The joy is understandable. After the rousing success of Zimbabwe’s tour in 2015 and the hosting of the PSL Final earlier this year, international cricket took yet another step towards returning to Pakistan after a World XI team played three matches against the national team in Lahore this week. Independently of the cricket itself, which enthralled and entertained millions across the country, the series was roundly welcomed by the government and its various functionaries as an indication of how the security situation in Pakistan is improving and life is irrevocably returning to normal. There is an element of truth to this claim but as always, the devil is in the detail. While it would be fair to say that terrorist atrocities of the kind that, for example, forced international cricket out of Pakistan in the first place (when the visiting Sri Lankan team was attacked by militants in 2009) appear to be occurring with much less frequency than before, the reality is that much remains to be done before anyone can reasonably make the claim that all is well in the land of the pure.

To begin with, it is worth examining why all of the international cricket that has been played in Pakistan since 2015 has been restricted to the city of Lahore. Peshawar, Karachi, and Quetta have not hosted any matches, and it is not particularly difficult to see why; in each of these cities, the security situation is arguably far more precarious than it is in Lahore. While Karachi continues to experience the effects of the often violent confrontations that take place between different political parties, criminal gangs, religious militants, and law enforcement personnel, Quetta, Peshawar, and their surrounding areas remain home to sectarian and terrorist organisations that seem to be able to operate with a high degree of impunity. Even Lahore itself, which has remained relatively insulated from the paroxysms of terror that have gripped the rest of the country, has nonetheless experienced its fair share of bloodshed and carnage; in 2017 alone, for example, Lahore has borne half a dozen terrorist attacks, the latest being at the Arfa Karim Tower on Ferozepur Road in July.

The point is further illustrated by the circumstances under which Lahore has been able to host cricket matches in the first place. For almost the entire duration of the recently concluded series, the city was put on lockdown. In scenes vividly captured on social media, traffic jams stretching for miles clogged the city’s roads as entire section of Lahore was closed off to the public to ensure the safety of the visiting team. Indeed, the security measures put in place were so stringent, they have already been blamed (along with high ticket prices) for the relatively lackluster turnout at Gaddafi Stadium over the course of the week.

To be clear, none of this is ‘normal’. While it is absolutely essential to take any and all measures necessary to ensure the safety of the participants and audiences at public events like cricket games, the notion that it is ‘normal’ to achieve this objective by imposing curfews in all but name and enacting harsh restriction on the mobility of a city’s residents flies in the face of reason. In other parts of the world, visiting sports teams do not require heavily armed escorts and elaborate security plans to remain safe. Businesses, schools, and hospitals are not forced to shut down or reduce their services as a consequence of a match taking place in a stadium. Citizens are not forced to spend hours in traffic so that two dozen men can throw and hit a ball for a few hours.

Why all of this is necessary in Pakistan is clear enough. Which is precisely why it is disingenuous and perhaps even dangerous to continually parrot the mantra that everything is okay. Things may have improved, according to some metrics, but there needs to be much greater popular recognition and official ownership of the scale of the task that remains. Terrorist organisations exist and operate in a number of different parts of the country, sectarian killings and attacks on minorities continue unabated, and there is considerable reason to believe that elements of the government and establishment remain wedded to the idea that tolerating some militant organisations is necessary for attaining broader strategic and ideological objectives. More importantly, very little work has been done to address the structural factors that underpin a lot of the violence and rising bigotry and intolerance in Pakistan; when it comes to questions of poverty, deprivation, the denial of public services, the propagation of a public discourse inextricably bound up with parochial religious dogma, and the political marginalisation of the country’s poorest communities, the powers-that-be apparently have little in the way of a plan for countering the factors that push people to extremism.

It can only be hoped that one day, sooner rather than later, Pakistan will indeed be a safe and prosperous place where citizens and visitors alike can go about their business without fear for their security and well-being. But, for this happen, much more needs to be done not only in the fight against terror, but also in terms of the provision of social and economic justice to the people of this country. Hosting international cricket matches without incident is a significant step towards normalising perceptions of the security environment in Pakistan, and certainly demonstrates that some progress has been made since 2009, but to rest on these laurels would be utterly myopic and self-defeating.


The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.