Apr 2nd 2016
YEARS of terrorism have had a numbing effect on Pakistan. Most of the nearly 10,000 attacks the country has suffered in the past six years took merely hours to fall from the view of politicians and the media. It generally takes child victims or an attack on Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous, prosperous and peaceable province, to galvanise attention for longer. A suicide-bombing on March 27th—Easter Sunday—in a park in Lahore, Punjab’s capital, had both these elements.
Poorer families had flocked to the Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park for the affordable thrills of its fairground rides. After sunset a bomber sauntered in and blew himself up next to the queue for the dodgem cars. He killed 74 people, many of them children, and wounded over 300.
Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, an especially repugnant splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban, was quick to take credit, saying the bombing was intended to target Christians. In fact, most of those killed were Muslims: as if in justification, the group also said that it was avenging the government’s assault on militants operating out of Punjab. “We have entered Lahore,” it warned Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister.
Mr Sharif has long feared a surge in terrorism in the heartland of his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Punjab is home to half of Pakistan’s nearly 200m people, and many militant groups operate in the province’s south. Yet it has been spared much of the violence that the Pakistani Taliban, a loose affiliation of terror groups, has inflicted elsewhere. Harder hit have been ethnic-Pashtun areas in Pakistan’s north-west, including in North Waziristan, bordering Afghanistan. Punjab’s urbane elites regard that region as almost a foreign country.
For years the PML-N was suspected of going easy on Punjab-based militants and even of striking deals with them, which it denies. But after the army launched an operation against militants in North Waziristan in June 2014, Punjab’s government, which is headed by Mr Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz Sharif, at last began to confront the groups. Public support for anti-terror moves leapt following the massacre of more than 130 schoolchildren in Peshawar in December 2014.
Especially clobbered has been Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), one of many Sunni groups spawned in southern Punjab in the 1980s, in part in reaction to the rise of a Shia theocracy in Iran. Last June counter-terrorism police bumped off the LeJ’s leader, Malik Ishaq, and many of his top lieutenants in a single night. The police barely pretended that what they had done was anything other than extrajudicial murder. The authorities recently boasted to journalists of the numbers of “jet-black”, ie, evil, terrorists killed, as well as of militants and rabble-rousing mullahs arrested. And they are proud of cracking down on expressions of hatred against religious minorities.
But the Lahore attack should give them pause. The army certainly believes that much more is to be done in Punjab. It has demanded legal cover for its operations in the province. The model is Karachi, the capital of Sindh province, where the paramilitary Rangers were given powers to deal with violence. Nearly three years on they have done much to tame the sprawling port city’s militant and criminal gangs.
The prime minister is having none of it, and his brother’s government has refused to authorise an army deployment (which did not stop the army from conducting a spate of raids of dubious legality in Punjab’s major cities immediately after the Lahore attack). The PML-N fears a repeat of the mission creep in Karachi, which saw the Rangers turn their attention to corruption rackets associated with Sindh’s ruling Pakistan People’s Party. The prime minister, who was the victim of an army coup in 1999, will not let his stronghold be taken over by the army. Yet the province’s police force seems stretched, whereas the army has experience of the kinds of intelligence operations that will be needed to tackle terror networks and extremist madrasas.
Even if the army were to be given a bigger role, a difficulty would remain—its long association with violent groups in Punjab. These are committed, like the army, to destabilising Indian-held Kashmir, which Pakistan has demanded since partition in 1947. They include Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), which is being linked to an attack in January on an air base across the border in India at Pathankot that killed seven Indian servicemen.
That Pakistan rounded up JeM members and co-operated with the Indian investigation into the Pathankot attack may be a sign that its powerful army might, for once, have given its blessing to the prime minister’s desire to improve troubled relations with India. Pakistan has also shared intelligence with India about another attack planned from its soil. And, remarkably, this week India invited a Pakistani investigation team into the Pathankot base.
Yet whenever ties with India look like improving too fast, the Pakistani army’s intelligence arm finds some means to set things back. On March 29th the army released to the media what it claimed was the filmed confession of a man captured in early March who said he was an Indian spy stoking a separatist insurgency in the southern province of Balochistan.
The colourful details of the spy’s tradecraft (“Your monkey is with us” was one of the supposed codes) immediately drew the media’s attention. So, separately, did the government’s threat to use force against 2,000 hard-line Islamists who had established a makeshift camp outside Parliament after storming into Islamabad in protest over the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard who assassinated his charge, a liberal Punjab governor, Salman Taseer, in 2011. Qadri had deplored Taseer’s call for Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy law to be repealed. The protesters, who left after assurances the law would not be changed, were a reminder to Mr Sharif of how deeply embedded in Pakistani society is intolerance breeding violence. After just two days the massacre of innocents in Lahore was already becoming old news.