Posts Tagged ‘Lahore’

Source: NYT

Yesterday, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the political party of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, held a rally in Lahore against the ruling coalition. According to the Express Tribune, “More than 100,000 supporters [some sources say 200,000+] gathered as a show of strength in what is traditionally the PML-N stronghold,” as Khan made strong remarks about an array of issues facing Pakistan, from minority & women’s rights to corruption. Below, Sahar Khan, a PhD student in politician science, relates her experience while attending the rally yesterday:

From the rooftop of Andaaz restaurant in Hera Mandi, the red light district of Lahore, one gets a full view of the Badshahi Mosque. Just beyond the minaret of the mosque, one can see the top of Minar-e-Pakistan. Although the view was spectacular, it was not the reason for my excitement. I was just about to go to my first political rally in Pakistan and I couldn’t wait!

Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) was holding its first rally in Lahore in Iqbal Park where Minar-e-Pakistan was built to commemorate the 1940 Lahore Resolution, which had been the first formal call for greater Muslim autonomy in India. The symbolism was hard to miss. If this rally went “well” it could prove to be a game changer for Pakistani domestic politics. But I remained skeptical of the turnout. In a city of rallies, where Abrar ul Haq held one on October 27, and PML-N held one on October 28, why was this rally such a big deal? The best way to find out was to go there.

We left Andaaz a little after 3pm. Near Iqbal Park, the road was full of people, carrying flags of PTI, banners with catchy phrases like “Ab nahin tau kab? Hum nahin tau khaun?” (“If not now, then when? If not us, then who?”), posters of Imran Khan titled as Quaid-e-Inqilab (“Father of Revolution”), and placards of “Only Hope” and “Make Peace.” The air was charged with adrenaline. People were walking with a purpose, shouting things like “Agla prime minister khaun? Imran Khan! Imran Khan!” (“Who’s the next prime minister? Imran Khan! Imran Khan!” and “Zardari kuta hai!” (“Zardari is a dog!”) and of course “Pakistan Zindabad! Imran Khan Zindabad!”

At the Rally (Photo by Sahar Khan)

As soon as we reached Iqbal Park, a man selling round badges that were decorated in PTI’s red and green colors with Khan looking thoughtful as he rested his hand near his chin, almost in an Allama Iqbal-like pose. The pose made me chuckle. The badge said, “Qadm millao, Qadm barhoa, mil kar Pakistani bachoa” (“Unite and step forward, save Pakistan together”). Seeing no problem with that message, I decided to buy one and pinned it on my shirt.

The numbers were increasing fast but miraculously the crowd was orderly. Each section had three security checkpoints, where every purse and bag was checked after going through a metal detector. There were male and female police officers at each point and scattered around, enforcing security. Many of them looked shocked and asked me in Punjabi, “Where have all these people come from?” I don’t speak Punjabi so just said, “Lahore!” He laughed and said, “Lahore jag uta hai!” (“Lahore has woken up!“).

We had a good view and managed to secure some plastic chairs, which turned out to be a good idea. Hearts were pounding, slogans were being shouted, and flags were being waved. There were even automatic toy planes flying around with a PTI flag! The stage looked huge even from where I was. The backdrop was inspirational, and at its center was a large crescent from Pakistan’s flag. On one side was Jinnah and smaller versions of Allama Iqbal and Minar-e-Pakistan. On the other side was Khan. The highlight of the backdrop, however, was the message: “Tub Pakistan banaya ta, Ab Pakistan bachao gae” (“You have made Pakistan, Now you will save Pakistan”). A call for democracy indeed!

The rally finally started at 4pm. As PTI members came up one by one to address the burgeoning crowd, I looked around. There was a never ending sea of people behind me. Some people sat on plastic chairs while others stood on them to get a better view. Some sat on the grass while others simply stood. There were spontaneous eruptions of patriotic slogans or simply “Imran Khan! Imran Khan!” The crowd was becoming restless. They wanted to see their leader. And he finally arrived! The crowd went crazy: the sky was filled more flags and the shouts became louder. Time flew by as PTI members came and spoke. The main announcer kept the crowd alive with his booming voice and updates on the size of the crowd—“ab aik lakh log hain!” and “ab dair lakh log hain!” and “ab 2 lakh sey zaida log hain!” (“there are now 1 lakh people” and “there are now 1.5 lakh people” and “now there are more than 2 lakh people”). The best update, however, was “ab cable bund kar diya gaya hai!” (“Cable has been shut down!”). The crowd responded by “Hakumat dar gee! Zardari kutta dar gaya!” (“The government is scared! Zardari the dog is scared!”).

A mixture of excitement and restlessness made the crowd react louder to each speech. When we thought that the time would never come, Khan rose and addressed the crowd. The adoring crowd roared, and I was one of them. We stood on our chairs and clapped till our hands were raw and our throats were sore. We waved those flags till our arms became numb. And we absorbed every word that Khan sahib said. I think I just witnessed the making of a national leader and I was awestruck.

I can go on and criticize and analyze his speech, but this blog post is more about the fact that over 200,000 people gathered in Iqbal Park on a Sunday afternoon to show their frustration with the current administration. This kind of jalsa, the enthusiasm, the excitement, the sheer numbers have not been seen in a long time. This is not because of a lack of political ambitions; there is room for numerous political parties in the Pakistani political plain. Unfortunately, very few parties seem to have that special something about them—and PTI just proved that it is not one of them.

When I asked Omar Cheema, the Chief Information Officer of PTI, why the rally was so successful he said, “The youth of Pakistan has decided to take the future in their hands.” The youth may be PTI’s not-so-secret ingredient for success but it is yet to be seen whether or not PTI can translate this rally’s outcome into an electoral success. I look forward to the show as much as everyone else.

The contribution is the sole opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the opinion of CHUP. If you would like to contribute a piece to CHUP, please email Kalsoom at changinguppakistan[at]gmail[dot]com. Pieces should be no longer than 800 words please. For past contributions, click here.

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Targeting the Ahmadis

Reuters Image

I feel sick to my stomach.

Today more than 70 people were killed and 108 were injured when gunmen launched simultaneous attacks on two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore. The attacks – involving blasts as well as gunfire – took place during Friday prayers, when “over 1,000 worshipers were present in the mosque.” The NY Times cited the city coordinating officer who said that more than three hours after the attacks began, “the police took control of the mosques, where they found bodies strewn across the main floors and verandas.”

In a statement, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community UK noted, “The attacks are the culmination of years of unpoliced persecution of the [Ahmadis]… Today’s attack is the most cruel and barbaric.”

Although Pakistan’s political leaders condemned the attacks today, saying it “would generate greater resolve to combat extremism,” those statements failed to acknowledge what led to such killings in the first place. The Ahmadiyya community view themselves as a Muslim sect. However, because they claim their leader Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was a prophet (though, noted the BBC, “The Ahmadis insist that he was not a “law-giving” prophet and his job was only to propagate the laws enunciated by Islam’s Prophet Mohammad“), “they were declared non-Muslim in Pakistan in 1973, and in 1984 they were legally barred from proselytizing or identifying themselves as Muslims.” According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Ahmadiyya community, said to number between three million and four million in Pakistan, endure “the most severe legal restrictions and officially sanctioned discrimination.”

Why were the Ahmadis targeted in such a senseless, horrific and violent way today? Because we have a society that not only turns a blind eye to persecution but also legitimizes the mistreatment of all minorities in Pakistan. According to the LA Times, an Ahmadi elder from the Model Town mosque said the mosque had been getting threatening phone calls for some time, but, he noted, “when we asked the government and police several times to enhance our security… we didn’t get anything.”

Tell me – is this a country that we can proud of? Pakistan was supposedly established as a homeland for Muslims, to free them of discrimination. This same country now allows persecution to continue not just unabated but often by the writ of the state.  Intolerance and ignorance have a foothold in the fabric of this society, and today’s tragedy further highlights this horrific state of affairs. I am ashamed and disgusted.

This is a screenshot of the Pakistani Passport Application. Please note section c. This to me further emphasizes the problem.

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AP: A woman mourns the death of a family member in Lahore

The below piece on the recent Lahore bombings and the Punjabi militant nexus was first published on Foreign Policy‘s AfPak Channel, where I’m excited and honored to be a new contributor:

The last week has been tough for Pakistan. A series of attacks occurred throughout the country, including a siege of the World Vision International office in Mansehra last Wednesday that killed six aid workers, and a suicide bombing in Swat over the weekend that killed around a dozen people and wounded at least 37. However, the wave of bombings targeting the city of Lahore garnered the most attention. Last Monday, a car bombing targeted the Special Investigations group of the Federal Investigative Agency, the Pakistani equivalent of the FBI, killing at least 14 people and wounding 89 others. News correspondents said the amount of explosives “was so large it brought down the two-story building.”

This past Friday, two suicide bombers struck within 15 to 20 seconds of each other in R.A. Bazaar in Lahore, killing at least 45 people and injuring scores more. The attacks, dubbed by news agencies as “the bloodiest strike in Pakistan this year,” were later followed by six “low-intensity blasts” in the middle class residential neighborhoods Iqbal Town and Samanabad in Lahore. Although the bombs were reportedly locally made and used “a very small quantity of explosives,” the six blasts appeared to be a well-coordinated attempt to ignite panic and chaos in Lahore. Residents rushed out of their homes. Punjab’s police were filmed rushing from one site to another as the deafening sounds of another blast were heard. As Pakistanis remained riveted to their television screens, Lahore was paralyzed with terror.

In the aftermath of the bombings, it is not so much a question of “Why Lahore?” but rather, “Why not Lahore?” The series of attacks does not necessarily mean the center of violence has shifted from one major city to another. It means there was no epicenter at all. Whether or not the escalation of violence was in revenge for the death of Qari Zafar, a leader of the Punjabi militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi who was killed in a U.S. drone strike, militants are sending the message that they have the ability to strike anywhere at any time. Despite the Pakistani military’s successes in northwest Pakistan over the past year, this war is far from over.

While it is convenient to attach the broader “Taliban” label to the problem, the network of players is far more complex and nebulous. Although the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan swiftly claimed responsibility for Monday and Friday‘s suicide attacks in Lahore, this organization has only been able to conduct large-scale attacks in Pakistan’s major cities with the coordination and help of militants in the southern Punjab nexus, groups that make up the oft-labeled “Punjabi Taliban.”

In the April 2009 issue of the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) Sentinel, Hassan Abbas defined the Punjabi Taliban as “a loose conglomeration of members of banned militant groups of Punjabi origin — sectarian as well as those focused on the conflict in Kashmir — that have developed strong connections with Tehrik-i-Taliban, Afghan Taliban and other militant groups based in FATA and NWFP.” These organizations, including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, and Jaish-e-Muhammad, provide weapons, recruits, finances and other resources to the TTP and are responsible for planning many of the attacks attributed to the Pakistani Taliban.

A counter-militancy strategy in Pakistan could be successful if this TTP-Punjabi Taliban alliance is targeted and weakened. However, the clampdown has so far been insufficient as Pakistan’s leaders continue to point fingers everywhere but Punjab. Following the recent spate of violence, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters that India was the “foreign hand” behind several attacks in Pakistan. Punjab’s law minister Rana Sanaullah further alleged that India’s intelligence agency RAW was involved in the attacks in Lahore, adding, “Israel and other countries could also be involved.”

At the same time, Sanaullah, a member of Punjab’s ruling party, the PML-N, chose to campaign for last week’s by-election alongside the anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan leader Maulana Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi. Whether Sanaullah’s informal alliance with the SSP was merely an attempt to get votes or a more dangerous indication of his relationship with these groups, his actions further illustrate the state of denial that exists within Punjab’s leadership, as well as parts of the country’s leadership as a whole.

Pakistani political and defense analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi noted in the Daily Times, “Pakistan’s top civilian and military leadership have come to the unanimous conclusion that the Taliban and other militant elements are a threat to Pakistan’s internal harmony and stability.” However, there has been a lack of cohesion in identifying the nuances of that threat and how to strategically address it. Khalid Aziz, the chairman of the Peshawar-based RIPORT (Regional Institute of Policy Research & Training) told me on Friday, “The Pakistani military is afraid of conducting operations that would create another Waziristan in Punjab, which it can hardly afford.” Ejaz Haider, the Lahore-based national affairs editor of Newsweek Pakistan, further emphasized to me that the Army “is already spread thin in areas where the TTP tried to capture territory — i.e., FATA.” What we need instead, he said, “is good, actionable intelligence to bust the [Punjabi militant] cells,” something Aziz stated can and should be done by Pakistan’s police force.

At the end of the day, the stream of bombings and the subsequent deaths of innocent civilians will continue to undermine Pakistan’s tactical successes against the Taliban. Regardless of the TTP’s actual strength, these attacks enforce the perception that no citizen in Pakistan is safe and the state is inept at protecting them. The blame game exercised by Pakistan’s leaders in Punjab and across the country will get us nowhere. Before we can address the problem properly, we must recognize it for what it is.

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The above message, tweeted by columnist Mosharraf Zaidi (@mosharrafzaidi), does not account for today’s string of devastating bombings, targeting three of Pakistan’s provincial capitals. On Monday, 36 people were killed and 130 were injured when twin bombings struck Lahore‘s Moon Market, 10 were killed and 49 were injured when a suicide bomber on a rickshaw blew himself up near a courthouse in Peshawar, and eight people were injured in an attack in Quetta. Today’s death toll means that in the last 62 days, 490 Pakistanis were victims of militant attacksthat’s about eight victims a day (thanks @mirza9).

For those who follow the Pakistan situation closely, these statistics offer a shocking reality check, a stark reminder of the human cost of this conflict. If these numbers are depressing, then the reaction from our ministers and politicians following these attacks were even more so. After the Lahore bombings Monday, Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah told reporters the attacks were the work of “foreign help…anti-Pakistan forces are attacking us.” While the government had reportedly “received reports of possible terror attacks in Lahore,” Sanaullah said foreign intelligence agencies, “including India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and Israel’s Mossad, were responsible for the current terrorist attacks in the country.”

His statements further strengthen an argument put forth by this weekend’s NY Times piece, The Demons that Haunt the Pakistanis. In the article, Sabrina Tavernise quotes Dr. Malik H. Mubbashar, vice chancellor of the University of Health Sciences in Lahore, who asserted, “The real terrorists are not the men in turbans we see on Al Jazeera…It’s coming from Americans, Jews and Indians. It’s an axis of evil that’s being supervised by you people [U.S.].” Mubbashar even contended that Blackwater employees, who had rented the house next to his, tried to lure his servants with sweets, alcohol and “McDonald’s food every Sunday.”

According to Ishma Alvi, a psychologist from Karachi, conspiracy theories are “a defense mechanism that protects one’s psyche from something too difficult to accept.” She added, “It’s a denial of personal responsibility, which goes a long way to cripple our growth.”

Regardless of how founded or unfounded these theories are, it seems our politicians will do whatever it takes to absolve themselves of blame. Sure, the government received reports of possible terror attacks, as Sanaullah indicated. But who could possibly halt the actions of evil outside forces working against Pakistan? Not the lil ole government!

This constant scapegoating, in my opinion, is indefensible because it fosters a culture of fear-mongering without offering any real solutions. If RAW/Blackwater/Mossad/Evil-baby-geniuses-by-the-name-of-Stewie are really out to get us, then what do these politicians propose to do aside from spouting rhetoric and dealing out hollow condemnations? What real retribution can they offer the families of 490 victims of terror, aside from vapid excuses?

At the end of the day, this threat lies within our own borders. While the military is fighting the Tehreek-e-Taliban network in South Waziristan, militant groups once fostered by the state have pervasive influence in southern Punjab. These same militants are said to be behind the attacks in Pakistan’s main cities. So, government of Pakistan, here’s my advice: 1. Put a lid on the fear-mongering. 2. Develop a broader strategy to tackle militant groups in strongholds like Punjab, using provincial government forces if necessary. 3. Provide relief to the families of these victimsdon’t just visit hospitals and say how sorry you are, show it, whether it’s in monetary form to the families or shelter/food/clothing to those displaced by the conflict. 4. With the buzzword NRO in the air, make examples of yourselves. Because as a Pakistani, I am increasingly ashamed to call you my leaders.

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AP Image

AP Image: Rescue efforts in Lahore

On Thursday morning [9:15 am PST], media agencies reported that gunmen dressed in police uniforms targeted three law enforcement agencies in Lahore – the Federal Investigative Agency on Temple Road, the Manawan Police Academy, [the site of a previous militant attack, see related CHUP post], and the Elite Force Training Institute on Bedian Road. According to the NY Times, at least 30 people were killed, including 19 police officers and at least 11 militants. A suicide bomber also attacked a police station around the same time in the northwestern city of Kohat, killing 10 people. Later on Thursday, news agencies reported that a car bombing occurred near a school in Peshawar, killing at least one person and injuring five.

Army rangers were reportedly deployed across Lahore. According to Dawn News, five gunmen entered the FIA building firing gunshots. While the building was cleared by police forces after an hour and a half [Dawn reported that no quick response forces were on the scene], media outlets noted that there were ten casualties in the attack, including three government officials, FIA employees, and a police officer. One attacker has reportedly been taken into custody, [news agencies report that a suicide vest was recovered from the scene]. Interior Minister Rehman Malik told news agencies that the “situation is under control. There is no reason to panic…all four provinces are on red alert.”

Gunfire finished soon after at the Manawan Police Academy, where nine police officers were killed and over a dozen were injured. Four militants were also killed in this assault, reported the Associated Press – three who blew themselves up, and one who was killed by police. Meanwhile, news agencies reported that eight gunmen attacked the Elite Training Institute, in an attack that Dawn reported, “lasted into Thursday afternoon before security forces killed the five attackers and freed a family they were holding hostage.” GEO News reported that a police officer was killed in the standoff, and nine others were injured. Five militants were reportedly killed.

GEO quoted Rehman Malik, who said the attackers are mercenaries “who are working for money.” However, much like Saturday’s brazen attack on the military’s General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, when 10 gunmen disguised as soldiers had a 22-hour standoff with Army commandos, suspicion has fallen on the Tehreek-e-Taliban. The incidents were likely carried out by militants in Punjab, who are aligned with the TTP and unified against the state, [see past CHUP Post on the Punjabi Taliban]. This theory is further supported by the fact that these groups have tremendous reach into Pakistan’s main cities and their power base is in Punjab province. The Associated Press noted in its coverage, “Officials have warned that Taliban fighters close to the border are increasingly joining forces with Punjabi militants spread out across the country and foreign Al Qaeda operatives, dramatically increasing the dangers to Pakistan.”

While the details are still being reported, Thursday’s coordinated attacks are yet another attempt to target Pakistan’s police forces and undermine the state’s security apparatus prior to the Army’s “imminent” ground offensive in South Waziristan. The fact that three coordinated attacks could take place in three different parts of Lahore amid heightened security is a scary, scary thing, particularly since an official at Punjab’s main intelligence agency told reporters “they had precise information about expected attacks on security targets and alerted police this week, but the assailants still managed to strike.” Moreover, two of the targets – the FIA and the Manawan Police Academy – were hit before.  Should the government focus on preventing such incidents or merely plug the holes as fast as possible?

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Image credit: http://njisacf.wordpress.com/2009/02/

I am ANGRY! I will STOMP!

Every day, a flag-lowering ceremony takes place at Wagah Border, which connects India and Pakistan via the Grand Trunk Road. The border, the only official land crossing-point between the two countries, separates Amritsar, India and Lahore, Pakistan. Each day, the 45-minute ceremony involves a carefully choreographed “standoff” between Indian and Pakistani soldiers, ending “in the lowering of both flags and the slamming of the border gates.”

The daily Wagah event is a popular tourist attraction, but rather than it being a show of hostility between the two nations, an atmosphere of jovial patriotism coexists on both sides. The ceremony is an exhibition of force mixed with cooperation, reminiscent more of dance battles than military aggression. It even ends with a handshake between the participants.

If only all our issues could be resolved with a handshake. Below is a video of the ceremony:

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Today, a friend told me about a Pakistani news story that garnered much attention when it reported that a four-inch alien turned up in Lahore a few weeks ago. I have to admit, I was more than a little curious and promptly googled said story. Below is the news clip in question:

Not to worry though. Aliens are not on the loose in Pakistan. It appears that after careful analysis [done by people with way too much time on their hands], the “alien” in question was a hoax, bearing a strong and uncanny resemblance to a plastic toy. If you don’t believe me, see below:

Image credit: newzonfire.com

Image credit: newzonfire.com

If aliens were to come to Pakistan, I would think the immediate reaction wouldn’t be to stone the poor thing to death, but to act as Pakistani comedian Saad Haroon, [who will be performing in Washington, D.C. June 18 at 7 pm, click here for further information] noted in his stand-up routine below:

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AFP: The aftermath of the Lahore madrassa bombing

AFP: The aftermath of the Lahore madrassa bombing

On Friday, media outlets reported that suicide bombers attacked two mosques in Pakistan. The “near simultaneous” blasts occurred in Lahore and Nowshera, a city in NWFP. According to news agencies, a leading moderate cleric was killed in the Lahore bombing. BBC News reported that Sarfraz Naeemi, the senior cleric at the Jaamia Naeemia madrassa in Lahore, “was greeting visitors in his office after Friday prayers when the suicide bomber managed to get inside and detonate explosives.” Naeemi, who had denounced the Taliban as “un-Islamic,” was seriously injured and was said to have died on his way to hospital.

The Associated Press in its coverage spoke to Naeemi’s son Waqar who was close by when the bomber attacked. He said, “I was still in the mosque when I heard a big bang. We rushed toward the office and there was a smell of explosives in the air. There was blood and several people were crying in pain.” The NY Times cited another eyewitness, a student from Naeemi’s madrassa, who told the news agency, “I thought the whole building had collapsed. I rushed down the stairs and when I reached the bottom I saw Naeemi Sahib and three other people injured.” Five people were killed in the Lahore mosque bombing, and 10 were injured, Dawn reported.

The bombing in Nowshera, which occurred a few minutes after the Lahore attack, took place in a military high-security zone, close to an armed forces supply depot. According to BBC News, a van “drove up to the gate of a mosque compound during Friday prayers before the driver detonated the explosives.” The news agency added, “The blast was so powerful that the roof of the mosque collapsed, with many people now feared to be buried under the debris.” The attack killed at least six people and wounded more than 90, reported Pakistani media outlets AAJ Television and Dawn.

AFP: Cleric Naeemi spoke out against the Taliban

AFP: Cleric Naeemi spoke out against the Taliban

Friday’s bombings and the subsequent assassination of Sarfraz Naeemi garnered swift condemnation from government officials and Pakistan’s political figures. GEO News quoted PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif, who called the killing of Naeemi a “great national tragedy,” asserting his assassins “have proved their enmity with Islam, mankind and Pakistan.” The Times of London noted, “Dr. Naeemi appears to have been targeted because he had been integral in helping to generate political, religious and public support for the army’s campaign in Swat over the last few weeks.” Last month, he established the Sunni Itihad Council, an alliance of 22 Islamic groups and political parties, who explicity oppose the Taliban. The Council, reported the Times, “claims to represent about 85 million Pakistani followers of the moderate Barelvi school of Sunni Islam, which incorporates music and mysticism and venerates saints and their shrines.”

In an interview last month with the Times of London, Naeemi stated, “The Taliban is a stigma on Islam. That is why we will support our Government and our army and their right to destroy the Taleban. We will save Pakistan.” He added, “The Taliban are few but because they have turned to Jihad they are seen more. If there are 100 people in this room and one is waving a gun, then you see the one with the gun.”

The statements made by Naeemi  must be remembered in the aftermath of these bombings. Taliban militants are attempting to enforce the perception that they are winning the war by bombing high-profile targets and launching large-scale attacks. And, while these attacks are still damaging because they highlight the cracks in Pakistan’s security apparatus, perceptions do not always mirror reality. These militants are targeting innocent civilians, worshippers during prayer time, and foreign workers who have come to aid the country’s displaced. They are targeting those courageous enough to speak out against them. The commitment of such atrocities is counterproductive because it marginalizes their support. It increasingly seems these militants are grasping at straws and attacking out of a desperation to show they still have the upper hand, rather than acting out of a position of strength.

This week’s string of violence should sway public sentiment further against the Taliban. On Wednesday and Thursday, the Associated Press conducted a string of interviews with more than three dozen Pakistanis across the country, [the AP noted that this was not a scientific poll]. According to the news agency, “not a single person expressed sympathy or allegiance toward the Taliban. The most common answer was the militants should be hunted down and killed.” The AP added, “Certainly, the militants retain some support, particularly in the lawless tribal regions bordering Afghanistan that the Taliban and Al Qaeda have used as sanctuary. The extremists would likely retreat to these areas if they continue to suffer defeats elsewhere. But the change in public mood is empowering the army in its offensive against the militants…”

Ultimately, we have gone from a country where many remained ambiguous about the Taliban to a nation where even Nawaz Sharif, who often catered to the right, have denounced their actions. Given that this is as much a war of ideas as it is a tangible offensive, that shift is extremely significant. However, while an increasing number of Pakistanis have decided they are against the Taliban, this does not mean their faith in the government has been renewed in its wake. The state must therefore also work to demonstrate that it can provide services and security to the average Pakistani, particularly those who are displaced and must return home.

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Image Credit: AP, Rescue Workers at the Scene

Image Credit: AP, Rescue Workers at the Scene

On Wednesday, at least 23 people were killed and nearly 300 were injured in a suicide bombing in Lahore. According to the NY Times, the attack was “a failed attempt to strike at the nearby provincial headquarters of Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency.” Dawn reported:

The incident took place at a heavily guarded entry point to the offices of Rescue-15 and the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) as well as to the official residences of police officers at the Plaza Cinema Chowk at around 10:10am. The buildings are adjacent to the offices of Lahore’s police chief and are only yards away from the old Freemason’s Hall where the Punjab chief minister has his secretariat. Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif was at his Defense residence at the time of the explosion.

According to media reports, a group of men shot at police officers before detonating a powerful car bomb, damaging buildings in broad daylight in one of Lahore’s busiest districts. The Times described the scene after the attack in its coverage, “The massive bomb left a crater eight feet deep and 20 feet wide and the blast was heard for miles around. Dozens of vehicles were crumpled like paper and broken glass filled the street. The red brick building of the Rescue 15 ambulance service collapsed after taking the brunt of the blast, and emergency workers struggled for hours to pull the dead and injured from the debris.” The dead included 14 policemen and a colonel belonging to the ISI.

Although an official called yesterday’s bombing a “brazen and well-thought out plan,” it certainly wasn’t the first of its kind in Lahore. In fact, it was the third attack in the city in three months. On March 3, a dozen gunmen attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team with rifles, grenades, and rocket launchers ahead of a cricket match in Lahore. Six police guards were killed in the ambush. Later that month on March 30, gunmen attacked the Manawan police academy near Lahore, killing 13 people. All attacks occurred in broad daylight. All were undoubtedly well-coordinated. All appeared to either target Pakistan’s police forces or highlight the vulnerability of Pakistan’s security apparatus. According to BBC News correspondent Shoaib Hassan, Lahore is facing a sustained campaign of violence unlike any it has seen before.” He added, “Security officials believe the city is under attack because it is seen as a stable home for Pakistan’s Punjab-dominated army.” However, noted the Wall Street Journal, “It was unclear whether the main target of the attack was the police, the ISI or both.”

The government has blamed “Taliban fighters” for yesterday’s bombing, and Interior Minister Rehman Malik was quoted telling reporters, “Enemies of Pakistan who want to destabilize the country are coming here after their defeat in Swat.”

While pointing a finger at the Taliban has been common practice of late, it is still a vague and rather hollow accusation. In order to truly comprehend the threat that faces us, it is important to first demystify the term, “Taliban militants.” Following the Manawan police attack, I noted that the incident signified how many militant organizations are operating in Pakistan’s periphery, and how the line between them has become increasingly blurred. After today’s bombing, the “buzz-term” that was mentioned by several outlets and officials was “The Punjabi Taliban.” In the April issue of the Combating Terrorism Center [CTC] Sentinel, Hassan Abbas wrote,

Punjab, the most populated of Pakistan’s provinces, has largely escaped the bloodshed plaguing the country’s troubled northwest. Yet since 2007, violence has escalated in the province. The bold terrorist attacks in Pakistan’s heartland…show that local logistical support for these attacks is attributable to what is often labeled the ‘Punjabi Taliban’ network. The major factions of this network include operatives from Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, and Jaysh-e-Muhammad – all groups that were previously strictly focused on Kashmir and domestic violence.

Abbas defines the Punjabi Taliban network as “a loose conglomeration of members of banned militant groups of Punjabi origin – sectarian as well as those focused on the conflict in Kashmir – that have developed strong connections with Tehreek-e-Taliban, Afghan Taliban and other militant groups based in FATA and NWFP.” The network’s groups shuttle between the tribal areas and the rest of Pakistan, providing logistical support to militant groups based both in FATA and Afghanistan to conduct operations within Pakistan. Abbas asserted in his analysis, “Given their knowledge about Punjabi cities and security structure, they have proved to be valuable partners for the TTP as it targets cities in Punjab, such as Lahore, Rawalpindi, and Islamabad.”

In order to understand the evolution of these Punjabi groups, their longtime relationship with Pakistan’s state apparatus must be highlighted. In the 1990s, many of these militants directly benefited from state patronage [particularly the ISI], and “were professionally trained in asymmetrical warfare, guerrilla tactics and sabotage,” to fight as proxies in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Although it is unclear how long the state’s relationship with these groups lasted, some speculate if they still enjoy some form of support from retired members of the military or intelligence.

Moreover, despite their current alliance with Al Qaeda and the Afghan and Pashtun Taliban, several groups under the Punjabi Taliban’s umbrella have also been highly sectarian in nature. The Sunni-Deobandi essence of these organizations, particularly the Lashkar-e-Jhanghvi (LeJ) and the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), adds further dimension to this conflict.

The purpose of this analysis was to demystify the term, “Taliban,” a term we throw around too often without truly understanding its meaning. I also wanted to highlight the rising threat of the militant network in Punjab, and how their alliance with the Pashtun and Afghan Taliban makes their mutual impact all the more dangerous. In order to counter these groups, therefore, Pakistan must not only crack down on these groups but also exploit their divisions to weaken their network and influence. As for us, it’s important to think past the abstract and comprehend that militancy is not only rooted in the tribal areas. The Punjabi Taliban were created by the state itself. And it seems those chickens have come home to roost.

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Police arrest one of the gunmen of the Manawan Attack

Police arrest one of the gunmen of the Manawan Attack

On Tuesday, media outlets reported that Beitullah Mehsud, the head of the Tehreek-e-Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on the Manawan police academy in Punjab province, which killed at least 13 people, including at least eight recruits and instructors, and wounded more than 100. Mehsud reportedly told Reuters by telephone, “Yes, we have carried out this attack,” asserting that it was “in retaliation for the continued drone strikes by the U.S. in collaboration with Pakistan on our people.” According to BBC News, the TTP leader also claimed responsibility for two other recent deadly attacks – a suicide attack on a security convoy in Bannu on Monday and the attack on the Islamabad police station on March 25. He noted these attacks would continue “until the Pakistan government stops supporting the Americans.” Other media agencies reported the militant head also threatened to attack Washington, warning, “Very soon we will take revenge from America, not in Afghanistan but in Washington, which will amaze the entire world.”

Mehsud’s announcement seem to adhere to Interior Minister Rehman Malik‘s statements yesterday, when he said the perpetrators of the Manawan police academy attack had “rented an apartment in Lahore but came from Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas in the west.” According to GEO News, Malik noted the assailants had planned the attack in South Waziristan, and that one of the captured gunmen was an Afghan national. However, prior to Mehsud’s announcement today, the NY Times had reported, “It seemed just as likely that the attacks had been perpetrated by Punjabi militant groups, like Lashkar-e-Toiba, which was blamed for the attacks last year in Mumbai, India, or Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a sectarian group that recruits in southern Punjab but in recent years moved to the tribal areas to train alongside Al Qaeda.” The LeT was also suspected in a hauntingly similar attack this month on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. Monday’s attack on the police academy was the second major attack in Punjab in a month. Both attacks aimed to highlight the powerlessness of the government and its security forces, although yesterday’s incident was “resolved” by paramilitary troops, who struck back quickly, surrounding the police academy and fiercely attacking the militants. The government called the resolution of the eight-hour siege a “relative success.”

After following the news yesterday and today, what ultimately disturbed me was not that the TTP claimed responsibility for the attack, but that there were so many potential perpetrators. Beitullah Mehsud’s announcement reminded us of how many groups are operating in Pakistan’s periphery, and how easily they can coordinate with one another. Although they may be separate organizations, the line between them has become increasingly blurred. In February 2009, the Long War Journal noted that there have been “numerous reports of joint operations between the Taliban, Al Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, Hizb-i-Islami, Lashkar-e-Toiba, Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami, and other terror groups.” And, although the Lashkar-e-Toiba [LeT] has historically had a more localized agenda [fighting in Kashmir], analysts after the Mumbai attacks noted the organization has evolved to become a greater, more overarching threat, one that has bought into the AQ vision. The Tehreek-e-Taliban meanwhile is a loose alliance of about 13 Islamist militant groups based near the Afghan border, with reported links to the Afghan Taliban. According to Reuters, “While some of the groups are fighting for implementation of a puritanical Taliban-like order, others are involved in criminal activities such as smuggling and kidnapping.” Mehsud is Pakistan’s most-wanted militant, and the U.S. has publicized a $5 million award for his arrest, [see CHUP’s past post on him].

What is frightening is that these groups are no longer confined to Pakistan’s tribal areas; in fact, that has been the reality for some time now. Their operations are bleeding into our country, they are threatening our citizens, and they aim to destabilize our state further. The recent political turmoil in Pakistan, [which may have eased [temporarily] today with the restoration of Shahbaz Sharif as Chief Minister of Punjab] only further exacerbated the power vacuum in the nation – ultimately making us more vulnerable to such attacks. By targeting relatively safe cities like Lahore, these organizations aim to entrench the perception that nowhere in Pakistan is safe. By targeting our police forces [besides the Manawan attack, there was also the Islamabad police station bombing and last week’s attack on a mosque near a tribal police checkpoint], they are not only highlighting the weaknesses in our security structure, but are intimidating members of these forces. The NY Times quoted one angry young recruit yesterday, who told the news agency, “I’m not joining the police…I love my life. No one wants to be here anymore. We’re taking off our uniforms and going home.”

Although it was an improvement that Pakistan’s elite forces were able to swoop in and prevail yesterday, [considering that during the Lahore attack, the assailants got away], the real victory will come when these incidents are not just quelled but actually prevented. Let’s hope that with one political crisis averted, that can now happen.

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