Sufi shrine attack: Will Pak Army reset its terror policy or remain stuck in a loop of bloodshed?
Why did it take a string of deadly attacks on its soil to finally goad Pakistan Army into action?
In 2016, says data from South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), 612 civilians were butchered in Pakistan from 172 terror attacks. Some of the major ones included a suicide bomb blast in Balochistan capital Quetta, an attack on Bacha Khan University, a suicide attack in Lahore, another blast in Quetta — this time in a government hospital — killing at least 75. Balochistan suffered yet again in November when a bomb ripped through the crowded Shah Noorani shrine. Sixty two people died. The number of those injured were obviously much higher.
The turn of the new year saw the bloodshed continue unabated. In fact, it just went up a few notches. Thursday's suicide blast in a Sufi shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in southern Sindh caused the deaths of over 80 civilians. Quoting government figures, Geo News put the number of deaths at 88 and the injured at 343. The fatality figures may still go up.
The suicide strike which, according to some reports, was carried out by a female bomber and has since been claimed by the Islamic State through its Amaq news agency, is the 10th deadly assault Pakistan has suffered in the past five days. So far, in February alone, 100 have died, including civilians and security personnel.
According to Dawn, it started with an attack on a media van on 12 February. It was followed by a suicide blast during a Lahore rally that killed 13, explosions in Quetta, land mine blast in south Waziristan, four suicide attacks that targeted security forces and members of the judiciary, another bomb explosion in Balochistan and finally, an onslaught on a police van killing four officers and a civilian in Dera Ismail Khan.
Thirty of those dead in the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar attack were children. Reports indicate that the women's wing of the renowned 13th century Sufi shrine suffered the maximum damage. The timing of the blast was synchronised with the performing of dhamaal, a sacred ritual among devotees. The diabolical nature of the blast is therefore well established. The bomber used a lot of shrapnel for utmost injury. This is being called the deadliest attack in Pakistan since the terror strike on a Peshawar school in 2014 that resulted in the death of 154, nearly all of them schoolchildren. Entire classes were wiped out.
Pakistan's response has been interesting. The military was the first to react, not the Nawaz Sharif government. Army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa's war cry left no one in doubt about the hierarchy of power.
It will be worthwhile going over Pakistan's steps following the tragedy. First, it sealed its border with Afghanistan, summoned its embassy officials to Army headquarters in Rawalpindi (not Islamabad, the seat of civilian power) and handed them a list of 76 names which it claimed were "terrorists hiding inside Afghanistan" and demanded their immediate deportation.
In a show of intemperate rage and revenge, the army launched a countrywide crackdown and claimed to have killed 100 'militants' in simultaneous operations in Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the north-west, Pak-Afghan border, Orakzai Agency, Khyber Agency, Karachi and many other places.
The scope and ferocity of the retaliation raises several questions. Pakistan has always been at pains to deny the presence of Islamic State among its many terror nurseries. By launching a countrywide operation against an attack claimed by the Islamic State, is Rawalpindi acknowledging the possibility that Islamic State has spread its tentacles far and wide? The Pakistan Army has so far played down the Islamic State claim. Its actions too prove that it is more worried about the disgruntled Taliban which has been feeling the heat of its anti-terror operations.
Therefore, the real question is this. Why did it take a string of deadly attacks on its soil to finally goad Pakistan Army into action? If it was already aware of the terror network operating from its soil — a point proved post-facto by its neutralising of 100 'terrorists' in 24 hours — why didn't it take preemptive action?
The answer is an easy. But the khaki generals at Rawalpindi GHQ would never admit it because the truth ultimately threatens the elaborate power structure that the Pakistan Army has erected over the years.
Pakistan's strategy of using terror as a geostrategic policy tool has harmed it more than perhaps anyone else but dismantling will irreparably harm the army's grip over the country's power structure. Besides, it may no longer be possible for it to do so. The spate of attacks prove that Pakistan army has lost control over the Frankenstein that it has reared and nurtured over the years to get even with India and keep Afghanistan within its grasp. After years of differentiating between 'good terrorists' and 'bad terrorists', the cauldron has finally bubbled over and is scalding its own hands the most, spilling blood of countless innocents.
Ironically, just when Pakistan is bleeding profusely, came the unkindest cut: A sermon from a lawmaker in the US, a country which has so far pumped in billions to help Pakistan rein in and dismantling its terror factories. Congressman Brad Sherman, while expressing his grief for the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar attack, said Pakistan is reaping its own terror harvest.
"Pakistan’s intelligence services have for too long supported some terrorist organisations while combating others… It is impossible to get a handle on fanatical and violent groups when you play this double game…" PTI quoted him as saying.
In his column for The Hindu, Husain Haqqani, director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC who had earlier served a stint as Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US, wrote how every anti-terror operation in Pakistan was matched by a step in the "opposite direction".
"For decades Pakistan has seen jihadi groups as levers of its foreign and security policy and periodic assertions that the policy has changed have proved wrong. Every step against jihadis is followed by one in the opposite direction. Thus, the much publicised ‘Operation Zarb-e-Azb’ targeted out-of-control Pakistani Taliban in Waziristan but spared groups based in Punjab and Karachi. Hafiz Saeed’s recent detention was accompanied by blocking action against him and Masood Azhar at the U.N. with Chinese support. It is almost as if the Pakistani state is continuously telling jihadis, 'Those of you who do not attack inside Pakistan will not get hurt,'" he wrote.
Its diabolical strategy has so far served Rawalpindi well but now, the cost is threatening to outstrip the benefits. Amid indications that the Donald Trump administration may not give Pakistan as long a rope as the George Bush or Barack Obama regimes did, Pakistan needs a thorough geostrategic recalibration. General Bajwa has an opportunity. It remains to be seen whether he remains stuck in vine loop of terror or shows the courage to snap out of it.
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