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Another moment of absolute horror

In what was the deadliest terrorist attack on Pakistani soil since the December 2014 massacre of 134 school children in Peshawar, a suicide bomber on Sunday killed more than 70 people at a park in Lahore. A faction of the Pakistani Taliban called the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar claimed responsibility for the attack, targeting Christians on the occasion of Easter Sunday. “The target was Christians,” a spokesman for the faction, Ehsanullah Ehsan, said. “We want to send this message to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that we have entered Lahore. He can do what he wants but he won’t be able to stop us. Our suicide bombers will continue these attacks.” The outfit is looking to raise its profile among the country’s increasingly fractured Islamist militants. It has previously carried out, at least, two major attacks in Lahore: one in 2015 that targeted two churches and another at the Wagah border between India and Pakistan in late 2014, according to international news agency Reuters. Suffice to say, many militant groups in Pakistan, especially the Pakistani Taliban, seek to overthrow the civilian government and introduce a strict interpretation of Islamic law or Sharia. Back in September 2014, the Jamaat-ur-Ahrar swore allegiance to the Islamic State, which envisions a global caliphate and lays special importance on the decimation of Christians and minority Shi’a Muslims. The arrival of an Islamic State-like ideology into mainstream public discourse has raised serious concerns that sectarian violence could further intensify in an already strife-ridden Pakistan. However, according to Hussain Haqqani, the former ambassador of Pakistan to the United States and a leading South Asia expert, there is already broad support for such an ideology. “While many Pakistanis might be troubled by the violent ramifications of global jihad within the country, broad sympathy in Pakistani society for jihadis remains a reality,” he writes in an academic paper titled Pakistan and the Threat of Global Jihadism: Implications for Regional Security. “Most Pakistanis support Sharia rule, an Islamic caliphate, and an Islamic state, even if they disagree on the definition of those concepts.” It is an unfortunate reality that has played itself out on the streets of Islamabad on Sunday when thousands protested against the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, a police commando who assassinated Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in 2011. According to leading Pakistani daily Dawn, the protest was led by popular Sunni groups. The protesters demanded that Qadri be declared a martyr, and the implementation of Sharia rule in the country. To the uninitiated, Qadri was working as Taseer’s bodyguard when he shot him 29 times after the governor spoke against the country’s controversial blasphemy law. Qadri was sentenced to death by the country’s highest courts and he was executed in February. Although there is no direct link between the protests and the attack on Sunday, both stem from radical Islam’s relationship to our time and geopolitical dynamics that surround it.

 None of these attacks happen in a state of vacuum. The brutal massacre was in response to the Pakistan Army’s extensive offensive against a slew of terror outfits, primarily the Pakistani Taliban, in the country’s northwestern tribal areas, where they are still strong. In essence, the attack in Lahore was nothing but an act of revenge and an attempt at terrorising the Pakistani government and the Army into submission. The brutal and cold-blooded nature of this attack, however, is highly unlikely to have that desired effect. Successive governments, in collusion with the armed forces and the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), have tolerated these extreme elements in the past and used them to pursue strategic aims in Kashmir, Afghanistan, and parts of Central Asia. Most geostrategic experts are of the opinion that Pakistan has constantly indulged in these double games to pursue their strategic objectives. Unfortunately, and predictably, such troubled elements came back home and caused one of the worst terrorist backlashes in the entire region. Despite reports of a crackdown against these terror outfits, many are still unsure whether this double game will subside. Terrorists and their backers in the Pakistani state establishment use recent attacks like the one on the Pathankot air base to maintain the hostility between and India and Pakistan. In the event of permanent peace arrangement with India, the general understanding among observers on both sides of the national divide is that the Pakistan Army would lose its predominant position in Pakistani society. However, can such a rationale outweigh the damage terror organisations have caused to Pakistan’s internal security? Although it was an attack on the Pakistan military’s establishment, few lessons have been learnt. “You can't keep snakes in your backyard and expect them to only bite your neighbor," as former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had once remarked. While the Pakistani establishment wages a battle against the likes of Jamaat-ur-Ahrar and Tehrik-i-Taliban, it has continued to support outfits like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. “The state is willing to crush jihadi groups that engage in violence against Pakistani citizens and security personnel but has no qualms about the mobilisation of jihadis that target other countries, particularly India, Afghanistan, and even the United States,” Haqqani writes. “The problem with this policy has been that jihadi groups do not make the distinctions made by the government and often collaborate with each other on the ground.” What makes it worse in the Indian context is that some in the Pakistani establishment are unwilling to give up on the dream of keeping the Kashmir issue alive with the help of terrorists. It is imperative that the Pakistani state and its military act soon. It is not only what the global community wants, but also what the average Pakistani citizen desires.    
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