Lahore: the final wake-up call

07 March 2009
By targeting Sri Lankan cricketers in the heart of Lahore, Pakistani militants have crossed yet another red line. The attackers were well-trained terrorists armed with rocket launchers, grenades and automatic guns. That they engaged the police in a 25-minute gun battle and escaped only proves their professional prowess. They didn't target the cricket team because they have anything in particular against Sri Lanka. We still don't know their identity, but they could be any one or a combination of jihadi groups, from Al-Qaeda offshoots, to Baitullah Mehsud's Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) or Jaish-e-Mohammed. These organisations form a continuum, with a lot of flux between them currently. Their motive seems to have been threefold. First, to produce mayhem and insecurity, and show that neither the police, nor ordinary Pakistani citizens, nor apolitical foreigners, are immune from their depredations, and the government is powerless. Secondly, they wanted to show they aren't cowed down by the recent arrests for the Mumbai attacks and can repeat a mini-Mumbai in Pakistan. They may also have been trying hostage-taking to free detained jihadi militants. Last but not least, they wanted to signal their bellicose defiance to coincide with the India-Pakistan visit of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation chief Robert Mueller. The FBI is collaborating with Indian agencies in investigating Mumbai, and reportedly has strong evidence against LeT. Its personnel might stand witness in the Mumbai case. An FBI team was camping in Pakistan to interrogate Zarar Shah and Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi, the Mumbai attacks' handlers. The jihadis' message to it was to lay off and recognise that Taliban-style militancy has come to stay in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Under its sway, the disgraceful Swat deal to impose the Sharia can be repeated in the heart of Punjab. The message? The more you yield to the jihadis, the more emboldened they become to come back for more. The Swat deal was signed by the NWFP government led by the secular Awami National Party. It was the result of utter desperation and insecurity, which is so extreme that ANP leaders no longer dare step out of their homes. The truth is the army's 20,000 troops in Malakand division could not defeat the TTP's 3,000 militants. Meanwhile, the ANP's strategy of countering the fundamentalism of the mullahs of the Tehreek Nifaz-e-Sharia Mohammedi (TNSM) with Pushtun nationalism failed. The writ of the state no longer runs in Malakand. The TTP and the TNSM under Maulana Fazlullah have overrun Swat, closing down girls' schools, turning women into prisoners in their homes, preventing men from shaving beards, and generally terrorising a 1.5 million-strong population, causing 350,000 people to flee. Yet, the government dishonestly rationalises the Swat deal as the sole means to restore peace in keeping with "the people's will". Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureishi has termed it "a local remedy for a local problem." Even information minister Sherry Rehman has rationalised its extension beyond Swat to the other five districts of Malakand. The Lahore attack coincides with the aggravation of multiple other crises in Pakistan. These include a severe economic recession, inflation at 25%, and plummeting foreign reserves; a crisis of governance, with insurgencies raging in volatile provinces and; growing disintegration of state institutions. The latest is the political crisis precipitated by the Supreme Court's judgment to disqualify former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, from holding public office or contesting elections. This has put Pakistan's two largest parties on a collision course. The judgment is widely seen as a rigged verdict delivered by hand-picked judges appointed by President Asif Ali Zardari, who had been sworn in under former President Musharraf's Provisional Constitutional Order. Even Prime Minister Gilani regrets the verdict as unfortunate. Zardari wants to control the Punjab and is loath to thwart any challenge to the collusive National Reconciliation Ordinance. He has betrayed his promise to restore Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, for whose reinstatement lawyers are launching a mass agitation. This is likely to lead to a huge confrontation, with grave consequences for Pakistan's stability, and for the always-precarious balance between military and civilian power. However, the army has no coherent strategy to deal with the rising tide of terrorism and religious extremism. It has allowed the Afghan Taliban's Quetta Shura to flourish and provided sanctuary to its militants in the border areas. But its calculation that it would achieve its objective of creating "strategic depth" in Afghanistan and yet control the Pakistan jihadi militancy has gone awry. Benazir Bhutto's assassination, the Marriott Hotel attack, and the Lahore episode bear testimony to this. The army is either unwilling or worse, unable to fully join the fight against the jihadi militancy in Pakistan. Nor is it really cooperating with the US-led forces in Afghanistan and hasn't broken the nexus between Afghanistan's Al-Qaeda-Taliban and Pakistan's TTP-TNSM, as the latter escalate their deadly threat to its state. This has aggravated the state's legitimacy crisis. With all its institutions in disarray, the Pakistani state is beginning to unravel. It may be too early to talk of Pakistan imploding, but power in Pakistan is increasingly fragmented and the state no longer controls large swathes of territory. The commonest image of this is the failed or failing state. Pakistan figures at Rank Nine in the Failed States Index compiled for 2008 by Foreign Policy magazine of the Fund for Peace (US). Somalia holds the first rank, Sudan the second, and Zimbabwe the third. Pakistan is just two ranks below Afghanistan, and marginally higher than war-ravaged Central African Republic and Guinea. The index may not be perfect, but it's a good pointer. Twelve criteria are used to compile it, including the state's criminalisation and delegitimisation, progressive deterioration of public services, widespread human rights violations, security apparatus as "a state within a state", legacy of vengeance-seeking groups, the rise of factionalised elites, uneven economic development along group lines, sharp and/or severe economic decline, and movement of refugees and internally displaced, etc. Pakistan scores badly (8 or higher on a deteriorating scale of 10) on 10 of the 12--a sign of its slow unravelling. This will have dreadful consequences for South Asia, including Afghanistan. It's ludicrous to react to Lahore by pointing fingers at India, as some Pakistani leaders did, or adopting smug "we-told-you-so" postures, as India's Home Minister P Chidambaram did. The US cannot sort out Pakistan. It has a myopic and parochial agenda -- witness its withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 after creating the deadly mujahidin network there. Defence Secretary Robert Gates now says Washington "would be very open" to a Swat-style agreement in Afghanistan. The emerging strategy of a "troops surge", which President Obama is keen on, coupled with appeasement and bribery of the jihadis, is bad news. The only sensible alternative is a regional approach to isolate the jihadis who are a menace for all of South Asia. But for this to materialise, the Pakistani state must summon up the will to crack down on groups like LeT and LeJ and their domestic and Afghan collaborators. Lahore is the final wake-up call. We must all answer it before it's too late.
Praful Bidwai, a fellow of the Transnational Institute, is a senior Indian journalist, political activist and widely published commentator. He is a co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament.