Terror in Lahore: The Managed Chaos Continues

Earlier this afternoon local time, a suicide bomber attacked a group of police gathered near Lahore’s High Court, the scene of renewed protests by Pakistan’s lawyers’ movement. The attack killed approximately 23 people and injured over 60.

The bomber did not appear to attack protesters, but took opportunity to target an event in which government security personnel–in this case, police officers–would be assembled in large concentrations (à la police training in Iraq).

What is most significant about this attack is that it occurred in Lahore, which is Pakistan’s second largest city and has largely been immune from Pakistan’s deterioration of law and order. Lahore is distinct from Karachi, which has been home to varying waves of violence for over 20 years, in its ethnic homogeneity and vastly greater quality of life. Lahore, in many senses, is a city that works; Karachi, is an overwhelmed and misgoverned basket case.

And so the arrival of suicidal terror in Lahore is all the more alarming. It suggests that the extremist elements responsible for the violence, if they are part of a single entity, can hit any part of Pakistan at will. In the past year or so, suicide blasts have hit all of Pakistan’s major cities: Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Peshawar, and Quetta. Almost 3,500 Pakistanis were killed in 2007 terror attacks. The terror wave has targeted both individual senior Pakistani figures (politicians in and outside of government and military officers) as well as concentrations of low-ranked government officers.

The level of violence in Pakistan has been sustained and its crescendo is nowhere in sight. Today’s attack in Lahore comes after the Pakistani army was to have made a renewed effort to apprehend Baitullah Mehsud, allegedly behind Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, though this operation could be delayed by the massive snowfall in Pakistan’s northwest. It is conceivable that today’s attacks were a message from Mehsud intending to restrain the Pakistani government.

But with the start of the month of Muharram tonight–significant to all Muslims, but to the Shi’a in particular–and the elections slated for February 18, the wave of terror is likely to continue, if not worsen. Karachi is under a red alert and the army remains in the city, but that does not preclude the possibility of sectarian attacks there. Tomorrow is Friday and congregational prayers are frequent targets in sectarian attacks.

Even more destabilizing would be a successful attack on a senior politician. There are reports of threats against Nawaz Sharif and Maulana Fazlur Rahman. The assassination of Fazl would fragment his party’s control of the North-West Frontier Province, potentially creating an opening for the neo-Taliban. The murder of Sharif would set much of urban Punjab against Pervez Musharraf, though his brother Shahbaz (a former chief minister of Punjab) is more than capable to fill in his shoes.

Both events would place Pakistan further on the path of ethnic and provincial fragmentation. Moreover, it would decisively eliminate any sort of balance between Pervez Musharraf and the opposition parties. This would create an unmanageable scenario in which Musharraf’s popularity plummets (yes, there is room for decline) while the political opposition to him, however sizable, lacks a clear leadership. In the balance, Pakistan’s army would be ascendant; but neither would this be in its corporate interests, nor would its cohesiveness remain immune to the centrifugal forces.

Pakistan is in an election season–naturally a partisan affair–and, at the same time, there are forces pulling the country apart at the seams. If there is any good Pervez Musharraf can offer his country at this point, it can be an assertive effort to maintain inter-ethnic and sectarian solidarity in his country. This requires partnering with opposition political figures in ensuring their security and restraining the PML-Q’s use of ethnic chauvinism.

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Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based consultant on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. [About]

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