On 16 February this year, just two days after Valentine's Day, a suicide bomber exploded himself inside the shrine of Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, killing at least 88 people and injuring more than 200 in rural Sindh province. This was not the first such incident: in the last few years, many shrines of the moderate and tolerant Sufi sect in Pakistan have been targeted by jihadists. The growing tide of extremism, suicide bombings and lack of tolerance for minorities and even moderate Muslims reflects the collective failure of State institutions, from the security forces to the infrastructures led by federal and provincial governments. Those Pakistanis who are claiming these bombings are a result of the retirement of former army chief General Raheel Sharif are either delusional or innocent as the problem of religious extremism in Pakistan runs much deeper. Any effort to oversimplify the issue will only aggravate the problem.
Since 2016, Pakistan has faced many terrorist attacks, mostly carried out by Islamic State (ISIS) or Jamat-ul-Ahrar, a Taliban splinter group. In December 2014, at the time of the Peshawar school attack, the Pakistan military operation "Zarb-e-Azb" was in operation, but it spared the sectarian groups in Punjab, the Haqqani Network in the tribal area and jihadis in Karachi. Who then was the target of this operation? Zarb-e-Arb, which started out with overwhelming public support, turned out to be a tool against secular political forces in small provinces, while Punjab—which has been the nursery of jihadi organisations—was kept free.
The counter-terrorism operation Zarb-e-Arb turned out to be a tool against secular political forces...
The former military establishment enforced its policy of controlling political grounds by enlisting jihadists. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a sectarian organisation that has been involved in killing Shiite Muslims, was involved in many attacks carried out in Baluchistan. Yet an activist of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ), an offshoot of LeJ, won the Punjab provincial seat in by-elections.
The so called "Kashmir jihad" has been outsourced to the Lashkar-e-Taiba and its parent organisation Jamat-ud-Dawa, and Jaish-e-Mohammad; they all are connected to the well sourced madrassas (religious schools) in Karachi, from where they raise funds and groom militants. Despite an intense operation led by the paramilitary forces in Karachi, the madrassas linked to Jihadi groups are still running smoothly. The real victim of the operation was the secular political party, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). Its political and organisational structure has been mercilessly targeted by paramilitary Rangers. Its leadership is either in jail or in exile; its workers are either in prison, missing since arrest or living in hiding to avoid arrest; the party's headquarters along with over 150 regional offices throughout Pakistan have been sealed without any legal justification. Even the party's acting leader in Pakistan, Dr. Hassan Zafar Arif, a Harvard-educated PhD scholar, is in prison without any reason.
Dr. Hassan Zafar Arif in shackles
The province of Sindh has been divided into "urban" and "rural", but ethnic identity is as much in play. The "urban" class mostly comprises the descendants of migrants from India after the 1947 partition, who played important role in developing the urban areas of Sindh due to their education and experience. The rural populaces are mostly Sindhis, the voters of the famous Bhutto family, and the area lacks public facilities and has deteriorated infrastructure. Sehwan, where the bombing happened, is some 200km northeast of Karachi. Emergency services in Sehwan local hospital are undeveloped, with the nearest big hospital some 130km away. Some Pakistani social media activists who support the Pakistan Army have been criticizing the provincial government for its bad governance, saying that victims couldn't get the proper medical facilities. On the other hand, Bhutto's political activists were criticising the failure of security measures. What they don't want to bring notice to is the bad governance of the Bhutto family, which has been ruling Sindh province since the 1970s; the party has remained in total control of the province's financial and political resources for the last few decades, yet rural Sindh is still miserably poor and under-developed, lacking even basic civic infrastructure.
One of the biggest counter-terrorism operations by the military was launched in 2004 in South Waziristan by former President and Army Chief Pervez Musharraf. Before that, he banned Lashkar-e-Taiba, Azhar Masood of Jaish-e-Mohammad and took many activists into custody. In 2009, Pakistan launched another ground operation against the Taliban in Waziristan which also lasted for more than five months. In June 2014, the Pakistan Army launched another internationally publicised operation Zarb e-Azb, which lasted for more than two years. Yet, despite claims about its successes, the Army Public School in Peshawar was attacked during Zarb-e-Azb, resulting in the deaths of well over a hundred students. Several other terror incidents also highlight the failure of Zarb-e-Azb and previous operations by the military and civil leadership.
Pakistan needs to mete out equal treatment to all terrorists, whether home-grown or international, by shutting down their funding, safe havens and hate-spewing religious seminaries.
The years-long operation, that has produced no tangible result, shows that Pakistan is facing a tug of war for power between the civil and military leadership. The former Army chief kept the country's foreign and economic policy in the military's hand while crushing political forces through operations which were supposed to be targeting extremists. The religious elements were freely spreading the establishment's anti-India and anti-America agenda among the public, while the civil leadership's position was squeezed through its own Interior Minister Nisar, who enjoys a good rapport with militant leaders like Masood Azhar and Hafiz Saeed.
Pakistan's security situation is clearly in a mess. To come out of this, Pakistan needs to radically overhaul its policy on terrorism. It needs to mete out equal treatment to all terrorists, whether home-grown or international, by shutting down their funding, safe havens and hate-spewing religious seminaries. At the same time, democratic powers need to strengthen each other by providing equal ground to all the political parties so militants find no space in society. Instead of banning Valentine's Day or Basant celebrations, Pakistan needs to abolish its jihadist nurseries.