Let there be no doubt that the violent activities of militant Islamist groups are a threat to Pakistani state and society. None of them recognises the territorial boundaries of Pakistan or its constitution and law. Nor do any of them believe in seeking mandate for their “Islamic” agenda through the electoral process
Terror hit Pakistan once again on March 3 when the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team was targeted at Liberty Square, a posh area of Lahore. The incident was the latest evidence — if evidence was still needed — of the inadequacies of the state apparatus to cope with the challenge of terrorism.
One can talk of the bravery of the driver and the policemen that saved the Sri Lankan team from fatalities. It is also true that ordinary people all over Pakistan were shocked and saddened by the attack. However, this does not make up for the major security lapse represented by the incident.
Such a terrorist incident has domestic, regional and global implications. In the domestic context, it represents a major threat to civic order and raises questions about the capacity of the government to fulfil its security obligations towards the citizenry. The repeated challenges by armed groups raise doubts about the government’s primacy and undermine its credibility.
These developments also generate the impression that violent groups may overwhelm state authorities in parts of the country or make them irrelevant altogether. The government may have to negotiate with these groups for its survival rather than protect citizens from them.
Repeated terror attacks also have an extremely adverse impact on Pakistan’s economy at a time when the economy is already in difficulties. Who will invest if terrorist groups can show their power time and again? Even Pakistani investors and the moneyed class are likely to send their capital abroad if extremism and terrorism continue to expand their domain.
In addition, terrorism has regional implications for Pakistan. Its relations with Afghanistan, China, India, Sri Lanka and other South Asian states are affected by terrorism whether an incident takes place within Pakistan or elsewhere involving Pakistan-based groups or individuals.
The Taliban and Al Qaeda linkages across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border have become a major irritant in trilateral interaction between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US/NATO in Afghanistan. These linkages have created interdependence in the security and stability of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The insurgency in FATA avails of linkages across the Pak-Afghan border to sustain itself.
China has discreetly raised the issue of unauthorised movement of Pakistan-based Islamist hard liners to its Xinjiang region and Uighur dissidents crossing over into the northern areas of Pakistan. The first major complaint developed in the late 1980s but the two governments handled it diplomatically. Subsequently, these issues cropped up from time to time, but were dealt with cooperatively and quietly. China has fenced part of its border with the northern areas of Pakistan.
Terrorism and its related issues have added to the already long list of problems between India and Pakistan. Mutual distrust and non-cooperation are the hallmark of their terrorism-related interaction; both accuse each other of exploiting of the situation. The attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001 and the Mumbai incident in November 2008 had the most destabilising impact on already troubled India-Pakistan relations. Mumbai completely stalled the dialogue and peace process between the two countries.
The Lahore attack had the potential to undermine Pakistan’s cordial relations with Sri Lanka. However, the Sri Lankan government, itself a victim of terrorism and insurgency, showed remarkable patience and understanding of the terrorist threat being faced by Pakistan. Sri Lanka’s foreign minister reached Islamabad within a day of the incident to assure Pakistan that the incident would not disturb bilateral relations. The two sides agreed to cooperate in investigating the attack..
Sri Lanka’s disposition is in sharp contrast to India, which refuses to jointly investigate the Mumbai terrorist attack. Pakistan was subjected to a barrage of criticism by the Indian foreign and home ministers. It is interesting that these Indian ministers again reprimanded Pakistan for the Lahore attack, accusing Pakistan of taking “half-hearted measures” to fight terrorism. The Indian home minister said that ‘Pakistan [was] paying the price for not heeding…our advice.
The difference in the disposition of India and Sri Lanka towards Pakistan on the terrorism issue can be explained with reference to the differences in the agendas of their governments. India is not merely interested in containing terrorism; it wants to use the Mumbai incident to secure its broader goals against Pakistan, which include isolating Pakistan internationally and getting it designated as a terrorist state. That is why its leadership is less interested in cooperation and more active in propaganda against Pakistan.
On the other hand, Sri Lanka has no negative global agenda against Pakistan. It wants to eradicate terrorism in the region, and as this goal is shared by Pakistan, bilateral cooperation for counterterrorism will not be a problem.
The attack on Sri Lankan players also has global implications: it adversely affects Pakistan’s reputation and builds pressure to make tough and sustained efforts to counter the threats posed by a host of Islamist militant groups based in the tribal areas as well as mainland Pakistan.
The Lahore attack aimed primarily to undermine Pakistan’s international linkages. Pakistan-based militant groups — Al Qaeda, various Taliban entities and outfits in mainland Pakistan — have come to the conclusion that Pakistan’s international linkages strengthen its capacity to challenge them. They think that if Pakistan’s external linkages are undermined, it would be easier for them to overwhelm the Pakistani state. Therefore, their activities aim at undermining state authority in the domestic context and isolating it at the international level. These groups have kidnapped or attacked several foreign diplomatic staff and other officials over the last two years as part of this strategy.
Taking a cue from them, a Baloch dissident group kidnapped an official of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The Mumbai incident and the attack on Sri Lankan team are the latest moves to de-link Pakistan from the international system. These actions are meant to scare away the international community so that Pakistan is left alone, which will make it easy for militant groups to launch a cultural and military offensive against Pakistani state and society.
American presence in Afghanistan may have been the initial cause of their emergence. However, now these groups have an agenda of overwhelming the Pakistani state and society. The Pakistani Taliban and their affiliates and other militant groups are expanding their domain in Pakistan, and their efforts to impose their worldview on people in different places are designed to show to concerned people and the rest of the world that the Pakistan state is on the retreat, that they are a reality that will have to be recognised.
Let there be no doubt that the violent activities of militant Islamist groups are a threat to Pakistani state and society. None of them recognises the territorial boundaries of Pakistan or its constitution and law. Nor do any of them believe in seeking mandate for their “Islamic” agenda through the electoral process. They want to impose their notions of society and governance, wrongly labelled as Islamic, by force. The sooner the people and the government recognise this threat the better.
Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst
Article reproduced by permission of Daily Times