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Lahore Blast Exposes The Dangerous Fissures In Pakistan's Terror Policy

30/03/2016 8:45 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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ARIF ALI via Getty Images
Pakistani Christians mourn the death of a blast victim of the March 27 suicide bombing, in Lahore on March 28, 2016. Pakistan's army launched raids and arrested suspects after a Taliban suicide bomber targeting Christians over Easter killed 72 people including many children in a park crowded with families. / AFP / ARIF ALI (Photo credit should read ARIF ALI/AFP/Getty Images)

Gulshan-i-Iqbal Park was busier than usual on 27 March, Easter Sunday, with many Christian families enjoying an outing after church services. Then suddenly there was a loud explosion and in a matter of moments, the excited shouts of children turned to screams. At least 70 people--mostly women and children--were killed in the suicide blast that ripped through the crowded park. It also wounded more than 300 people, officials said.

A breakaway group of the Pakistani Taliban, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, later claimed responsibility for the attack and said that it was aimed at Christians. After several high-level meetings in the Prime Minister's House and Army headquarters, the authorities announced that they would launch an operation in Punjab against those who were behind the atrocity.

When the current Chief, Raheel Sharif, took over the command of Army headquarters, the policy again shifted towards the traditional concept of external elements creating instability within.

Jamaat-ul-Ahrar has claimed responsibility for several strikes against Pakistan since 2014. These attacks include a suicide bombing at the Wahgah border near Lahore and two bombings on two different Lahore churches during Sunday services. After the attack of 27 March, the spokesperson of Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, Ehsanullah Ehsan issued a chilling statement, "We want to send this message to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that we have entered in Lahore... [He] can do what he wants but he won't be able to stop us. Our suicide bombers will continue these attacks."

After the 2014 Army Public School attack in Peshawar, which claimed the lives of more than 130 children, the Pakistani military and civilian leadership drafted a policy against terrorism known as the National Action Plan (NAP). The NAP called for action against terrorists--including their abettors, sympathizers and financiers--throughout Pakistan. However, Punjab (where Lahore is located) remained untouched due to the political expediency of Nawaz Sharif's ruling political party, whose vote bank is said to comprise majority religious forces based in the province. Therefore, they turned the NAP towards Sindh, the southern province of Pakistan, which is currently ruled by the two major secular political forces of Pakistan.

Today, the people who are blowing themselves up and killing innocent citizens are not foreigners but fellow Pakistanis.

The counter-terrorism policy in Pakistan changes whenever the command of the military changes. During the Musharraf era, the policy of 'good Taliban and bad Taliban' was followed, which continued during when Kayani was at the helm of affairs. But by the end of his six years' tenure as Chief of Army Staff it was realized that Pakistan's security threat is more internal than external. According to General Kayani, "the biggest threats are religious intolerance, political turmoil and anarchy... " When the current Chief, Raheel Sharif, took over the command of Army headquarters, the policy again shifted towards the traditional conception of external elements creating instability within. The genuine political dissent in Sindh and Baluchistan were labelled as something being supported from the 'outside'.

It is worth noting that the Sindh Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the second largest political force, which represents the urban part of Sindh, has been vocal against extremist elements and their financiers since Musharraf era, and their policy remains consistent. However, given the shifting nature of the military's policies, they have not received steady support from the establishment. While former chiefs Musharraf and Kayani considered the MQM as political partners in the war against religious extremism and enjoyed their support from Urban Sindh, the current chief has a completely different stance.

Pakistan's establishment--both the military and civilian leaderships--has to realize that an effective counter-terrorism policy follows an institutionalized approach rather than a personalized one.

Since 2001, the Pakistan Army has lost brave young officers and soldiers in the war against extremism. But people in the power centres must surely realize that the real problem in Pakistan started with the participation in the Afghan jihad, when the state policy openly allowed religious seminaries to work within all provinces and recruit citizens to join their cause. Today, the people who are blowing themselves up and killing innocent citizens are not foreigners but fellow Pakistanis. For last 16 years, Pakistan has been indulging the same people, who operate under different names after each notification to ban them comes from the Interior Ministry. According to former Ambassador to US, Husain Haqqani:

"The fact of the matter is that the Pakistani military and the Pakistani civilian leadership easily gets distracted by delusions of fighting India and influence in Afghanistan and allowing certain jihadi groups to pursue those objectives, not realizing that they can end up having offshoots, just like the Pakistani Taliban came out of the Afghan Taliban. The Pakistani component of the Afghan Taliban ended up becoming a separate group."

Pakistan can no longer afford to entertain religious groups who act like private militias and operate with impunity. At this moment, Pakistan's capital, Islamabad is under siege by religious fanatics demanding Sharia laws and the exile of the Ahmadi minority. Pakistan's establishment--both the military and civilian leaderships--has to realize that an effective counter-terrorism policy follows an institutionalized approach rather than a personalized one. The right wing political forces should also sever ties with organizations which are involved in sectarian hate speeches and violence, even if it comes at the cost of their vote bank.

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