Pakistan’s long road to the Lahore bombing

The Easter Sunday suicide bombing in Lahore is a gruesome metaphor for the religious madness that has consumed Pakistan


JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
April 2, 2016

The Easter Sunday suicide bombing in Lahore, which was aimed at Christians but killed and maimed mostly Muslims, is a gruesome metaphor for the religious madness that has consumed Pakistan since the country’s creation in 1947.

From the start, Pakistan has been a crippled state and no one seems able or willing to fashion a prosthetic that will allow it to function.

Added to the religious turmoil, which is as bloody inside Islamic communities as outside, the political class is overpopulated with craven self-servers, bereft of courage or vision.

Standing back from the cacophonous political marketplace is Pakistan’s only fully-functional institution: the army. But the army, from its base in Rawalpindi, an easy drive from the capital Islamabad when need be, has its own prerogatives. It regards itself as the guardian of the sanctity of the state. The army makes and applies its own policies on Pakistan’s internal and external security.

On three occasions since Pakistan was created out of the British Indian Empire in 1947, the army has elbowed aside the politicians and taken power directly. But for the most part, the senior officer corps doesn’t have to interfere overtly. The political classes are so fearful of a coup that they always keep in mind the reaction of the army before making decisions.

A Sunni extremist group called Jamaat-ul-Ahrar has claimed responsibility for the Lahore atrocity. The group is either a splinter group or a faction of the Pakistani Taliban, and has also claimed responsibility for two suicide bomber attacks on Christian churches in Lahore in March 2015, in which 15 people were killed.

The Lahore police have arrested about 17 people after a series of raids. But the Pakistani police in general are a dud force, and for political reasons there will be no serious attempt to root out either Jamaat-ul-Ahrar or the Pakistani Taliban in Punjab state, of which Lahore is the capital.

That would require loosing the military in a fully-fledged counterinsurgency campaign in Punjab. But that would mean admitting that there is a home-grown security problem in Punjab, the core political stronghold of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim Leagure-Nawaz (PML-N) party.

There are three main reasons why Nawaz wants to avoid that.

First, his PML-N party has more than a nudge-nudge-wink-wink relationship with Sunni religious extremists. Indeed, secondly, some of Nawaz’ colleagues are not above enrolling extremists to intimidate their opponents during election campaign. And third, allowing military operations in his political core base of Punjab would make Nawaz look weak to his supporters.

So Nawaz has gone out of his way not to offend his supporters. His response to the Easter Sunday and other terrorist attacks is to suggest that insecurity in Punjab is the work of terrorists from other provinces. A counterinsurgency operation by police and the Rangers, a paramilitary organization commanded by army officers, ordered by Nawaz after the latest attack has concentrated on the state’s border regions, even though the suicide bomber has been identified as a Punjab state resident.

This dangerous habit of trying to make events fit political imperatives has a long history in Pakistan and only serves to ensure the survival of the terrorist groups.

The government’s political response to the Lahore attack ignores the fact that the aim of most if not all the militant groups based in Punjab is to attack minority religious groups whom they despise. These groups consider their enemies to be the Christians, Shia Muslims and the Ahmadi Muslims, who believe themselves to be devout followers of Islam, but who are dismissed as heretics by Sunnis and even the Pakistani government.

Nawaz and his government are trying to suggest the insecurity in Punjab flows from the lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). This inhospitable western region bordering Afghanistan is where there are havens for the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaida, and, increasingly, groups vowing loyalty to the Islamic State group and its “Caliphate” in Syria and Iraq.

In so far as there is any Pakistani security force in the FATA, it is the army. However, the army has its own ideas about who are the good guys and who the bad. The Pakistani Taliban are definitely bad, and the army sometimes goes on sweeps to attack its bases. The relation ship with al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban is a different matter. It will be recalled that when United States Special Forces found al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden he had been living for some time in a large compound in the heart of Abbottabad. The centre-piece of this town is its military academy. Claims that the Pakistani army – or senior members of it at the very least — did not know bin Laden was hiding in their midst defy common sense.

And it must always be remembered that Pakistan’s military intelligence service, the Inter-Service Intelligence agency, created the Taliban to take control of Afghanistan in the chaos that followed the departure of the Soviet Union invasion forces in 1989. The Taliban fighters were recruited from among the Afghan refugee students in camps in Pakistan. They were then trained and armed by ISI with the blessing of then Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto before being dispatched into Afghanistan.

The close relationship between ISI and the Afghan Taliban has continued despite efforts by the U.S. and others to convince the Pakistan army to end its support. The reason for the ISI’s persistence stems from why it created the Taliban in the first place. For the army and ISI the great threat to Pakistan’s security is its massive neighbour India, with whom it has fought four wars and engaged in countless border clashes since 1947.

Pakistan’s military fears being surrounded if India gains dominant influence in Afghanistan. The Taliban are Pakistan’s insurance policy against New Delhi becoming pre-eminent in Kabul. Just this week, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in an interview with the BBC, accused Pakistan of continuing to foster war and insecurity in his country by its continuing support for the Taliban.

There has, however, been a significant change in the Afghan Taliban equation since the death of its leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, in Pakistan in 2013. Several of the Taliban commanders have defected to the Islamic State group, with its even more barbarous interpretations of Islam and the fitting treatment for unbelievers and traitors.

Whether ISI and the Pakistani army will continue to treat Islamic State groups with the same kind of paternal affection they have displayed for the Taliban is one of the most important questions confronting Afghanistan and, indeed, Pakistan.

The attitude of Prime Minister Nawaz to terrorism and insecurity in Karachi, Pakistan’s commercial and industrial hub and capital of southern Sindh Province, is dramatically different from his response to the same problems back home in Punjab.

Karachi is a very violent place, and not just from the work of religious fanatics. It has criminal mafias and a lot of political violence, especially within the Muttahida Quami Movement, the party of people who fled to Pakistan at the time of partition from India in 1947.

But Sindh province is the heartland of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the main opposition party once led by Benazir Bhutto and, since her assassination in 2007, by her husband Asif Ali Zardari. It is a measure of Zardari’s lack of confidence in his personal safety in Karachi that he chooses to lead the opposition PPP from the relative safety of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

Because Karachi and Sindh are the heartlands of the PPP, Nawaz has not felt the need to appease local people’s sensitivities when confronting violence and terrorism. The counterinsurgency campaign in Karachi is led by the paramilitary Rangers and their army officers. A speciality of the Rangers are what is known as “encounter death.” Others would call this a shoot-first policy or even a policy of extra-judicial murder. At any rate, last year the Rangers killed about 800 people alleged to be criminals or terrorists.

Their tactics may be brutal, but they do seem to be effective. The number of people murdered in the city has dropped from 2,789 in 2013 to 986 last year.

Mind you, Karachi has plenty of bad people to go around. (The last time I was there my considerate hosts provided me with six armed bodyguards for the duration of my stay. I well remember the look of relief on their faces when they finally delivered me to the airport for my flight home.)

Since 2005 about two million people displaced by fighting and terrorism in other parts of the country have fled to Karachi in search of security. Among them is a large number of Taliban sympathizers who have taken over at least three districts of Karachi, where they operate profitable protection rackets against local businesses.

The situation is not helped by the growth of a network of about 1,000 madrassas – Muslim religious schools – around the city. Of these, around 50 are connected to the Pakistan Taliban and other Sunni extremist groups.

Pakistan was never meant to be like this. Yet even from before the country was created there was confusion and division about the role of Islam in the constitution of the state. When, in the 1930s, the idea to hive off the Muslim regions of predominantly Hindu India into a separate country was being debated, leading figures thought it should be a theocracy based on Sharia Islamic law. But when partition came in 1947, the leader of dominant Muslim League and Pakistan’s first leader, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, opted for a secular state. In his inaugural speech Jinnah said: “You will find that in the course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the state.”

Unfortunately for Pakistan, religion has not become a matter of personal, private devotion. It continues to be a cause for public violence, murder and discord.

There are nearly 200 million people in Pakistan, and about 96 per cent of them are Muslims. That makes Pakistan the second most populous Muslim country after Indonesia. About 85 per cent of those nearly 200 million people are Sunni Muslims and about 15 per cent are Shia. About two per cent of Pakistanis are Ahmadi Muslims, who, as I said above, are considered heretics by other Muslims and even the government. The remaining few percent of Pakistanis are Christians or Hindus.

The first years of Pakistan’s independence were taken up with trying to write a constitution that embodied a parliamentary democracy with protection for minorities, but which also acknowledged the supremacy of Islam and its tenets. It was a fraught and challenging business that led to high emotions and a gathering tide of unrest on the streets. In 1958, President Iskander Mirza, a career army officer with little regard for civilians or the notion of democracy, decided the security of the state was threatened by the unrest. He dismissed the government and the parliament. He imposed martial law, issued his own constitution, formed a government made up largely of technocrats, and appointed Pakistan’s army commander, Gen. Ayub Khan, as the head of government. Big mistake. Within a few months Gen.Ayub Khan took full control, fired Mirza’s government, forced the president to resign and packed him off to exile in London.

Ayub Khan minmized foreign criticism of his coup by allying himself with the U.S. and Britain in the Cold War. Tha air base at Peshawar was made available to the U.S. Air Force, from where it flew U-2 spy plane flights over the Soviet Union. In 1969 Ayub Khan resigned and handed power to Gen. Yaya Khan, who immediately reaffirmed the declaration of martial law.

Yaya Khan’s rule ended in chaos. Predominantly Muslim East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, was still part of the country, but a strong secessionist movement there spawned a civil war. This in turn morphed into a war with India, which Pakistan lost. That 1971 defeat remains a livid cultural scar on the soul of the Pakistan armed forces. The shame of that defeat still determines the military’s attitude to India and the country’s security.

Yaya Khan had little choice but to leave before being thrown out the door. He handed power to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a British-trained lawyer from an aristocratic Rajput family, who had managed to survive in several government positions during military rule.

Bhutto had founded the left-leaning Pakistan People’s Party in 1967 under the banner: “Islam is our faith, democracy is our policy, socialism is our economy. All power to the people.” Even before he achieved power Bhutto and the PPP attracted support from hardline socialists and communists.

Bhutto took power as the civilian administrator of martial law, but under the 1973 constitution he became Prime Minister. He pursued a classic socialist agenda, but his populist style and volatile personality generated mounting political opposition. The most potent opposition came from staunch Islamists and the Muslim League.

In order to try to stave off this attack from the religious right, Bhutto the populist decided to become an Islamist himself. He instituted a number laws and rules consistent with Sharia religious law, but it was too late to save his regime.

Believing that Pakistan was on the brink of civil disorder, the army under Gen. Zia-ul-Haq took control in July 1977. At first Bhutto was allowed to go free, but after he toured the country gathering large crowds at PPP rallies, he was arrested and charged with murder. After a trial of extraordinary drama and legal tomfoolery, Bhutto was found guilty and hanged on April 4 1979.

Although Bhutto had started the Islamization of Pakistan’s law and constitution, it was Gen. Zia who decisively shifted the balance from secular democracy to theocratic state.

“Pakistan which was created in the name of Islam will continue to survive only if it sticks to Islam. That is why I consider the introduction of an Islamic system as an essential prerequisite for the country,” Zia said in his first speech after taking power.

Zia established “Sharia Benches” in the Federal Court to judge legal cases using the teachings of the Quran, and to bring Pakistan’s legal statutes into alignment with Islamic doctrine. He increased the influence of Islamic clergy and the Islamic parties. For example, 10,000 members of the Jamaat-e-Islami party were appointed to government posts.

He also introduced punishments such as amputation, whipping and stoning to death for crimes like adultery, fornication, and robbery. It was Zia who enacted the blasphemy laws that remain a huge blight on the country, and which were directly responsible for the Easter Sunday bombing in Lahore.

The bombing was, in part, revenge for the February 29 hanging of Mumtaz Qadri. He had been a police bodyguard for Salmaan Taseer, the PPP-appointed governor of Punjab. Taseer was killed by Qadri on January 4 2011 because of the governor’s efforts to have the blasphemy laws removed. The law, which makes any denigration of Islam a capital offence, has been widely used to persecute Christians and, because little evidence is required to prove the case, as a weapon in personal and family feuds. While no one has been executed for blasphemy, 62 people have been murdered while their trials were underway.

Zia muted criticism from the West of his military regime by remaining a firm ally with the U.S. in the Cold War. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 was a gift to Zia. It put him in the wonderful position of being Washington’s invaluable ally in the drive to support and supply the mujahideen guerrillas fighting the Soviets. Washington persuaded its ally, Saudi Arabia, to help finance the project. Riyadh joined with alacrity and as well as money for arms, it sent its most troublesome radical Wahhabist clerics to preach and teach in Pakistan in the guerrilla camps and madrassa religious schools for refugee Afghan boys and young men.

We know how that venture turned out.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

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Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.”

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.


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