M. A. Niazi

The militant attack at the Wahga border was widely and roundly condemned, with the emphasis on the immense loss of life. With 70 dead, the suicide attack was one of the most costly in Lahore, and certainly the worst in recent times. For a city that has been under constant threat, but nowhere as frequently attacked as Peshawar, the attack was a jolt, a grisly reminder that the War on Terror was far from being over.

One of the inescapable features of this attack was its timing; it was not an immediate reaction to Operation Zarb-e-Azab. Though it took place on a military occasion, the victims were mostly civilian, with only three Rangers amongst the fatalities. It could be argued that Rangers are a paramilitary, rather than a military organization, being under the control of the Interior Ministry, rather than the Defence Ministry. However, as their officers are entirely seconded from the Army, it is unlikely that the militants would draw too fine a distinction.

It should also be noted that the Rangers attacked were performing a military function, that of protecting the border, rather than acting as an auxiliary to the police, as their counterparts are doing in Karachi. The Rangers are primarily a screening force for the border, and it is envisaged that any initial attack would be met by the Rangers, who would defend the border until the Army stepped in. It is because of this close coordination that the Rangers are organized on military lines, and are officered by the Army.

The Rangers have gained importance in recent days because of Indian firing along the Line of Control and Working Boundary in Kashmir. The ceremony at which the attack took place was itself full of symbolism, which had made it become a tourist attraction. It was one of the few occasions where civilians routinely interacted with a military organization, and thus an attack on civilians there was not just an attack on the military, but also on its function of border defence. That the defence was against India was also highly emotive. The relationship with India is considered highly sensitive, and the pivot of Pakistan towards normalization is highly controversial, to the extent that neither the civilian nor military leadership has been ready to accept ownership of this pivot.

Militants are not just against the normalization process, but also link it to the Kashmir issue. It is perhaps no coincidence that responsibility was initially claimed by Jundullah, and then by Harkatul Ansar. The Harkat operated in Indian-Held Kashmir when those operations were going on, and while Jundullah is an Iranian group, it is supposed to be working to ‘liberate’ Iranian Baluchistan. As it is widely understood that India is backing the separatist movement in Pakistani Balochistan, militants may well be sending a signal to India as well, at the cost of Pakistani lives.

Then there is the ISIL. Elements of the TTP have given their allegiance, and though neither of the groups claiming responsibility for the Wahga attack have pledged support to ISIL, the timing of the attack indicates that they share its sectarian ideology: the attack took place as the Ashura commemoration started. Though expected sectarian attacks would have hit Ashura gatherings, or mourning processions, this gathering took place at a time of heightened sectarian sentiment.

The symbolism of the place indicated that the militants see the military as an opponent. This is not just an inevitable result of Zarb-i-Azb, but also strikes at the military’s tradition of sectarian, even religious, tolerance. The reaction the following day, with a rush of citizens witnessing the Wahga ceremony, showed the resilience, not just of the people, but also of the military, with the Corps Commander Lahore and the DG Rangers among the many military men and families present there. However, the tragedy was of a scale which demanded countermeasures; sending signals that indicated the impregnability of the defence of Pakistan. In the best military tradition, the most visible measure was carrying on as if nothing had happened. It was essential that the signal be sent that the attack had not dented the military’s ability to defend the country. It should be noted that in the background are new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bellicose claims that Pakistan was unable to challenge India conventionally. The military must also send signals to the militants, that apart from defence against foreign enemies, their ability to aid civil power, including in the fight against militancy, remains unimpaired.

The attacks show that the militants have included Pakistan in their plans for a post-American Afghanistan. This attack might also be seen as a continuation of the attacks which have taken place in Kabul. It appears that the militants plan to oust the Ashraf Ghani government, and have targeted the Pakistan military as well as a prelude to taking over a country whose people have been driven into obedience by such attacks as Sunday’s.

Even if one does not accept the view (for which there is no direct evidence) that the militant organisations are controlled by intelligence agencies, there should be no mistake about the militants’ desire to take state power. The blast at Wahga would provide evidence of this, apart from indicating the type of governance that militant organisations would provide.

However, while the apparent issues of the Indo-Pak war scare and militancy are automatic choices for examination, the underlying issue is that of militancy, and how to combat it. Militancy may well be clubbed with sectarianism. It needs thinking why there should have been a sectarian incident in Nigeria, ascribed to the Boko Haram. The roots of militancy must be sought, and stamped out, otherwise such incidents as the Wahga blast will be repeated. That there is a desire for an Islamic system cannot be denied. That desire arises out of the perception that democracy and dictatorship have both failed to solve the problems of the people. That desire must be fulfilled, and not just translate itself into Wahga-like blasts. Meanwhile, Pakistan as a whole will have to steel itself for the war that will only begin after the Americans draw down their forces. And that war will involve the whole nation, not just its armed forces, as was shown in such grisly fashion at Wahga.

    The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.