Terror strikes Pak once again
Pakistan is once again under siege from radical terrorists, with the minority Sufi community becoming their latest target. On Thursday, the Islamic State took responsibility for a horrific suicide bombing that killed 80 people at the famed Lal Shahbaz Qalander shrine in the country's southern Sindh province. It is one of the deadliest sectarian attacks on Pakistani soil in recent years, underlining the grave threat militant groups like the Pakistani Taliban and Islamic State pose to the country's security and social fabric. Despite rampant poverty and growing influence of reactionary elements, Sindh has always been a religiously tolerant region, often shielded from much of the sectarian violence rampant in other parts of Pakistan.
Nonetheless, as Thursday's attack indicates, this dynamic is changing rapidly. In a recent blog post, Raza Ahmed Rumi, a senior Pakistani journalist, spoke of this changing dynamic. "With Karachi being a hotbed of militant networks and Sindh gradually occupied by hate-preaching networks, the death of Pakistan's lively secular culture is on the cards. Where once Sarmast, Bhitai, and Lal Shahbaz were icons of plural Sindhi identity, an insidious imported sectarian ideology is taking root. This is surely an extension of the unfortunate state project since the 1980s," he writes. In little less than a week, there have been bombings in all four of Pakistan's provinces, killing more than 100 people.
By most accounts, this is a dangerous escalation of attempts by Islamist terrorists to destabilise the region, and target communities that do not adhere to their fascistic interpretation of Sunni Islam. Although security forces responded to this attack by killing dozens of suspected militants on Friday, there is growing anger and discontentment at their inability to tighten security. Last August, more than 70 people, mostly lawyers, were killed in a suicide bombing of a hospital in Quetta, the capital city of the restive Balochistan province. The attack was claimed by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), a splinter group of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, often referred to as the Pakistani Taliban. A few months late in November, the Islamic State engineered a deadly explosion, which ripped through a Shia Muslim shrine in the remote Khuzdar district of Balochistan province, killing 52 people. Most radical Sunni terror groups despise Sufis, Shi'ite Muslims and other religious minorities as heretics.
It is also evident that extensive security operations conducted by the Pakistani armed forces against these terror outfits, especially those in the restive northwestern tribal areas, are not producing significant results.
The naive belief that the worst of the country's militant violence may be in the past is being shattered with every attack. The immediate geopolitical implications of Thursday's suicide bomb blast found expression in a tweet posted by Major General Asif Ghafoor, a top official in the media wing of the Pakistan Armed Forces. "Recent terrorist acts are being executed on directions from hostile powers and sanctuaries in Afghanistan. We shall defend and respond," he tweeted.
In fact, Pakistan has officially sealed the Torkham border crossing with Afghanistan for an indefinite period. Ties between the two countries have long been clouded by mutual allegations that militant extremists obtain shelter on the other side of the border. With India's growing influence on the ruling Afghan establishment, the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment has ratcheted up hostilities. Pakistan needs only to look within and gauge the failures of the strategic policy it has long pursued. It is common knowledge that their military-intelligence establishment, also known as the Deep State, has long provided shelter for the Afghan Taliban.
Bitter fighting has ensued in the major provinces of Afghanistan, and the Afghan army is not equipped to defeat the Taliban. In a recent column, senior journalist Praveen Swami observed: "Instead of compelling the Taliban leadership to talk, it's [Pakistan] allowed their largest offensive in years to surge forward. In effect, it's stringing Afghanistan along, until the Taliban bring the government to its knees. Islamabad's compulsions are simple. Pakistan can't risk the Afghan Taliban joining hands with the Pakistani Taliban networks and the Islamic State led by Khan Saeed, who want to overthrow the government. That could end in a war larger than the Pakistan army is prepared to fight. It is simply in no position, therefore, to restrain the Taliban."
In fact, the Pakistan Deep State's policy of allowing militant groups to operate on domestic soil to achieve strategic foreign targets continues to blow up in its face. In a column for a leading Indian publication, Husain Haqqani, an expert on South Asian affairs and Pakistan's ambassador to the US from 2008-11, wrote: "Jihadi militants do not accept the neat divisions between global, regional and local conflict.
Once they are convinced of the righteousness of their cause, they are willing to fight and blow themselves up anywhere." Past reports have indicated that Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence received commitments from the likes of the Afghan Taliban, Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed that they would not conduct militant operation inside Pakistan. What is the guarantee that these armed groups will not support the likes of Pakistani Taliban or its breakaway faction, the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, and the LeJ? Haqqani goes on to write: "Pakistan's greatest enemy at the moment is denial. It is time to acknowledge that jihadi groups cannot be trusted or considered allies of the state. However useful the Pakistani Deep State might find them for external purposes, they will always be dangerous internally. And their usefulness in expanding Pakistan's external influence is also severely overstated."
If certain media reports are to be believed, the Deep State-backed terror groups (Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed) are beginning to work in close collaboration with the Afghan Taliban and Islamic State-Khorasan Province based in Afghanistan. Evidently, the attempt by the Deep State to obtain some degree of control over Afghanistan's various militant outfits and ideologies is blowing up in its face. What should be of real concerns to India is that this alliance of terror has strengthened Pakistani terror groups looking to inflict violence on Indian soil with better resources and more funds.
The Modi government must be prepared to deal with this emergence of a more potent militancy in India. Despite Thursday's horrific attacks, the defenders of Islam's ancient mystic branch, Sufism, remain defiant. Dr Syed Mehdi Raza Shah, the custodian of the shrine, announced on Friday that the evening 'dhamaal' would continue as usual after evening prayers, according to the AFP news agency. His assertion that he "will not bow down" to terrorists is incredibly brave and should inspire those around him to remain steadfast in their struggle against violent religious fascism