Pakistan searches for a response to Lahore shrine bombing

July 5, 2010

sufi shrineNearly a week after suicide bombers attacked one of Pakistan’s most popular shrines in Lahore, it remains unclear how the country should, and indeed will, respond to a fresh wave of attacks in its heartland Punjab province.

The government has announced plans to hold a national conference on ways to combat terrorism to try to limit the political bickering which erupted between the federal government led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Punjab provincial government led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif over who was to blame.

But it is far from clear what that conference is supposed to achieve beyond a show of unity to convince Pakistan’s long-suffering people that politicians are fighting in their interests, rather than against each other.  Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira has suggested the government could be open to talks with some elements in the Pakistani Taliban – echoing a call made by Sharif.  The politicians do not, however, explain how they think this would stop the bombings, and indeed what kind of terms would be needed in any putative peace deal.

As it is, the identity of those behind the bombing of the Data Durbar in Lahore is uncertain. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Pakistani Taliban, has denied responsibilty for the attack. If it did turn out to be responsible then arguably – and this is a subject of much controversial debate – Pakistan could trade a slowdown in military operations against it in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan in return for an end to violence in the country’s heartland.

But what if the TTP were telling the truth and it was not involved in the bombings? Another possible culprit is al Qaeda, possibly working through one of the sectarian Punjab-based groups like the Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi to which it has been linked. Al Qaeda has no reason to talk to the Pakistan government – it knows it is ultimately a pawn in the bigger battle for influence in Afghanistan – where the bottom-line U.S. price for any kind of eventual political settlement would require a severing of ties between the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Another option would be a crackdown on the Punjab-based groups which are believed to have made common cause with both al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban. Labelled as the “Punjabi Taliban” – an unhelpful description which tends to obscure the very real differences between Punjab-based militant groups – they have caught the public eye more and more recently.  But with the Pakistan Army drawing many of its recruits from the same pool of conservative, rural, Punjabi families that supply the Punjab-based militant groups with volunteers, it would be hard - maybe impossible – to launch a military crackdown. And the police force is neither equipped, nor powerful enough, to tackle them.

In any case, the attack on the shrine in Lahore is not the first “wake-up call” for Pakistan about the danger posed by militant groups in Punjab. That came last year, with the attack on the headquarters of the Pakistan Army in Rawalpindi. If a raid on the most powerful institution in the country was not enough to create a change of policy, then why would the attack on Lahore?

Scroll out to the bigger picture, and there are some very fierce - possibly existential – battles going on. One is the obvious one between Pakistan and India that has been playing out since 1947,  in which Pakistan – by most accounts – made up for its relatively small size by nurturing groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed to fight India in Kashmir.  Another is Pakistan’s own struggle for influence in Afghanistan, where it is seen as looking to the Afghan Taliban to join a government in Kabul which will be – if not friendly – at least not unfriendly.

Less noticed, but equally important, is the intense rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran – both of whom have a stake in how the cards fall in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The growth of sectarian anti-Shi’ite groups like the Sipah-e-Sahaba in Pakistan is usually traced to this rivalry, as Saudi Arabia sought to shore up Sunnis against the perceived danger of Shi’ite activism following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Finally, overlay on top of all of that a battle for the soul of Islam itself – between those who believe its future lies in a return to the life of the Prophet Mohammed and his companions and those who want to modernise the religion ( and in the case of South Asian Sufism, synthesise it with the mystical faith of other religions) – and you have a battle comparable to the very violent Protestant Reformation in Europe in the 16th century.

For all the talk about responding to the attack in Lahore, these problems will not be solved soon.

And then read this, A Lament for Lahore, on how it might have been.

(Photo: The widow and child of a man killed in the attack on the shrine)

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