Sinking state

Published : Mar 27, 2009 00:00 IST

in Lahore

LAHORE, it is said, wakes up fully only around noon. At about 8.30 a.m. on March 3, as a convoy of vehicles escorted the Sri Lankan cricket team to the Gaddafi Stadium for the third days play in its second Test match against Pakistan, the traffic at Liberty Chowk roundabout in the heart of the city was not heavy. Had it been any other time of the day, the Sri Lankans would have not had such a fortunate escape.

Six of the policemen in a van at the rear end of the convoy were not as fortunate as the team. The estimated dozen armed men who ambushed the convoy as it slowed down to take the roundabout gunned them down without giving them much of a chance to react. The driver of a smaller bus that followed immediately behind the team bus with the umpires and the match referee was also killed, while the third umpire, a Pakistani, was badly wounded.

Contrary to police claims of a half-hour exchange of fire, the attack on the convoy, as recorded by closed circuit and television cameras, lasted no longer than five or six minutes. All this time, the driver of the team bus kept his foot on the accelerator and kept it moving, not losing his cool even when bullets hit the vehicle. Five players and a coach suffered injuries. But the drivers decision to keep going possibly saved the lives of the cricketers.

It was simply good fortune that a rocket-propelled grenade missed the moving bus and landed on a shop window. It did not explode but caused extensive damage just by the impact of its landing. The attackers tried to crash a car into the convoy but it rammed into the roundabout instead. Only when the team bus reached the safety of the Gaddafi Stadium, less than a kilometre from the site of the attack, did the driver stop. By the time a military helicopter landed on the ground where the match should have been played to evacuate the Sri Lankan team, the players had recovered enough to pose for pictures under its whirring blades.

It will take much longer for Pakistan to recover from the double blow: to the countrys already negative image as a place where a bewildering conglomerate of militant groups flourish, some possibly with continuing links to elements in its security forces whose creation they are, with an ability to strike targets both outside and within Pakistan with impunity while a weak government looks on helplessly or, at best, decides it is better to make peace even with the most regressively medieval and violent of these, as in Swat (see separate story); and to Pakistans passion for cricket and its sporting ties with the rest of the world, seen until now as one of the few redeeming features that continued to give it international respectability.

None of the attackers was caught. As seen on CCTV grabs, they made an unhurried getaway from the site, with the police making no attempt to obstruct their escape. As a result, four days after the attack, the identity and the motives of the attackers are still unclear although several theories have emerged.

Many Pakistanis believe that whenever there is a terrorist attack in India, an attack in Pakistan has to follow, because they see the intelligence agencies fighting a covert war through such attacks. This has often led to the almost knee-jerk refusal to see the blowback at home from state-sponsored militancy, first for a jehad in Afghanistan and later in Kashmir, literally on a war footing. Pakistani media were quick to project that the Lahore attack was a tit-for-tat strike staged by Indias Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). There was initially some talk that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) could have carried out the attack.

After the initial shock and denial, the investigation began to focus on the possibility that the attack was the handiwork of none other than the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). In fact, the similarities between the Lahore attack and the 60-hour carnage in Mumbai were striking enough for most to draw immediate comparisons, at least in the manner in which the attack was carried out by a dozen, heavily armed men, lithe on their feet, most of them dressed in jeans and jackets and wearing sports shoes, brandishing automatic weapons and carrying rucksacks on their backs.

Like the Mumbai attackers, they carried massive amounts of ammunition and weaponry in the rucksacks, two of which were found dumped on a back street near Liberty Chowk. They also carried protein-rich snacks and water bottles. That has given rise to the theory that the attackers may have had the sinister plan of hijacking the cricket team bus and taking the players hostage, and had thus come prepared for a three- or four-day standoff with the security forces.

If this was indeed the LeT, a motive is available: retaliation for the Pakistan governments decision to go after the militant group in the wake of the Mumbai attacks and the arrest of top operatives such as Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi. According to this theory, had the attackers managed to take the cricketers hostage, they would have certainly demanded the release of Lakhvi.

But beyond the particular, the message from the attack was clear. The message was the government should know its limits, said I.A. Rehman of the Lahore-based Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), a non-governmental organisation.

It could be related to the action on the LeT after Mumbai, it could be related to the government allowing the U.S. to carry out drone attacks in the tribal areas. In any case, they are all part of the same series. Whatever their nomenclature, they are all the same and they want to discourage the government from taking actions against them, he said.

Carrying out a sensational strike like the one at Lahore could even invite public criticism against the government for endangering public life by taking action against militants, similar to the criticism levelled against the government for participating in the U.S.-led war on terror.

One possible conclusion from the theory that it was the LeT that carried out the attack, an ominous one, is that the Pakistan Army, more specifically the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has lost institutional control of its favourite child.

In 2002, when asked to roll over and play dead, it was the LeT that did so most obediently, while the Jaish-e-Mohammed hit back by trying to kill Pervez Musharraf, then the President. Pakistani analysts have often held out that going after Punjab-based militant groups carries the risk of turning the countrys most prosperous and well-administered province into a battlefield like the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). That nightmare may have come true if it is proved that the LeT did carry out the strike.

The irony is that the Lahore attack has demonstrated more than clearly the need for the government to crack down on militancy, its networks, its infrastructure, or risk watching the Punjab province turn into another NWFP. Recently, two parliamentarians, one affiliated to the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the other to the PML(Quaid), told the National Assembly that south Punjab, the region that they represented, was in danger of turning into another Swat.

It is unfortunate that when the country most needs a national consensus to deal with these life-and-death issues, the two main democratic parties are engaged in a bitter rivalry (see separate story). The Lahore attack came just a week after Governors rule was imposed in the Punjab province after an improper dismissal of the the Shahbaz Sharif-led PML(N) government. How is it that President Asif Ali Zardari can make a peace deal with the Taliban militants in Swat but is unable to reconcile with a democratic political rival, is the question that people on the streets are asking.

One year after a democratic government took power in Pakistan, the country presents a dismal picture of being run by a weak, drifting government. People are dying every day in terrorist attacks, Sunnis and Shias are at war with each other, foreigners are being kidnapped by one or the other militant group, food has become unaffordable, and the economy is in such a state that it can no longer generate jobs. Militancy is tearing the nation apart, leaving no area untouched. A divided political class seems politically unable and intellectually ill-equipped to address the enormous problems that face the country.

Pakistan is in a very complex situation, said the HRCPs Rehman. Its a situation in which the Army is not under the control of the government, the ISI is not under the control of the Army, the jehadists are no longer under the control of the ISI. Each is running a parallel government, and each is a parallel state, which is much more dangerous than if they were states within a state.

In such a situation, said Rehman, the governments first priority must be to keep a hold on the law and order situation. And second, it must win over the people. Right now the people are completely alienated from the government. One of the first ways to set this right and build public ownership in the state, according to him, is for the PPP and the PML(N) to come together.

That could happen more by default than as the implementation of a vision, as the PPP realises that it may not be able to take its ouster of the PML(N) government in Punjab to the logical end of forming its own government. With the numbers simply not adding up in favour of the PPP, the government has launched some hectic reconciliation efforts with the PML(N). But if the situation regresses into one of an all-out political war, expect many more Lahores.

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