Friday, February 24, 2017
By Shamil Shams
Amid a new wave of terror attacks in Pakistan, the country's army has launched a fresh counter-terrorism offensive. But experts say that instead of more military operations, Pakistan needs a change of narrative.
A series of deadly attacks has shaken Pakistan, which has been grappling with Islamist militancy for over a decade. Just ten days ago, a Taliban suicide bomber targeted a rally in Lahore and killed more than 13 people.
On February 16, a jihadist affiliated with the self-proclaimed "Islamic State" terrorist group attacked one of the most beloved Sufi shrines in the southern Sindh province, killing more than 90 people.
Attacks perpetrated by militant Islamist groups are not a new occurrence in Pakistan, but prior to the first Lahore bombing there had been a relative lull in violence in the country. Many Pakistanis attributed it to the efforts of the South Asian country's former army chief, Raheel Sharif. He launched a military operation, called Zarb-i-Azb, against jihadist outfits across the country after the Taliban attacked a school in Peshawar in December 2014, massacring over 140 children.
While some rights groups and security experts say that Raheel Sharif's offensive failed to rein in terrorists, supporters of the army claim it significantly reduced the capacity of Islamist groups to launch massive attacks in the Islamic country.
General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who succeeded Raheel Sharif in November last year, has vowed to continue with the military action against jihadist organizations. After the attack in Sehwan on Lal Shahbaz Qalander's shrine last week, he launched a new counter-terrorism operation called "Radd-ul-Fasaad," an Arabic word that translates roughly to "elimination of discord."
A change of heart?
But Bajwa's offensive appears to be more serious and wide-ranging than his predecessor's. For the first time, a military drive covers the central Punjab province, of which Lahore is capital, which is seen by many as a recruiting ground for extremist groups fighting the state and aiding insurgents in Afghanistan as well as in the India-administered Kashmir.
"(The) operation aims at indiscriminately eliminating residual latent threat of terrorism, consolidating gains of operations made thus far and further ensuring security of the borders," said a military statement.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been reluctant to allow the military to operate in Punjab - Pakistan's most populous province and also the premier's political stronghold - for the reason that it would prove his administration's incompetence in dealing with the issue. Some analysts also say that some members of Sharif's Muslim League party have close ties with banned Islamist organizations and that is why he didn't want the army to interfere in the province.
But even some military critics have praised General Bajwa for his resolve against militancy. The reasons for Bajwa's determination might be both a strong public demand and international pressure. They say that despite a string of deadly attacks, positive signs are also emerging.
The army is finally taking strong action against banned Islamist groups, including Jamaat-ud-Dawa, whose leader Hafiz Saeed is accused of orchestrating the 2008 terrorist attacks in India's commercial capital Mumbai.
"General Bajwa is different from Raheel Sharif in his understanding of the militancy issue. Also, he has no other choice but to act against the terror outfits. Don't forget that Pakistan is facing an enormous pressure from the international community to curb militancy," Khalid Hameed Farooqi, a Brussels-based Pakistani analyst and senior journalist, told DW.
"The good thing about General Bajwa's 'Radd-al-Fasaad' is that it will focus on the Punjab province, which has been spared by other army chiefs. Punjab is a major breeding ground and a supplier of militants to Sindh and Baluchistan provinces."
The analyst underlines that in the past, the army, too, didn't want to include Punjab in its anti-terror campaign because most of its cadre comes from the province. Despite several US demands that Islamabad acts against Punjab-based jihadist groups, the military generals had obstinately refused to comply, Farooqi pointed out.
"Hafiz Saeed had been put under house arrest several times in the past, but this time his detention shows the state's seriousness," Farooqi said, adding that Pakistan needs internal cohesion as well as the support of the international community to put an end to a violent insurgency that has severely harmed the country.
Regional cooperation needed
Security experts say that one of the reasons behind the recent surge in violent attacks in Pakistan could be the apparent change of the military establishment's policies. But rights groups are of the view that military operations alone will never eliminate militancy from Pakistani soil. For that, they say, the state has to adopt a narrative that does not support jihadism.
Much of the militancy problem in Pakistan is related to the country's hostility towards India, and if General Bajwa and Prime Minister Sharif could mend ties with New Delhi, that would be more effective in reining in terrorist groups than any army offensive.
Experts say that over the years, thousands of people have been killed in terrorist attacks perpetrated by Pakistan-based Islamist groups, but instead of re-evaluating its own flawed security policies, Pakistan's establishment continues to point fingers at neighboring India and Afghanistan.
The bombings in Lahore and Sehwan were followed by Islamabad's harsh criticism of Kabul and New Delhi, with Pakistani authorities vowing to target insurgents inside Afghanistan.
But the "blame game" is not new in the South Asian region. India and Afghanistan also react to terror attacks by blaming Pakistan and that is how all these countries try to conceal their own shortcomings and responsibilities.
Pakistani PM Sharif and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi embarked on a peace process in 2014. The two leaders, along with their countries' military leaders, need to reset their ties if they are serious about tackling the militancy issue. A rapidly increasing presence of "Islamic State" in Afghanistan and Pakistan could threaten the stability of the whole region. Military operations won't resolve the conflict as long as a jihadist narrative exists in South Asia.
The police gunned down two Daesh activists in a raid in Manghopir area in the wee hours of Friday. Daesh aka ISIS ot IS, a Wahhabi takfiri terrorist group, is run by allied Deobandis such as Taliban, ASWJ (Lashkar-e-Jhangvi) in Pakistan.
According to SSP West Nasir Aftab, when police conducted the raid, the two suspects opened fire at the personnel, leaving one policeman injured. In the retaliatory fire, both the suspects were killed while their accomplices managed to escape the site.
Weapons and laptops were found from the suspects' possesion.
The SSP said a hit list was found on the laptop, that included names of police officers and other government officials.
The deceased were identified as Saifullah and Haneef.
TERRORIST outfits in the country have conveyed a chilling message over the last few weeks, and even yesterday in Lahore: no one is safe, neither civilians, nor law enforcement, nor the armed forces in the militants’ escalating campaign of urban terrorism. And what seemed inevitable in the wake of this violence has now come to pass. A military operation has been launched across the country with the stated objectives of eradicating residual terrorist threats, consolidating the gains made in counterterrorism operations thus far and tightening security along the borders. The operation, codenamed Raddul Fasaad, entails coordinated action by all wings of the armed forces as well as paramilitary organisations, civilian law-enforcement agencies and intelligence outfits. Even though the offensive has a countrywide canvas, Punjab — that has long been a hotbed of violent extremist groups that the provincial government has treated with kid gloves — is clearly the focus. This was underscored not least by the fact that the operation was announced after a high-level security meeting in Lahore chaired by the army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa.
Despite appearances however, Raddul Fasaad was not inevitable, had the government — both at the centre and in the provinces — not fallen short in countering extremism and terrorism. For this was the much-vaunted aim of the National Action Plan agreed upon in the anguish of post-APS Peshawar. The civilians were to supplement Operation Zarb-i-Azb that was targeting terrorists in northern Pakistan by taking action against hard-line madressahs, cracking down on terrorist cells in urban areas where such elements can easily find cover, initiating reforms in the criminal justice system, etc. Crucially, the centre and provinces had also pledged to craft a counter-narrative to push back against the poisonous ideology that has fuelled extremism in the country. Instead, they have demurred, obfuscated, clamoured for military courts and, most damningly, refused to acknowledge the dynamics of terrorism. Consider Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan’s statement that banned sectarian organisations could not be equated with terrorist outfits. Or take Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah’s shifting the blame for the Mall Road suicide bombing in Lahore on protesters gathered there, or the fact that groups like the ASWJ have taken out rallies despite being banned.
The reality is that a military force can only carry out kinetic operations; it cannot effect a change in mindset. And extremism is a mindset, one that has percolated through society for decades now. Only the government can counter it through an intelligent use of the resources at its disposal, that too if it displays a steely resolve that has been lacking so far. At the same time, even while recognising that a level of secrecy is necessitated by the situation, transparency must inform the operation: the military should clarify who it is targeting and specify a time frame for the campaign. A vague, open-ended engagement is never good strategy.
Had it been an ideal world, even the unfortunate yet expected losses of soldiers fighting on borders would not have occurred. However, when the horrors of terrorism are unleashed upon innocent civilians going about their business, far removed from the battlefield, the uncalled war zone that ensues amid screams and panic cannot and should not be tolerated under any circumstances. The fear and chaos that seem to have completely engulfed the country after yet another blast in Lahore’s shopping district killed at least nine people, wounding many more, on Thursday, serve as an uncomfortable reminder that terrorism can strike anywhere and anyone. With all politicisation of this national tragedy aside, the authorities could have played a more meaningful role in standing by the bereaved families and the injured as they braved their loss and shock. However, as before, the attack only served to put the indifferent officials back into a defensive mode; wading controversial statements in a futile attempt to save their own skin.
The conflicting reports that originally downplayed the blast as a mere “generator explosion”, only to later confirm the presence of an explosive device (that, too, by the CTD spokespersons) clearly validated the government’s resolve to at least paint an illusion of normalcy before the public even when the reality says otherwise. It is quite unfortunate that the present circumstances expose our vulnerability to the fast-increasing influence of militant outfits despite much-touted governmental claims of having the terrorists on the run. The ever-wider reach of these terrorist groups has claimed more than 100 lives in a series of suicide bomb attacks across Pakistan. Last week, an alleged supporter of the Islamic State struck a crowd of Sufi dancers at the shrine of Sehwan Sharif, claiming at least 90 lives. This attack on the country’s moderate voices occurred only days after a suicide attack near the provincial assembly in Lahore killed over 10 people that included two senior police figures in Punjab. The blood tapestry adorning the walls in all provinces and even the tribal agencies in the last few weeks has, thus, exposed as hollow all claims of establishing order and “breaking the back” of terrorists in Pakistan.
It is not to say that the civilian and the military leadership are sitting idle as terrorist organisations continue to satiate their civilian bloodlust in order to test the state’s resolve. An extensive counter-terrorism crackdown, Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad, has already been initiated by the armed forces across the country while yesterday’s blast saw the provincial law enforcement personnel evacuate the site of the explosion for further forensic investigation. Nevertheless, much more still needs to be done if the authorities actually aspire to undermine this ever-intensifying threat that has already thrown down many horrific gauntlets to the Sharif administration. In lieu of playing the old blame game, it is high time that all political elite gather to carve out a combined line of action against militant violence in the country. Given that the law agencies failed to prevent losses of precious human lives despite having received various bomb threats in the same market, Pakistani intelligence community, as well as police officials, also need to gear up to better anticipate such eventualities in order to take stronger preventive measures.
Stranded roads sans any usual roar of traffic, petrified families confined inside the so-called refuge of their homes, and the rumoured cancellation of numerous events in the local circuit, the militants have definitely stridden, if not succeeded, towards proliferating fear amongst the masses. Even if the government is not blamed for its lack of security provision to citizenry today, it would not be able to enjoy this immunity for long. In conjunction with the military-led operation, it should also work towards establishing more efficient civilian structures. Failure to do so would only highlight it as a fundamentally weak state, both in the eyes of militants and the general public.
By FATIMA BHUTTO
Last Thursday a suicide bomber affiliated with the so-called Islamic State attacked Sehwan Sharif, one of the most revered Sufi shrines, in the southern Sindh Province of Pakistan, killing more than 80 people, including 24 children, and wounding more than 250.
Why the terrorists hate Sehwan is why we love it. The saint and his shrine at Sehwan belong to everyone, to Sunnis and Shiites, to Hindus and Muslims, transgender devotees, to believers and questioners alike. The inclusiveness, the rituals and music born of syncretic roots make shrines like Sehwan Sharif targets in the extremist interpretations of the Islamic State and other radical Wahhabi militants.
As a child in the late 1980s and early ’90s, I would visit the town of Sehwan with my family on our way from Karachi to Larkana, my family’s hometown. After driving along bumpy roads deserted but for palm trees and solitary men standing on the open highways selling lotus flower seeds, we would stop near the western bank of the Indus River to visit the shrine of Sehwan’s patron saint, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a 13th-century Persian mystic and poet who was a contemporary of Rumi.
Qalandar, whose real name was Syed Mohammad Usman Marwandi, is adored in music and poetry as the Red Falcon. As you drive through the narrow, dusty streets of Sehwan, the air becomes perfumed with the scent of roses, sold in small plastic bags and body-length garlands that devotees lay at his tomb.
I was 7 when I first saw Sehwan during Ashura, when Shiites mourn the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussain, who was killed in 680 by an unjust ruler at Karbala, in what is now Iraq. I remember thousands of men and women together in collective, ritualized mourning in the courtyard of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s shrine. They walked barefoot over glass and the embers of burning cigarette butts, their black shalwar kameez drenched in sweat, their palms striking their chests rhythmically. Even as a 7-year-old, I found something hypnotic, something fierce, something pure about Sehwan.
Over the years, I kept returning to Sehwan to sit in that courtyard, the shrine illuminated by red and green fairy lights, its golden dome and turquoise minarets soaring above a town of modest roofs.
The cool tiled floor of the shrine is often carpeted with devotees, some carrying tiffins of food on outings with their children, others in fraying and torn shalwar kameez prostrate in prayer. Even wealthy urbanites visit to lay their anxieties at the feet of the buried saint, tiptoeing gingerly through the crowds. In a country built and maintained on immovable divisions of ethnicity, gender, class and belief, the shrine at Sehwan welcomed all. It was an egalitarian oasis formed by the legacies and practice of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism merging into one.
On Thursday evenings people congregate to listen to the religious songs called qawwali and perform a devotional dance, dhamal. They arrive with offerings of bruised rose petals, sugared almonds and what money they can spare. They seek solace from their pain; pray for safety in a harsh, unjust world; beg for an answer to a forgotten prayer. Those who can’t offer anything arrive empty-handed. Sehwan’s shrine promised the weak, the worried and the poor that they would always be safe here.
Every time we visited the shrine, a deaf and mute man named Goonga welcomed my brother, Zulfi, and me. A servant and a guardian of the shrine, Goonga wore his hair in a turban and had a matted beard. On the breast pocket of his shalwar kameez, he sometimes wore a picture of Hussain. Goonga would walk us through the shrine that was his home and refuge.
In the courtyard of the shrine, men in flowing robes and long dreadlocks sing:
which translates to:
O red-robed, protect me always, Jhule Lal, Friend of Sindh, of Sehwan, God-intoxicated Qalandar, Every breath intoxicated by you, Qalandar.
No matter how far from Sehwan I have traveled, how far from lands where Urdu is spoken and heard, just to hear “Dama dam mast Qalandar” is to be transported home. My brother called me after the attack on the shrine. “Goonga,” he asked. “Is he alive?” We were trying to find out. But no one had seen Goonga since the blast. We Pakistanis always believed our saints protected us. In Karachi, where we live by the sea, we believe that the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, overlooking the Arabian Sea shore, saved the city from cyclones and tsunamis.
Before Qalandar arrived here, before Islam came to the subcontinent, Sehwan was known as Shivistan after the Hindu god Shiva. In time, the town’s name was changed, but Sindh has long remained a home to all faiths. At the annual festival of Qalandar, a Hindu and a Muslim family together drape a ceremonial cloth over Qalandar’s grave. A lamp-lighting ceremony reminiscent of Hindu rites is also performed.
The shrine in Sehwan was attacked because it belongs to an open, inclusive tradition that some in Pakistan would rather forget than honor. Though it was founded as a sanctuary for Muslims, in its early incarnation, Pakistan was a home for all those who wished to claim it. Parsis, Sikhs, Christians and Jews remained in Pakistan after the bloody Partition in 1947.
Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s brutal military dictator in the 1980s, aided by Saudi money and supported by the United States, destroyed Pakistan’s progressive, syncretic culture. In the 11 years that General Zia presided over Pakistan, our textbooks were rewritten, exclusionary, intolerant laws were passed, and primacy was given to the bearers of a closed, violent worldview. Pakistan never recovered. Only pockets of the country still imbibe the generous welcome once afforded to all faiths. Sehwan is one of them.
After the attack, Pakistan’s military closed the border with Afghanistan and complained that the attackers had been given haven in Afghanistan. In retaliation, 100 people accused of being terrorists have been killed by the military.
Sehwan has no proper hospital, no trauma centers. For all its historical, religious and cultural significance, it was — like so much of this wounded country — abandoned by those who rule the province. There is no real governance here, no justice and no order. For life’s basic necessities, people must supplicate themselves before dead saints.
On the morning after the blast, the caretaker rang the bell, just as he always had. Devotees broke through the police cordons and returned to dance the dhamal on Saturday. Zulfi texted, “Goonga is alive.”
On my last visit to the shrine, after Goonga walked me through the crowded marketplace selling food and offerings, I sat on the floor besides a mother who had brought her son, crippled with polio, in the hopes that her prayers would ease his suffering. I had come to the shrine to see the blue and white floral kashi tiles, to walk around the perimeter and to be in a part of Pakistan that still operated on that rarest of currencies: hope.