By Pamela Constable and Nisar Mehdi
Humiliated by a spate of suicide bombings that shook the nation and shattered official claims of winning the war on terrorism, Pakistani authorities have launched a sweeping retaliatory offensive across the country since Friday, hunting and killing more than 100 suspected Islamist militants, pledging to “liquidate” all terrorists, and placing security forces on high alert.
Pakistan has also accused next-door Afghanistan of harboring the armed groups believed to be behind most of the bombings, and it has demanded that Kabul take action against them. On Saturday, Pakistani forces reportedly shelled suspected militant camps across the border, triggering a protest from Afghan officials as tensions rose between the hostile neighboring countries.
But the blitz of punitive lethal action and the attempt to deflect blame toward foreign sources do not seem to have convinced many Pakistanis. They have seen similar vows of a decisive crackdown on Islamist militancy peter out after previous deadly attacks, especially since the terrorist massacre of 141 students and teachers at an elite army school just over two years ago.
Instead, the stunning new eruption of violence, claimed by the Islamic State and its local affiliates as part of a new war on the Pakistani state, has triggered an outpouring of anguished and angry recrimination against Pakistan’s leaders for failing to acknowledge and address the ongoing threat of Islamist violence and the forces that feed it.
The half-dozen bombings and other attacks, carried out between Monday and Thursday in scattered locations across the country, killed more than 125 and left several hundred people injured. One blast killed 16 people in a crowded downtown area of Lahore, Pakistan’s eastern cultural capital and political nerve center. The most deadly suicide attack, at a packed Sufi shrine in southeastern Sindh province, left at least 88 people dead and 250 injured.
In opinion pieces and TV debates, in conversations at tea shops and Sufi shrines, people complained that the government had become complacent after a massive 2015 military operation that drove thousands of Pakistani Taliban fighters and other militants from the northwest border region, from which many fled into Afghanistan.
Since that much-praised victory, critics said, Pakistani officials have allowed partisan politics, sectarian bias and hostility to neighboring countries to get in the way of curbing other violent religious groups, targeting them selectively and doing little to curb radical seminaries and hate speech under a plan launched by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif after the army school siege.
“We are so self-congratulatory that we declared success in the middle of a fight. But what have we done to address the ideological basis of terror? Has the supply chain of hate-filled violent ideology been shut down?” lawyer and rights activist Babar Sattar wrote in the News International newspaper Saturday. “Bravado is useful to bolster public confidence when under attack,” he added, “but it is no substitute for sensible policy.”
At the Bari Imam shrine in Islamabad on Saturday, devotees of a 17th century Sufi saint gathered at the historic sanctuary, despite official warnings and heavy security, as others did at the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine that was bombed Thursday in Sindh. Arif Ali, 50, a civil engineer, brought his young son to Bari Imam and said he prayed to the saint to stop the violence.
“May God have mercy on us and our country,” Ali said. “We thought all the blasts and explosions were over, but now it is the same havoc as before. These terrorists don’t spare even mosques or schools. The sad thing is that our government seems to be helpless in crushing them. Look at these police, they are standing here but they cannot protect anyone. I say it would be better if this government resigns and the army takes over.”
Military and civilian officials have taken pains to speak with one voice on the new terrorist threat, and there seems little danger of the army stepping in as it has done during past crises. Sharif has made a number of tough anti-terror statements as well as condemned the shrine bombing Thursday as “an attack on the progressive and inclusive future of Pakistan.” However, the military establishment has taken the lead in accusing Afghanistan of failing to go after the militants — an ironic role reversal after years of complaints by Afghan and U.S. officials that Pakistan has been sheltering anti-Afghan Taliban forces on its side of the border. On Friday, Afghan diplomats were called to Pakistan army headquarters and handed a list of 76 terrorists — largely from the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JUA) group, an affiliate of the Islamic State that claimed most of the bombings — and were told the fighters were operating from Afghan soil. On Saturday, Afghan officials formally complained that Pakistan had shelled civilian areas in Afghanistan’s Nangahar province, near the Pakistani border.
[Trump travel ban, other pressures lead Pakistan to rein in Islamist militants] In other areas of Pakistan, official attitudes toward a hodgepodge of religious militant groups have been more ambivalent. Some are tolerated for their political or sectarian affiliations, others for their strong opposition to Hindu-led India. But experts said that many of these groups have ties to the local Islamic State affiliates that claimed the bombings, and that attempting to differentiate among the militant groups has been a disastrous mistake.
“These groups come in various colors and varieties, but they share a common purpose. Ultimately they are joined at the hip,” said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of government and public policy at Pakistan’s National University of Sciences and Technology. The recent bombings, he said, constitute “the rejuvenation of a dangerous version of Islam. The message of these terrorists to the government is, ‘We are alive and kicking, and we can strike wherever we want.’ ”
In a video circulated widely last week, the JUA showed scenes of masked fighters training with assault weapons and declared that it planned to carry out a deadly campaign against “all government institutions,” anyone who supports the army, all legal and lawmaking bodies and pro-government leaders, and any group that is “anti-Islamic.” Leaders were shown praying for success in their ultimate goal, enforcing sharia across the country.
But at the majestic blue-tiled Lal Shahzad Qalandar shrine in the Sindhi town of Sehwan, thousands of devotees gathered during the weekend to show their determination and faith in a tolerant, welcoming strain of Islam, even as volunteers were still washing off bloodstains from the building and surrounding stone plazas.
“This remains the last defense against radicalization,” said Syed Mehdi Sabzwari, custodian of the 13th century shrine. “We preach unity and bring together the deprived. Prayers are answered here, regardless of faction.”
Sabzwari said the shrines need more protection, but that “killing militants is not the solution. The government needs to change what they believe in. These terrorists are brainwashed for years, and they despise us for spreading love,” he said. “But we are open today, and rituals are being offered. This is a clear message that they have failed.”