More than a year after Pakistan unveiled its National Action Plan to tackle terrorism following a brutal massacre at a Peshawar school, the suicide attack at a crowded park in Lahore is evidence that the fight is far from over.
Sunday’s suicide bombing, which killed 70 people and injured another 340, has been claimed by the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a faction of the Taliban which has been behind some of the most brutal attacks in Pakistan in recent years.
The group’s spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan has said the attack targeted minority Christians, many of whom were at the Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park to celebrate Easter Sunday. The attack was also intended, Ehsan said, to send a message to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif “that we have entered Lahore”.
The Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, which had once pledged allegiance to the Islamic State after splitting from the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan in 2014, has targeted Christians in Lahore in the past too. It had claimed two suicide blasts outside as many churches in the predominantly Christian neighbourhood of Youhanabad in March last year that killed 15 people.
While the Pakistan Army has made significant gains in its Zarb-e-Azb campaign against terrorist and extremist groups, Sunday’s attack has again highlighted the civilian government’s failure to take on militant groups that have a presence in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province and the key stronghold of the ruling PML-N party.
The Jamaat-ul-Ahrar spokesperson’s reported remarks to the media – “We want to convey to the ruling PML-N and the prime minister that we have arrived in Punjab and we will reach you” – show up the seriousness of the problem.
Several militant groups, including the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, have a strong presence in Punjab but they have mostly kept a low profile in the province in order to avoid being targeted by the security agencies.
At the same time, the PML-N has been loath to take on the militants for fears of a blowback.
Prime Minister Sharif’s brother, Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif, had during a televised speech in 2010 pleaded with the Taliban to spare his province because the PML-N and the militants had opposed former military dictator Pervez Musharraf. “...if the Taliban are also fighting for the same cause then they should not carry out acts of terror in Punjab,” he had said.
There are also other problems bedevilling the PML-N government – since Sunday night, the heart of Islamabad has been besieged by thousands of supporters of a policeman who was recently executed for assassinating former governor Salmaan Taseer. The protestors have refused to disperse till the assassin – Mumtaz Qadri – is officially declared a martyr and Islamic law is imposed.
While the civilian government has been able to deploy thousands of troops in the sparsely populated northwest, especially the tribal belt, it is obvious that a similar approach cannot be adopted in the urban centres of Punjab. In such areas, operations would have to intelligence-driven and rely more on civilian law enforcement agencies.
Already, Pakistani social media users are commenting that the Lahore attack will, like the Peshawar massacre, be forgotten after a few days of angst. It remains to be seen whether Prime Minister Sharif will be galvanised by the latest terrorist outrage to taken on the militants in his backyard.
(The views expressed by the writer are personal. He tweets as @rezhasan)