Targets do not come much softer than an unprotected group of women and children gathered in a large and easily accessible public space. At the time of writing, there are reports of 73 dead and about 300 wounded in the suicide attack on Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in Lahore. At the same time but in Islamabad, tens of thousands of highly-charged protesters broke through the flimsy barriers around the Red Zone and went on a rampage. They were there in support of the man who murdered the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer. Mumtaz Qadri was hanged for the murder and the religious parties promised that March 27 would be the day they vented their disapproval. They set fire to emergency vehicles, wrecked a Metro station and are currently camped outside parliament, reportedly awaiting the government accession to 10 demands.
The two events have no causal linkage but both are emblematic of just how broken parts of the state of Pakistan are. The attack in Lahore has been claimed by a splinter group of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar faction. Their spokesman told AFP that it was responsible for the attack because Christians were celebrating Easter, and that there would be further attacks targeting schools and colleges as well as government institutions. A spokesman for one of the hospitals receiving the dead and injured commented that whilst the Christians may have been the primary target, a majority of the victims were Muslim.
Once again, a not-so-small group of psychotic bigots have seized the narrative. Once again, a minority group has been the all-too-easy-to-hit target and once again the government is left floundering in the bloody wake and blathering platitudes right, left and centre. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan were quick to board the bandwagon of dignitaries paying visits to hospitals and chairing meetings to mumble over the latest failure of the state to discharge its statutory duties, in this instance to protect the citizenry. Nothing of substance will come from their threadbare sympathies and calls for the perpetrators to be hunted down wherever they are, are of no more substance today than they were in the past.
The fact is that the perpetrators are all around us, hiding in plain view, and if there was a poll conducted among those protesting outside parliament, it may be found that some at least had sympathies with those who butchered women and children. After all, the persecution of minorities figures large in their list of 10 demands currently awaiting ratification by default as a weak government is unable to do anything much beyond a little light tear-gassing.
In any other country, the Lahore atrocity would be seen as a watershed moment for the government of the day. Not so in Pakistan, where wholesale butchery is standard fare in 2016 after a relatively quiet 2015. The various terrorist groups have recovered from the shocks of Operation Zarb-e-Azb and are once again fully operational. In particular, the groups that are concentrated in southern Punjab, some of the most radical and toxic in a poisonous nexus, continue to operate and banned organisations shrug off their bans like water off a duck’s back. The TTP remains a powerful force. They may be fragmented and factionalised but they retain a commonality of purpose — the downfall of the state by whatever means.
It is all very well to trumpet the successes and gains made in the last three years, they are undeniably there and we have no wish to decry or belittle them. But there is the serial failure, at every level, to come up with any coherent strategy to counter both terrorism and the extremism that feeds it. The gains on one front are easily negated by the losses on another, and until the balance is restored, we can only expect more of the same. Regularly.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 29th, 2016.