More than 100 militants were killed in a sweeping crackdown launched by Pakistani security forces a day after a suicide attack claimed by the Islamic State left 81 dead at a crowded Sufi shrine.
Thursday’s attack at the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine in Sindh province was preceded by suicide attacks in Lahore and the northwest. The surge of violence that has claimed more than 100 lives in a week has shaken the confidence of Pakistanis after a recent improvement in the security situation.
The attacks also came at a time when Pakistan’s civil and military leadership had been congratulating itself for defeating terrorism across the country. Army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa pledged to avenge the deaths and said there would be “no more restraint for anyone”.
Crackdown targets militant groups across the country
The army and paramilitary forces launched operations in Karachi and other parts of Sindh, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces and the tribal areas. “Over 100 terrorists have been killed since last night and sizeable apprehensions also made,” said a statement from the military’s media arm.
Eighteen militants were killed in different parts of Karachi alone since Thursday night and scores were arrested in different cities.
Afghan embassy officials were called to the army headquarters in Rawalpindi and asked to hand over 76 terrorists “hiding in Afghanistan”, military spokesman Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor tweeted. The border with Afghanistan was also closed for security reasons, he added.
The death toll in the suicide bombing at the Sufi shrine at Sehwan in Sindh province rose to 81 on Friday and more than 250 people were admitted to different hospitals, state-run Radio Pakistan reported.
Amaq news agency, which is affiliated to the IS, claimed the attack. The shrine attracts large crowds on Thursdays and the suicide bomber struck when thousands had gathered for ‘dhamaal’, a Sufi ritual of singing and dancing.
Questions raised on military’s claims about wiping out militant groups
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said he would do everything in his power to protect the country but people questioned how terrorism had raised its head again after claims that the military operation in the tribal areas had wiped out most militant groups.
The military began its operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and in Karachi in 2014 and 2016 respectively. Former army chief, Gen Raheel Sharif, had declared two years of success and said Pakistan was safer as a result of the campaign. Violence-related fatalities dropped from 7,611 in 2014 to 4,653 in 2015 to about 2,560 in 2016, and observers agreed the overall security situation had improved significantly.
But this week, all claims of success were turned on their head. Though the Pakistan Army has asked Afghanistan to hand over terrorists hiding in its territory, analysts believe this isn’t the solution.
“We cannot keep on insisting the problem is elsewhere. It is here. It is in our midst,” said security analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi. Others such as analyst Ayesha Siddiqa pointed to the proliferation of militant groups in southern Punjab and upper Sindh. Hundreds of madrassas have been established by militant groups, which use them to recruit and train young men and collect funds.
No operations in Sindh or Punjab
Despite repeated promises, the federal government has not allowed any operation in upper Sindh or southern Punjab because many of the militant groups are patronised by elements in the ruling PML-N party.
“A number of sectarian and extremist organisations are political allies of the PML-N,” Rizvi said.
The military is ready to start a sweep and even announced its intention to do so after the suicide attack in the heart of Lahore on Monday. But the military also patronises other militant groups which are used to launch attacks into India and to aid in security operations in Balochistan.
“Because there is a difference of opinion on whom to arrest and who to let go, the operation against militants remains a non-starter,” said Rizvi.
Thursday’s suicide bombing was also the biggest attack claimed by the IS. Most of the other attacks this week were claimed by the Taliban. The government has denied the IS has a presence in Pakistan and its links with other groups such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which mainly targets Shias.
Main opposition Pakistan People’s Party leader Qamar Zaman Kaira said the government had miserably failed to eradicate terrorism. “It’s very easy to criticise the government of the PPP but the present government has protected terrorists,” he said.
Siraj-ul-Haq of the right wing Jamaat-e-Islami party said the government “appeared helpless”. He said the terrorists had shown “they can attack anywhere and at any time”.
Pakistanis fear violence could spiral out of control
Ordinary Pakistanis were fearful that the situation was again spiralling out of control just when things seemed to getting better. The terrorism could also have an impact on the economy, which had shown some signs of recovery.
Angry relatives of those who were killed in Thursday’s attack surrounded the chief minister’s motorcade in Sehwan and accused the provincial government of corruption and incompetence. The father of a girl killed in the attack told chief minister Murad Ali Shah that no help was available for several hours and his daughter died as she did not get medical attention.
A number of people turned to social media to express their anger with the poor security arrangements at most public places. In a tweet, Dr Waqar Abidi said: “Nawaz Sharif himself is a security risk.”
There is also growing anger at the government’s inability to implement the National Action Plan devised in 2014 to combat terrorism after a deadly attack on an army-run school in Peshawar killed more than 130 children. Analyst Sajjad Haider said the delay in fully implementing a plan agreed on by all stakeholders was unforgivable,
“It shows that the priorities of the Nawaz Sharif government do not include fighting terrorism,” he said.