In the recent years of Pakistan’s war on terrorism, the government has increased the force of its measures in response to particularly severe attacks. A real crackdown against terrorists and their facilitators only began after the attack on Karachi Airport that compelled the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to abandon its ill-fated peace talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). It took the worst terror attack in Pakistan’s history— the slaughter of 141 children and teachers at the Army Public School in Peshawar— to push General Raheel Sharif’s army to double down on Operation Zarb-e-Azb, its counter terrorism operation in the country’s northern areas. The political leadership and security establishment have declared their resolve to combat terrorism in the aftermath of such devastating attacks. But the recent attack in Lahore has collapsed civilian–military relations on the issue of security, endangering the prospects of successful counterterrorism policy.
A suicide bomber blew himself up outside the gates of Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in Lahore, a city celebrated for both its gardens and relative safety from terror attacks. The bomber killed over 70 people, of which 29 were children, and wounded hundreds more. Less than two weeks prior, a bomb blast on a bus killed at least 15 in Peshawar, a city routinely recognized for its resilience in the face of attacks and its seemingly never-ending list of terror victims. But the breaking point is Lahore, in Punjab.
It was always going to be Punjab.
Tensions had been simmering between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif for months. Their respective institutions had settled into an uneasy power-sharing framework: the civilian Sharif, an aggressive capitalist, oversaw the economy and development efforts while the soldier Sharif controlled foreign policy and the country’s counterterrorism efforts. The ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) did not stand in the way of the army’s counterterrorism operations in Karachi, the capital of Sindh and the home base of the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), led by paramilitary Rangers, who have expanded their mandate to target alleged corruption of local politicians.
Both the federal government and the armed forces derive their power from Punjab, the most populous province in the country. Though soldiers enlist from all over the country, the Pakistani military has a Punjabi-dominated composition and culture. The PML-N governs Punjab, from where it secured enough votes to be the majority party in the National Assembly and thus, win control of the federal government in the 2013 elections. Combined, these factors make for a high premium on the security of Punjab.
In the last several months, there has been increasing speculation in Islamabad that the army was eyeing its prospects for a move into Punjab. Sources close to the General, who began the much-delayed counterterrorism operation Zarb-e-Azb in the north, believe any military successes thus far will not be sustained without corresponding action in the heartland. Despite this, the prime minister has kept Army incursions into Punjab at bay, even though public support for anti-terror measures is high.
The PML-N has long been accused of being soft on terrorist outfits operating in Punjab or of striking deals with them. Southern Punjab is a particularly dangerous hotbed of terrorism, with thousands of madrassas radicalizing students, and a history of producing jihadists for a whole host of terror groups. One such group is Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, the splinter group of the TTP that claimed responsibility for the Easter Sunday attack. Although based in FATA, it has strong connections to Punjab. This is the same group that assassinated Punjab Home Minister Shuja Khanzada, cementing its pattern of targeting the province. Yet Shahbaz Sharif, the Chief Minister of Punjab (as well as the Prime Minister’s younger brother), refused to grant the army legal cover to deploy paramilitary forces.
The army decided it could no longer wait for that legal cover. The day after the Lahore attack, General Sharif convened a meeting of top military and intelligence brass in Rawalpindi to give the go-ahead for a crackdown in Punjab. Army spokesman General Asim Bajwa disclosed that the intelligence community, in partnership with the army and the Rangers, had carried out five operations in Lahore, Faisalabad, and Multan in the immediate days of the attack, rounding up a large number of suspected terrorists and recovering arms and ammunition. Neither the federal nor the provincial government is involved.
Meanwhile, that same day, the federal government limited its response to a speech by the Prime Minister declaring his resolve against terrorism, but not saying a word about military operations in his home province. Pakistan’s leading English newspaper, Dawn, issued a scathing editorial criticizing the comments as little more than “familiar rhetoric and reiteration of long-established talking points.”
The fact remains that both sides must work together. The military engaging in Punjab without a constitutional shield does not just undermine democracy; it renders any gains in counterterrorism initiatives unsustainable, without civilian law enforcement agencies playing a crucial role. The civilian leadership must commit political capital to dismantling terrorist havens in Punjab, in order to secure the future of the province it rules and the country it governs. It is impossible to defeat terrorism without a unified front, and currently the two leading institutions remain worlds apart.
Image: Aamir Qureshi-AFP, Getty