Pakistan and Very Real Terror

While the western world reeled from the shock announcement of a non-existent terrorist attack in Sweden last week, other countries counted their very real dead. Pakistan in particular has been rocked by a series of attacks that have put the state onto a war footing, and led to an increase in tension with neighbouring Afghanistan.

The wave of attacks started last Monday, when a group of pharmacists protesting a change to drug laws in Punjab were attacked by a suicide bomber from a faction of the Pakistan Taliban (TTP).  A strange target for a precision terrorist attack to be sure. Perhaps it could be written off as an anomaly, a flash of indiscriminate horror in a country that has known all too much of it. Then on Wednesday two suicide bombers detonated their vests as they attempted to make entry into the Mohmand tribal headquarters in Ghalanai in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Two police officers and three by-standers were killed and again, a faction of the Pakistan Taliban claimed responsibility. On the same day, another suicide bomber on a bike targeted a van carrying four judges (three of them female) in nearby Hayatabad. The judges survived but a police officer was killed. The TTP took direct responsibility.

These attacks may not have been held up for particularly intense scrutiny if it wasn’t for the subsequent attack on Thursday. Another suicide attack, this time on the Sufi shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in the town of Sehwan in Sindh, killed 88 people and wounded many more. It was a holy day, and the shrine was packed. Medical responders struggled to cope with the volume of casualties.

Despite the well-established narrative that Pakistan has become more secure as a result of large scale military campaigns waged in the North West of the country against the TTP, it and other anti-state militant organisations have maintained the ability to inflict horrific damage on the population. These attacks comes less than a year since another massive suicide attack on a park in Lahore that killed over 70 people. A little over a year before that, the infamous Peshawar school massacre that claimed lives of 132 children. Despite the apparent nihilism of such violence, the TTP were quite clear in their justification:

The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan had taken this extreme step to take to target the army school to revenge. We will target every institution linked to the army unless they stop operations and the extra-judicial killing of our detainees… Now, families of the security forces should also feel the pain like our people. Our detainees are being killed and their bodies are thrown on roads

The response in Pakistan’s media to this latest atrocity has, understandably, been one of rage. An editorial in Dawn, the country’s largest English newspaper, claimed ‘the gates of hell’ have been opened. But the focus of this anger has not been the TTP directly, under the apparent logic of ‘what can you expect from a pig but to grunt?’ Rather, ire has been directed to the security forces, and their apparent failure to protect the public.

But Pakistan’s military hierarchy is rarely on the losing end of a public relations battle. The blame has been shifted squarely onto the government of neighbouring Afghanistan, where Pakistan has for years claimed that TPP have been able to secure refuge from the military’s devastating counter insurgency operations just across the border. Ashraf Ghani has denied the charge, and maintained Afghanistan’s commitment to help root out all militants.

But if that pledge rings hollow, it would be difficult to blame the Afghan premier. Not only did the ISI ‘godfather’ the Afghan Taliban, who (along with the Afghan state) are contributing to record high civilian casualties in their own country, has provided defacto support for the group throughout the ‘war on terror’ despite all manner of threats and bribes from the US to alter course.

In a 2015 interview with Medhi Hasan, former ISI chief Asad Durrani was extraordinarily candid about Pakistan’s strategic support for militant groups deemed to have strategic utility. The ISI has always backed the Taliban in Afghanistan in order to balance against India. Ashraf Ghani on the other hand, recently went to New Delhi to ask Narendra Modi for military aid to balance against Pakistan.

As it stands, Pakistan has responded to the attack by killing over one hundred ‘militants’. But it has also demanded that Afghanistan take action against a list of Taliban operatives. More ominously it has closed border crossings and begun shelling what it claims are TTP camps situated across the Afghan border, and while the Afghan government is pushing for a diplomatic solution it also maintains ‘the right to retaliate.’

The situation is complex and dangerous. And if these are adjectives that we might not wish to associate with problems faced by the current US administration, it won’t stop geopolitics intruding on President Trump’s ‘honeymoon’ period. The US is neck deep in Pakistan, providing over $33 Billion in overt military aid over the last 16 years, despite the myriad concerns about the ISI’s relationship to militancy. For several years it has used this aid as an enticement for Pakistan to engage in precisely the type of major counter-insurgency operations that have in turn generated violent responses from the Pakistan Taliban. One of the final announcements of outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry was that the US had constructed a state of the art tactical security operations centre in Pakistan. It has invested heavily in this long time regional security partner, as it has in the security capacity of the Afghan state. If tensions continue to rise, the Trump administration will be seen as the natural go-between.

Sweden this is not.