The nerve-centre of Pakistan’s Punjabi heartland – was soaked in blood this past Easter Sunday. A suicide bomber struck the bustling Gulshan-e-Iqbal park in the provincial capital when it was packed with families – scores of them Christian – enjoying perhaps the last weekend of the city’s evanescent spring before the weather warms up. At least 72 people have perished, most of them children and women, and many of them Christians. The jihadist group Jamat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), which is a virulent off-shoot of the vicious Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), claimed responsibility. That Pakistan’s fight against jihadist terrorism will be drawn out was known, but after the Mardan, Charsadda and Peshawar attacks, the Lahore carnage reaffirms that it will also be an extremely deadly one.
The Pakistani state had tried to negotiate with the TTP off and on, despite criticism from the country’s thinning liberal quarters that the exercise would not only be futile but also give lead-time to the TTP and other assorted jihadists to prepare for the eventuality of a crackdown against them. First, the military signed agreements with one jihadist group after another, and then civilian governments did or tried to do the same.
Upon assuming power in 2013, Nawaz Sharif’s government made it a cornerstone of its policy to arrive at a negotiated settlement with the TTP, but finally deciding on military action in 2014.
TTP jihadists have rained death on most of Pakistan, but have largely spared Sharif’s power base, Punjab, apart from sporadic attacks on minority Christians, and systematic targeted killings of Shia and Ahmadi Muslims. Sharif’s younger brother Shahbaz Sharif, who has headed the government in the Punjab province since 2008, openly courted the TTP in order to spare Punjab, saying, “Taliban and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz both opposed former military dictator Pervez Musharraf.” He also expressed surprise that they attacked Punjab in 2010.
The documents introduced last year in the United States vs. Abid Naseer trial in a federal district court in Brooklyn, New York included materials captured from Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad. These materials indicated that Shahbaz Sharif offered the TTP a quid pro quo deal for not attacking targets in Punjab. The papers include a 2010 letter from the al-Qaeda operative Atiyah Abdal-Rahman to his boss Osama bin Laden, which states, “Regarding Tehrik-e-Taliban: we have informed Hakeemullah Mehsud and his companion Qari Husayn that the Punjab government (Shahbaz Sharif) sent them a message indicating they wanted to negotiate with them, and they were ready to reestablish normal relations as long as they do not conduct operations in Punjab [in their governmental jurisdiction, which does not include Islamabad or Bandy (Pindi)]. The government said they were ready to pay any price (…) They told us the negotiations were under way.” Hakeemullah Mehsud was the TTP’s ringleader, and Qari Husayn Mehsud was the notorious Ustad-e-Fedayeen i.e. teacher of the suicide bombers. They were later killed in US drone strikes in November 2013 and October 2010, respectively.
The government, however, did not budge when 15 people were killed and 70 injured in the March 15, 2015 attacks on two churches in Lahore. The JuA, which according to some accounts has rejoined the TTP, had claimed responsibility for that attack too.
The political links that Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) has maintained with assorted extremist groups within the Punjab province are perhaps even more important than its tacit overtures to the TTP. For example, Malik Ishaq, who led the rabidly anti-Shia terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) received a stipend from the Punjab government. Ishaq was later killed in a police encounter after he was rumoured to have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
In 2010, the law minister of the Punjab province, Rana Sanaullah, who still holds the same office, participated in the election campaign of the LeJ’s political front Ahle-Sunnat-wal-Jamat (ASWJ).
The Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), which perpetrated the 2008 Mumbai attacks is yet another jihadist group that has received kid-glove treatment from the Punjab government. Report after report shows that the Mumbai attack mastermind Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi is at large in the Adiala high-security prison in Punjab.
While Nawaz Sharif has always pandered to his religiously conservative voter base in the Punjab province, he does not necessarily condone extremists at all times. For example, during his second prime ministerial stint, he went after the LeJ’s founder Riaz Basra and earned the latter’s wrath. Basra responded by trying to bomb the PM’s motorcade outside Lahore, but thankfully missed. On the run, Basra and many of his cohorts took off for Afghanistan, which was then under Taliban rule. The Taliban, in turn, were fully backed by Pakistan’s army, as former army chief General Pervez Musharraf has recently conceded. And therein lies the rub.
The military’s flawed premise
Whenever the civilian leadership has tried to act against domestic jihadists, the powerful military has stonewalled them. Over the years, Pakistani politicians seemed to have concluded that waging proxy wars through jihadist insurgencies forms a cornerstone of the military’s approach to foreign policy, and, therefore, the extremists are here to stay. So civilian leaders of all varieties chose to enter into political alliances with them.
Even an otherwise liberal politician like Benazir Bhutto looked the other way when her party’s Punjab wing inducted two leaders of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) as provincial ministers in 1995. The SSP was a forerunner of the LeJ and ASWJ.
The fact is that the use of irregular lashkars (hordes) flying the standard of Islam, dates back to the country’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, who presided over the use of a tribal cohort to launch a jihad in Kashmir in 1947, while the country’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah was still alive. Brigadier Akbar Khan, an officer with a knack for intrigue, conceived the plan and Liaquat Ali Khan signed off on it, as the respected military historian Shuja Nawaz has chronicled.
The cycle has been repeated over and over again since, with the military going ahead with its jihadist misadventures in Afghanistan and Kashmir and civilian prime ministers like Benazir Bhutto – whose interior minister bragged about siring the Afghan Taliban – and Nawaz Sharif plodding along.
The military’s premise has been that it can use the jihadists as force multipliers in Afghanistan, where it seeks to neutralise a perceived Indian influence, and directly against India in Kashmir, while containing the jihadist fallout. The problem with this approach is twofold: firstly, to maintain a jihadist proxy force, a complete extremist nursery was created inside Pakistan leading to rampant radicalization of the society at large. Secondly, the jihadists have their own ideological agenda. While the Pakistan army may want the jihadists to impose the sharia on Kabul, the latter want to do that in Islamabad too. The net result is that a massive jihadist ecosystem came into existence, which the Pakistani state now finds hard to fully confront let alone dismantle.
When faced with the massive blowback of its jihad project, the Pakistan Army had come up with the arbitrary distinction of the ‘good Taliban’, who attack only neighboring countries, as opposed to the ‘bad Taliban’, who attack within Pakistan as well.
The problem is that the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ Taliban have remained joined at the hip both ideologically and logistically. They have had shared training facilities, first in Afghanistan under the Taliban rule until this was busted by the US in 2001, and then in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
The Pakistan army’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which was launched in the summer of 2014, has arguably been successful in liquidating the terrorist infrastructure in the tribal regions. There has been a noticeable decline in the regular terrorist attacks inside Pakistan, the carnage in Lahore and a string of bombings in the Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa province notwithstanding. The Lahore attack indicates, however, that jihadists retain the capability of striking hard at soft targets. Chances are that the bomber who blew the 72 innocents to smithereens had logistical support from one of the dozens of Punjab-based jihadist groups. After the Easter Sunday attack, Pakistan’s chief of army’s staff, General Raheel Sharif and Nawaz Sharif have separately pledged to wipe out terrorism from the Punjabi heartland.
While some action is expected, whether this pledge will transform into a military operation of the scale seen in tribal areas remains to be seen. What is even more critical is whether there will eventually be a reversal of the decades-long policy of using jihadists as force extenders in Afghanistan and Kashmir, which has brought common Pakistanis nothing but grief. Politicisation of religion has converted it from the opium of the masses to the poison of mankind. The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had presciently pointed out to her Pakistani hosts in 2011, “You can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbours. Eventually, those snakes are going to turn on whoever has them in their backyard”.
Unfortunately, while the world knows that fighting terror at home and stoking it in Afghanistan is an untenable position for Pakistan to hold, Sartaj Aziz, foreign policy advisor to the PM Sharif, casually admitted that Pakistan still harbours and facilitates the Afghan Taliban leadership. Aziz merely confirmed what the international media has been reporting: the so-called good Taliban is still operating out of Pakistan, and Mullah Omar’s successor was chosen on Pakistani soil. Similarly, India-oriented jihadists have been carrying on with business as usual.
In the wake of the Lahore bloodbath, the hope was that Pakistani civil and military leadership will introspect long and hard and come up with a formidable action plan. Instead, the Pakistani national discourse seems preoccupied with an alleged Indian intelligence agent whom the Pakistanis claim to have captured in the restive Balochistan province. The charge against the apprehended man is that he was fomenting insurgency in Balochistan. Whatever truth this charge may have, it seems to have completely drowned out the massacre in Lahore by homegrown jihadists.
On the eve of the Lahore carnage, some Pakistanis were complaining that the world media was not paying attention to the plight of Pakistan at the hands of the terrorists, as it did to the Brussels attack. Sadly, within 48 hours of the Lahore bombing the 72 brutally slaughtered individuals seem to have been forgotten. The Lahore bombing was not even a trending topic on Pakistani Twitter. Just when the narrative needed to be focused, it became totally nebulous.
Chasing a red herring at a time when clarity of thought and action is needed does not bode well. It certainly makes it easy for the state authorities to deflect hard questions over both their past policy disasters and more immediate intelligence failures which allowed this attack to go undetected. Pakistani civil and military leaders, as well as society, must realise what is bad for Kabul and Delhi is bad for Lahore too. The state tolerating the so-called good jihadists within Pakistan in the hopes that they would only attack its neighbours has cost Pakistan’s people dearly. Unless the Pakistani state abandons the use of jihadism as a tool of implementing foreign policy objectives, jihadist terrorism will remain its festering sore.