Does The Lahore Blast Dull Pakistan's Counter-Terror Claims?

04/04/2016 8:22 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
ARIF ALI via Getty Images
TOPSHOT - Pakistani Christians hold candles as they stage a rally in Lahore on March 29, 2016, to pay tribute for the victims of a suicide bomb blast. Taliban militants who killed more than 70 people, many of them children, in a brutal Easter bombing mocked Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on March 29 with a taunting tweet that declared war had 'reached his doorstep'. / AFP / ARIF ALI (Photo credit should read ARIF ALI/AFP/Getty Images)

Every society gets the monsters it deserves, or so believes Bilal Benyaich, senior fellow at the Itinera Institute in Brussels. His pithy comment followed the triple suicide bombings in Belgium's capital on March 22. Benyaich argued his country had this coming by ghettoizing Muslim immigrants for decades and letting Brussels suburbs like Molenbeek and Schaerbeek turn into jihadist nurseries. He may well have been talking about Pakistan.

Lahore bleeds, again

On March 27, Easter Sunday, a lone suicide bomber evaded lax security at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in Lahore to detonate by its amusement rides, leaving over 70 dead and at least 300 injured. A third of the fatalities were children.

Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), a Pakistani Taliban faction, claimed responsibility for the attack and its spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan declared "The target was Christians." Demographics of the dead belied his claims though the park was full of picnicking Christian families celebrating Easter.

This was the bloodiest militant strike in Lahore since December 2009, when nearly 100 people perished after twin explosions tore through the city's Moon Market. It was also Pakistan's worst incident of terrorism since the Army Public School (APS) massacre of 134 school children in December 2014.

The Qadri connection

Mumtaz Qadri, now patron saint of the rabid right, continues to polarize Pakistan even in death. Islamabad foresaw some religious blowback after executing the security guard-turned-assassin of former Punjab governor Salman Taseer on February 29, but its scale snowballed beyond expectations.

In early March, a JuA suicide bomber struck Charsadda's district courts killing 17, ostensibly to avenge Qadri's hanging. Coincidentally, the same day as the Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park blast, thousands of Qadri supporters steered by leaders from the Sunni Tehreek forced their way into Pakistan's capital, vandalized state property and laid siege to D-Chowk, a traffic junction abutting the city's fortified Red Zone.

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These "Prophet-loving patriots" had an entire charter of demands for Islamabad. Some were oft-heard ones like the imposition of Sharia law and shelving all attempts to amend the blasphemy-centric Section 295-C of the penal code. Others were more exotic fare like banishing all Ahmadis from Pakistan and officially declaring Qadri to be a 'Shaheed' (martyr).

A key demand herein was the speedy execution of Aasia Bibi, the Christian woman accused of blasphemy that Taseer died to protect. Concurrently, Qadri partisans in Karachi attacked the local press club and beat up media personnel for obeying a state-ordered ban on news stories relating to the assassin.

They subsequently camped out at Numaish Chowrangi traffic circle in the heart of Karachi to continue their protest and waylay commuters. Both sit-ins petered out on day four after local police freed activists in custody and amid rumors of a deal that Interior Minister Ch.Nisar Ali zealously denies.

Pakistan's headless chicken

Islamabad's standard response to suicide bombings since the army ratcheted up counter-terror ops last year orbits the "headless chicken theory." Meaning, like the said fowl, the Pakistani Taliban movement is literally on its last legs. State officials assure ordinary Pakistanis that suicide bombings like Lahore are a sign of desperation.

The Gulshan-e-Iqbal park blast, however, carried significant political consequences for Nawaz Sharif's government as it tipped the power scales back in GHQ's favor. Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif immediately ordered military and paramilitary cadres to begin a thorough sweeping operation in Punjab to flush out terrorists without consulting his constitutional boss.

Islamabad had long resisted a Karachi-style operation in Punjab to avoid an electoral backlash in the ruling party's power-base, despite provincial law minister Rana Sanaullah confirming the presence of Islamic State (IS) militants and training camps last December.

Premier Sharif then delivered a sleepy televised speech on March 28 rife with policy cliches on terrorism and subtle condemnation of the Qadri protests, while completely sidestepping the army's counter-terror raids in Punjab. This approach, the local daily Dawn reported, clearly proved "civil-military differences over the operation."

Flirting with secularism

Nawaz Sharif's politics historically lean right-of-the-center since mentor Gen. Zia-ul-Haq groomed him as the conservative counter to Benazir Bhutto's left-wing populism. Sharif himself aspired to become Amir-ul-Momineen (leader of Muslims) in 1998 along with imposing Sharia law across the land.

Sharif seems to have undergone a liberal reawakening.

In his third term as premier, however, Sharif seems to have undergone a liberal reawakening. He stupefied the religious right by blessing Punjab's Protection of Women Against Violence Act, a bill fast-tracked through the provincial assembly by PML-N lawmakers in February. The ensuing uproar by clerics would have cowered the old Sharif, but the reborn progressive simply ignored them.

Sharif also became Pakistan's first sitting premier to attend a Diwali festival in November where he waxed lyrical about communal harmony. This emboldened Sindh's government to announce a provincial public holiday marking Holi this year without fear of ruling party retribution. Besides unbanning YouTube in Pakistan and sending Qadri to the gallows, PML-N leaders also push to criminalize child marriages by raising the minimum age to 18.

Cynics nevertheless dismiss the secular Sharif as political theater, a smokescreen designed to deflect focus from Pakistan's economic woes and accusations of corruption dogging his family. More optimistic commentators posit Sharif is a hard-nosed entrepreneur who knows Pakistan needs an image makeover to attract foreign investment in numbers that can fuel his ambitious mega projects. Moreover, analysts believe Sharif' daughter and heir apparent Maryam Nawaz drives his party's women empowerment programs.

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Bhutto the Islamist

Gen. Zia gets bad press for Islamizing Pakistan and sowing the seeds of militant jihadism, but that is only partially true. In reality, it was his uber-liberal predecessor Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who concretized the clergy's role in state affairs. Though Pakistan declared itself an Islamic republic in 1956, there were few attempts to expand Islam's influence in lawmaking over the next decade.

[I]t was Bhutto's landmark 1973 constitution that spawned the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), Pakistan's de facto moral brigade tasked with Islamizing its laws.

Bhutto changed all that when he took office and for the wrong reasons. Whereas Zia, misguided as he was, truly imagined himself a pious Muslim doing God's work, political gain fueled Bhutto's actions. The loss of East Pakistan in 1971, partly blamed on his intransigence after the previous year's election, forced Bhutto to bargain with a resurgent religious right that fed off public anger at both his and the Awami League's secular politics.

Indeed it was Bhutto's landmark 1973 constitution that spawned the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), Pakistan's de facto moral brigade tasked with Islamizing its laws. In September 1974, he also proclaimed the Ahmadis as non-Muslims to Mullah high-fives nationwide. Furthermore, the man who once roared "Yes I do drink wine, but at least I don't drink the peoples blood!" with pride at rallies banned alcohol and nightclubs three years later.

Miracle Militants

A new Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) report notes that anti-state violence dipped below 2008 levels for the first time last year. This confirms Operation Zarb-e-Azb's success as a broad-range antibiotic but local law enforcement is still woefully under-resourced and far too politicized to effectively tackle militancy in urban areas. Islamabad's failure to kickstart the National Counter-Terrorism Authority (NACTA) has also drawn criticism from GHQ.

Pakistan's power-that-be now realize they dithered a decade too long in calling all Taliban the state's enemy.

Besides, Pakistan's power-that-be now realize they dithered a decade too long in calling all Taliban the state's enemy. This extended grace period allowed a garden-variety headless chicken to morph into Miracle Mike, the decapitated rooster that refused to die for 18 months. Ditto the Pakistani Taliban, who don't look like keeling over anytime soon.

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