Battlefield Lahore, again

This is being written in the immediate aftermath of yesterday’s blast outside Punjab Assembly in Lahore, in which, by press time, 13 people had been killed and 85 injured. Claims would probably have come by now and they, largely, are as predictable as they are irrelevant. Lahore only becomes a battlefield when ‘good’ and ‘bad’ jihadists unite against the state.

11 months ago over 70 people were killed when a Pakistani Taliban affiliate bombed the Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in the Punjab capital. Ehsanullah Ehsan’s message to the Prime Minister of Pakistan was clear in the aftermath: “We have arrived in Punjab.”

12 months before the Iqbal Town blast, 14 were killed in twin church bombings in Youhanabad – the constituency of Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif.

The 2014 Wagah border bombing was claimed by three separate jihadist factions, highlighting the glory hunt and the statement of intent associated with pulling off an attack in Lahore.

Last year’s blast that targeted Christians in a children’s park, came a day after supporters of Mumtaz Qadri had gathered in Islamabad, threatening to hold the country hostage with a 10-point demand. This included the assurance that Qadri be declared a martyr, extrajudicial killings over blasphemy be immune from any punishment and that Asia Bibi be hanged to death.

In addition to executing Salmaan Taseer’s murderer, the government had taken many steps that had irked almost everyone that could be found on the Islamist-jihadist spectrum.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had become the first Pakistani head of government to attend a Diwali event, Punjab police had been asked to remove anti-Ahmadiyya literature from Lahore’s Hafeez Centre and the government had announced holidays for minorities’ festivals, including Holi, Diwali and Easter – the latter being the target of last year’s carnage.

On January 10, 2008, the city witnessed the first suicide bombing since the turn of the century, when policemen were targeted outside Lahore High Court before a lawyer’s protest. It initiated a surge in violence across Punjab, and especially Lahore, which had hitherto been immune from volatility.

The escalation had come following 2007’s Lal Masjid siege, when a certain cleric was targeted in a military operation for making the mosque a hub of terror. A decade on, Abdul Aziz remains firmly, and securely, placed on the same pulpit.

Other high profile attacks in Lahore post 2007 targeted the Pakistan Navy War College (March 4, 2008), FIA building and the then Bilawal House (March 11, 2008), the Sri Lankan cricket team (March 3, 2009) and Ahmadiyya ‘place of worship’ (May 28, 2010).

Attacks targeting the security forces specifically also include the 2009 Manawan Police Academy raid and the Park Plaza Chowk bombing in the same year, when a police check-post was struck outside the offices of Rescue-15 and the ISI. These offices are situated around 20 steps away from the location of yesterday’s blast.

When Lahore had first become terror prone (2007-2010) Mall Road and its surrounding areas were the most regularly eyed by jihadists. The road houses some of the most prominent state buildings, both with regards to the provincial government and security forces. Any attack within proximity of any of these buildings is usually meant to send a message to the government, the military, the law-enforcement agencies – or all of them.

Punjab Police’s SSP Zahid Gondal and DIG Traffic Lahore Capt (retd) Ahmad Mobin were among those killed in yesterday’s attack. Many among the hundreds of chemists and pharmaceutical manufacturers that had been protesting in front of the Punjab Assembly have also been fatally injured.

The very area that has been targeted, witnessed the Kashmir Day rally metamorphose into a pro-Hafiz Saeed march only eight days ago. Hordes of protestors demanded the release of the JuD chief who had been placed under house-arrest by the state. This association of the likes of JuD, JeM and UJC with Kashmir’s freedom fight is how jihad boomeranged on the state in the first place.

Whether Lahore becomes a bona fide battlefield between the state and jihadist groups a la 2008-09, or if yesterday’s bombing is shelved as a one-off attack, depends on the one sole factor on which Pakistan’s security has hinged for the past decade and a half: the state’s reaction.

The Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park bombing last year was immediately followed by vows of launching a military operation styled along Zarb-e-Azb’s lines in Punjab. The word was kept, and Zarb-e-Ahan was launched in Southern Punjab. Chhotu Gang was captured and forced to surrender. No one’s heard of Zarb-e-Ahan since. There hadn’t been any attacks in Lahore since – till yesterday.

When Imran Khan had threatened to lock down the capital in November last year, Federal Interior Minister had summoned a meeting with the Difah-e-Pakistan Council, spearheaded by Sami-ul-Haq and Ahmed Ludhianvi. The lockdown never happened; the PM is still in charge and the Panama Papers case still lingers on in the Supreme Court.

International pressure or not, a comprehensive showdown against jihadist groups has to take place to in order to secure Pakistan. The state has been dillydallying over the inevitable owing to the vested interests of various institutions. With no further delays seemingly possible, the decisive battle might just be around the corner.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a former member of staffHe can be reached at Follow him on Twitter

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