On March 27, a suicide bomber attacked Lahore’s Gulshan-e-Iqbal park, killing at least 72 people, mostly women and children, and leaving several hundred injured. This is the most horrific attack in Pakistan since the Army Public School carnage in Peshawar in December 2014 that killed 140 people including children and staff. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), the Mohmand tribal agency-based breakaway faction of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has claimed responsibility for orchestrating the Lahore suicide attack. Since its formation two years ago, the group has established itself as the most ferocious and violent organisation among many such groups in Pakistan.
For more than a decade, Pakistan has been battling a violent insurgency by the Taliban in its North-Western region known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The FATA insurgency erupted after the Pakistan Government, at the request of the United States, launched military operations in the region to flush out foreign terrorists such as Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. In response, in December 2007, all local insurgent groups coalesced to form the TTP signalling the onset of insurgency against Pakistan in earnest. Yet after several years of bloody insurgency, the military drove the TTP from its strongholds in the mountains and tribal areas of the FATA. Most of the TTP leadership fled and sought sanctuaries in eastern Afghanistan from where they have planned terrorist attacks inside Pakistan. These terrorist attacks have included those against the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014, a Shia mosque in Peshawar in February 2015, an air force base in Peshawar in September 2015, and Bacha Khan University in Charsada in January 2016 (which killed 19 people, mostly students).
But over the last decade, Lahore has mostly evaded such attacks. The terrorists were focused more on the FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the Pashtun-inhabited province of Pakistan. A number of attacks in the last eighteen months show that Lahore is no longer immune from terrorism however. JuA detonated a suicide bomb at the Pakistan-India border crossing near Wagah in 2014, killing at least 57 people, and bombed two churches in Lahore in March 2015, killing at least 13. The Home Minister of Punjab, Shuja Khanzada, was assassinated in a suicide bomb blast near the district of Attock in 2015. JuA is believed to be struggling to hold centre-stage after the weakening of the TTP. Yet targeting Lahore is significant. The city is the capital of Punjab province, and the political stronghold of Pakistan’s ruling party (PML-N) led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
A crucial part of Pakistan’s problem lies in the fact that for more than a decade, government agencies have consistently targeted those groups which were fighting against the Pakistani state but spared and tolerated those militant groups which focused only on fighting against India or in Afghanistan. During military operations in 2014-15 in the FATA, the military destroyed TTP infrastructure while leaving some ‘strategic groups’ such as the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network unharmed. Similarly, in Punjab, the Pakistani establishment did not make any serious attempt to dismantle anti-India militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (reincarnated as Jamaatud Dawa – JuD), Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), and sectarian outfits such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Both JuD and JeM have been alleged for planning several terrorist attacks in India and Afghanistan, leaving Pakistan unscathed. Despite being officially banned by the Pakistani government, these groups continued to operate right under the nose of the security establishment, requiring little more concealment than fresh names. These terrorist networks and facilities were not targeted partly because of the possibility of a severe backlash in Punjab and partly because of the fear of opening of another front when the military was already engaged in battle with insurgent groups in Pakistan’s Northwest. Yet with their operations creating instability in India and Afghanistan, these groups were a strategic boon for Pakistan.
Yet this characterisation of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ militants by the Pakistani establishment is misguided, to put it mildly. The support for ‘good’ militants has only helped promote a culture of militancy and thereby terrorism. Membership of these groups is highly fluid, meaning that militants previously supported by the state can soon move to another group in violent opposition to Pakistan. The foot soldiers of both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ militant organisations switch their loyalties often, even holding membership of more than one militant organisation at the same time. For example, some of the breakaway members of JeM and other militant organisations established a militant group known as the ‘Punjabi Taliban’ and joined the Pakistani Taliban in FATA to fight against the Pakistani security forces. Asmatullah Muawiya, a former commander of JeM – supported by the Pakistani state – actually led the Punjabi Taliban in the FATA. Another example is Mast Gul, who abandoned a Kashmir-focussed militant group and joined the Pakistani Taliban in 2014. Mast Gul belonged to Hizbul Mujaideen (HM), one of the largest militant groups fighting in Indian-held Kashmir, and one sponsored by the Pakistan state. In addition, members of the Punjab-based militant groups provided support to the TTP in conducting terrorist attacks in Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Lahore.
After the Lahore massacre, the Pakistani authorities have vowed to launch a major operation against militant groups of all kinds in Punjab without maintaining any distinction. It remains to be seen whether it will do so or focus only on JuA. The authorities have arrested an estimated 200-300 suspected militants in numerous areas but have chosen not to disclose their identities, identifying them simply as “suspected terrorists and their facilitators.” It therefore remains to be seen whether the Pakistani state has changed its strategic calculus or not. A continuation of the previous approach of supporting ‘good’ militant groups and targeting the ‘bad’ militants opposing the state will almost certainly mean more of the same. The Pakistani people will continue to suffer from the menace of terrorism.
Politics and International Relations,
University of Auckland