Kabul and Washington regularly demand Pakistan put an end to cross-border incursion by Afghan militants, though the 2,400 kilometer- (1,500 mile-) boundary is in itself is a source of dispute between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Islamabad says that Kabul has shunned repeated Pakistani attempts to resolve the border issue.