Pakistan violence: Political instability, selective security approach catalyse recurring extremist bloodbath
The Lahore attack comes at a crucial time when the ruling Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz is facing an imminent political crisis with the disqualification of prime minister Nawaz Sharif after the Panama Papers corruption case verdict.
On 24 July, a suicide attack killed 26 people, including nine policemen, in Pakistan's city of Lahore. The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing, stating that it used a 'motorcycle bomb' to target law enforcement officials. Whereas, the preliminary investigation suggested that the motorcycle was not used in the attack and it was allegedly the first assault by the new Taliban Special Group (TSG), which comprises of trained suicide bombers (fidayeen commandos). This was the fourth terror incident in Lahore in last seven months. Earlier incidents include attacks on a census team, local protestors and a local market. These incidents show prevalent inconsistencies in Pakistan's security policies. Moreover, the timing of the attack is significant considering ongoing political and security developments in the country.
First, the Lahore attack comes at a crucial time when the ruling Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) is facing an imminent political crisis with the disqualification of prime minister Nawaz Sharif after the Panama Papers corruption case verdict. However, some reactions on the incident alleged that it was a deliberate attack to distract attention from the Panama case proceedings. Those remarks did not find much traction as the incident puts the spotlight on the government's inability to stop sporadic terror attacks in the country. More importantly, the incident raises serious questions on the government's security policy (both at the Centre and the state), which has been criticised for being lackadaisical in structurally implementing security reforms such as National Action Plan (NAP), which was introduced after the Peshawar school attack in December 2014.
Second, any attack in Pakistan's Punjab province is politically significant as it is the home turf of the ruling PML-N. While other provinces have witnessed regular terror-related incidents, Punjab has largely remained safe despite the presence of various extremist outfits such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, among others. Notwithstanding the fact that Lahore has witnessed deadly attacks in the recent past to bring into question the capabilities of the PML-N leadership; the latest incident is even more significant as it took place close to the provincial Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif's house in Lahore. This suggests that there are some gaping holes in the government's overall security apparatus.
Consequently, the worsening security situation in Punjab (and across the country) and the alleged corruption charges on the Sharif family may negatively impact the PML-N's political fortunes in the 2018 general elections. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that the Sharif government will take any substantial step to strengthen its security policy due to the ongoing political quagmire.
Third, the Lahore bombing came days after the military announced Operation Khyber-IV to "wipe out terrorists" in the Rajgal Valley of Khyber Agency in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). As the military offensive intensifies in the country's western region, the terror outfits will look to target metropolitan cities to seek revenge from the State. Evidently, the level of terrorist violence has come down compared to previous years in Pakistan. But the latest attack implies that terror groups are capable of launching spectacular strikes despite the ongoing counterterrorism offensive such as Radd-ul-Fasaad (elimination of discord) or Zarb-e-Azb (sharp and cutting strike) in the past.
Fourth, the incident signals the TTP's presence in Pakistan's interior provinces, contrary to reports of its elimination which both the civilian and military leaderships have regularly claimed. Whereas, the security agencies have warned of such attacks in the province. While continuing with the propaganda of blaming neighbouring countries, Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa targeted "regional actors and hostile agencies" for the internal security mess in Pakistan. Clearly, the security establishment in Pakistan is facing the heat both domestically and internationally to stop the widespread scourge of terrorism. But it appears blaming Research and Analysis Wing (RA&W) and Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS) for terror incidents has become part of the Pakistani establishment's narrative, especially after the arrest of former Indian naval officer Kulbhushan Jadhav and the so-called 'surrender' of the former Jamaat-ur-Ahrar (JuA) spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan.
Fifth, these attacks may continue to take place in the future as the terrorist threat can't be eradicated completely in Pakistan. However, what is more dangerous for Pakistan is the existing binaries such as the 'good' and 'bad' terrorists and overarching politico-religious objectives which ultimately hinder implementation of security reforms. Coincidentally, on the same day of the Lahore blast, a suicide attacker detonated a car bomb in Kabul, killing up to 35 people. The apparent similarities between the attacks and the fact that they were carried out by the Taliban(s) (TTP and Afghan Taliban) indicate how closely interlinked the issue of terrorism is in both countries.
Pakistan is largely to be blamed for the present security situation in the region due to its regurgitating use of terrorism as a foreign policy tool to fulfil its strategic imperatives in the neighbourhood. While the Trump Administration has been pressing Islamabad to fulfil its commitments to target the Afghan-centric outfits on its territory, even going to the extent of blocking the yearly military reimbursements of $350 million, Pakistan seems unwilling to take affirmative actions against the Taliban or the Haqqani Network.
Lastly, the Lahore attack was the latest in a series of violent acts against personnel of local law enforcement agencies. In recent incidents, security personnel have been targeted in Quetta, Karachi, Dera Ghazi Khan, Lahore, among other major cities. This trend continues unabated as certain terror outfits, such as Jamaat-ur-Ahrar (JuA) under the 'Operation Ghazi', have vowed to target the government and security agencies across the country. Additionally, rampant politicisation of police by the political parties and lack of basic reforms are few causes for the poor standards of policing across all provinces, which make them vulnerable to terror attacks.
The civilian and military leaderships have been attempting to bring normalcy in Pakistan through variegated political and security efforts. Still, as previous episodes of extremist violence have indicated, terror outfits are capable of exploiting unexpected political scenario and selective security approach through slow but recurring sporadic attacks. Amid growing political uncertainty and ousting of Sharif, the timing and environment are conducive for the extremist groups to increase their activities across Pakistan. Meanwhile, the military will continue its counterterrorism offensive in security sensitive areas. Whereas, in all these developments, some pivotal security issues may remain neglected until political stability comes in Islamabad.
The author is a researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi.
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