The senseless, reprehensible terrorist attack on those gathered at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in Lahore on last Sunday underscores the enormity of the challenge that militancy and extremist ideologies pose to the state of Pakistan. The attack claimed the lives of over 70, many of whom were children and women, and injured over 230. The Jamaat ul-Ahrar, a splinter group of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the attack and in a statement released shortly thereafter, explained that the attack had been planned to coincide with Easter.
Addressing his countrymen after the attack, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif vowed to “fight the menace of terrorism till it is rooted out” and issued a warning to terror groups to not mistake “the government’s leniency…for [the] state’s weakness.”
In June 2014, Pakistan, under the stewardship of its army chief Raheel Sharif, embarked on a counterterrorism campaign (named Operation Zarb-e-Azb) against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which had claimed responsibility for several attacks against the Pakistani state. The Pakistan Army’s media wing, the Directorate of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), has been at the forefront of a media campaign touting the successes of the counterterrorism effort on social media.
In a statement released on the occasion of the first anniversary of the launch of Zarb-e-Azb, ISPR claimed that approximately 2,800 terrorists had been killed and 840 hideouts destroyed. A National Action Plan, which came into effect in January 2015, provided for special military courts to try those accused of terrorism. As if to signal its commitment to dealing with the scourge of terrorism, Pakistan has since ramped up the execution of convicted terrorists. But a study by the human rights organization Reprieve found that, of the recent executions sanctioned by Pakistan, only 1 in 10 were actually linked to terrorism.
Worse, many of those actually responsible for terrorist acts in Pakistan have simply gone underground or sought refuge in Afghanistan. Independent observers remain skeptical over the success of Pakistan’s counterterrorism operations. Yet, the ongoing operations appeared to take new form in Sindh province last year, with the Pakistan Rangers, a paramilitary force, embarking on “anti-corruption operations” that largely targeted the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), a party with a powerful political base in Karachi, the capital of Sindh. The Pakistani security establishment has accused the MQM of receiving support from India.
But the TTP represents just the tip of the iceberg as far as militancy in Pakistan is concerned. Extremist sectarian groups like the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have targeted the country’s vulnerable minorities – Ahmedis, Christians, Hindus, and Shia – with impunity. Many extremist groups and their members enjoy varying levels of patronage from elements within the Pakistani security establishment and have informal alliances with mainstream parties for political expediency.
Even as the heinous attack in Lahore was being perpetrated, Pakistan’s capital Islamabad was besieged by tens of thousands of protesters from an umbrella organization of radical groups, who were rallying to commemorate the ‘martyrdom’ of Mumtaz Qadri, the man Pakistan hanged in February for having assassinated the governor of Punjab in 2010. These protesters breached Islamabad’s red zone, laid siege to the Parliament, set fire to emergency vehicles, and issued forth a list of demands that included the imposition of Sharia law in Pakistan, the execution of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman convicted of blasphemy, and the forced exile for Ahmedis.
The rallies were not spontaneous, but rather well planned and publicized by the Sunni Tehrik and Tehrik-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool for weeks. While some Pakistani Urdu news media outlets covered the buildup, there appeared to be a blackout in coverage in Pakistan’s English media, suggesting pressure from Pakistan’s leadership to avoid references to the rally. Pakistan’s response to the army of extremists bent on descending upon its capital, then, wasn’t to beef up security, but to pretend that it wasn’t going to occur. If you didn’t read about it, it didn’t happen.
Then there is the third variety of militant groups in Pakistan, which are avowedly anti-India. Groups like the Jamaat ud-Dawa (JuD) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) that attack India and its citizens enjoy the support and patronage of Pakistan’s security establishment. The spectacular attacks in Mumbai in 2008 that killed 170 innocent civilians, for example, were directed from a control room in Karachi in the presence of an officer of Pakistan’s Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
These groups operate not from obscure hideouts in Pakistan, but from sprawling complexes in Punjab province, the traditional stronghold of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s party, the PML(N). JuD’s headquarters at Markaz-e-Taiba, for example, located about 20 miles from Lahore, is spread across 200 acres, and houses a hospital, market, a fish farm, and agricultural tracts.
These groups benefit not only from support provided by Pakistan’s security establishment, but also from the patronage of mainstream political parties. Indeed, Rana Sanaullah, who was law minister of Punjab in the PML(N)-led government provided a grant of about $1 million to Markaz-e-Taiba in 2010. Another senior PML(N) official, Saleem Zia, participates in JuD-led campaigns and rallies against India.
Thus while Pakistan is ostensibly engaged in a war on militancy, it is a war with many caveats. The ideology of hate that has given rise to the precarious security situation in the country isn’t challenged, and indeed is sustained in many cases by the security and political classes of the country. There continues to be a belief that Pakistan can at once target a select set of groups, but turn a blind eye to some, while actively encouraging others that promote the country’s security objectives as viewed by the army.
The belief remains invalidated by the many instances of militants and groups having changed alliances over the years, ultimately ending up targeting the state. Incidents such as the attacks at Peshawar and Lahore should have given Pakistan much cause for reflection. Unfortunately, given Pakistan’s response to both incidents and its continued propensity to direct acts of terror in India and Afghanistan, no change appears to be forthcoming.