The Pakistani Taliban’s attack last week on two Ahmedi ‘mosques’ and a hospital in Lahore which left over 100 dead is significant.
(1) It comes after a hiatus of three months in the TTP campaign to hit targets in the urban areas of Pakistan. This suggests that its capacity to organize acts of terrorism outside FATA is diminishing.
(2) Mosques are very soft targets. This reflects a progressive TTP strategy to shift away from attacking hard military targets in FATA to military and police targets in the urban areas and then to softer civilian targets like commercial urban markets and now mosques. This suggests that the TTP is getting weaker and desperate because of the army’s successful operations in FATA.
(3) The shift from military/security agency targets to civilian ones was made after the TTP failed to secure “peace deals” with the army last year. Later, public opinion moved decisively against the TTP after the public flogging of a girl in Swat and the anti-democracy, anti-judiciary, anti-media statements of the TTP. But the attempt to scare and divide the public by targeting civilians did not succeed either. Indeed, the public resolve to put down the TTP seemed to stiffen after these wanton attacks. Consequently, the TTP has now tried to exploit religious sentiments against a minority community instead of fear in order to sow division and confusion in the ranks of the public.
(4) The TTP’s losses at the hands of the Pakistani army and American drones are mounting in FATA. The next offensive will be in North Waziristan where the TTP’s Al-Qaeda-Afghan Taliban hosts and supporters are based. Therefore, as the terrorists suffer fresh losses, we should expect some more desperate and dramatic acts of terrorism in urban areas at home or abroad.
While the federal government is standing like a rock behind the Pakistan army’s military operations, the Punjab government’s response is unsatisfactory. It refuses to see the organizational and ideological links between the sectarian organisations based in southern Punjab – which boast 45 per cent of all the madrassas of Pakistan, most of which impart hate-based instruction against religious sects and national minorities – and the TTP based in FATA. Indeed, Punjab government spokesman continue to deny any Punjab-specific TTP origins and links, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary that locates the “Punjabi Taliban” and their Punjabi “handlers” in Punjab’s Jhang and Bahawalpur regions and Islamabad’s Red Mosque square.
One reason for the Punjab government’s state of denial has to do with the conservative nature of the ruling Muslim League (Nawaz)’s vote bank. It is predominantly middle class, urban and religious-ideological. Punjab remains the main breeding ground of anti-Shia, anti-Christian and anti-Ahmedi sentiment in Pakistan. This is where the anti-Ahmedi riots led by the Jamaat i Islami first erupted in Lahore in 1953; this is where Iranian diplomats were assassinated in Multan in the 1990s; this where the anti-Christian arson in Shantinagar in the 1990s and then Gojra took place in 2009. This is where the Shias and Christians and Ahmedis are concentrated. The most violent and virulent sectarian organisations are all based and nourished here even if they have spread their bloody tentacles across the country. And this is where the police and political parties and politicians are either afraid of the religious militants or complicit in their hate propaganda and preaching. The PPP’s Benazir Bhutto did not think twice of releasing a leader of a sectarian organization from prison in exchange for his vote in parliament a decade ago just as the Muslim League (N)’s Shahbaz Sharif was only too happy to woo leaders of the same banned organization in the last round of by-elections in Jhang some months ago.
The blame game between the federal and Punjab governments of security lapses and responsibilities must stop. It begs the real issue. These monsters were created by military dictators to protect and extend their personal and institutional interests in the guise of “national security”. But Pakistan is more divided and weak as a result of these misguided policies than ever before. The so-called “ideology of Pakistan” which was supposed to protect the unity of Islam and the nation-state has done exactly the opposite. By mixing religion with politics we have splintered into sects, castes, ethnicities, regions and sub-nationalisms. More ominously, we have seriously hurt the democratic enterprise by legitimizing the predominant role of the military in establishing and prosecuting misplaced national priorities. And worst of all, we have hamstrung the economy and stopped it from generating jobs, health and education to the vast majority of our people.
The debate in parliament should not only be about the IMF or Kerry-Lugar Bill or Facebook. All that is very well. But from an existential point of view, it should be about who we are, where we are headed, what is the positive and negative role of religious conviction and motivation in our society, what is our true national interest, what image should we present to the world at large and how should we deal with our trading and aiding partners. Devising a plan to defeat the Taliban and religious extremists in our midst amounts to no less than debating and devising a strategy to salvage the battered soul of Pakistan.