Bombing at Lahore park a trigger for terror crackdown

ISLAMABAD • The Taleban's Easter bombing of a crowded park in Lahore could prove the trigger for what many see as a long overdue counter-terror offensive in the bastion of Pakistan's establishment.

But analysts warn that a sweeping military operation in a region traditionally dominated by the current ruling party could be another step in a "creeping coup" by the increasingly assertive army.

At least 73 people died and hundreds were injured when a bomb packed with ball bearings exploded near a playground on Sunday, the bloodiest episode in the country since 2014.

The attack, which the Taleban said was aimed at Christians, left the shattered bodies of dozens of children strewn around the park.

It illuminated festering extremism in Punjab, the home province of three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. And, said observers, it has given the powerful army a way into his citadel. "Sharif has been resisting the army's attempt to carry out a counter-terror operation in the province now, and the army has called his bluff and is doing it," said Mr Ahmed Rashid, a leading security expert.

The generals have already carried out raids in three cities in Punjab, including state capital Lahore, and arrested more than 200 people - although they have stopped short of publicly calling their actions a full -blown offensive.

Increasing the army's presence in Punjab could quell militancy as it has done in Karachi, where paramilitary Rangers launched an operation in 2013. But in the zero-sum game of Pakistani governance, that would represent a loss for the civilian government, which increasingly finds itself playing second fiddle to the military.

"What you are witnessing is a creeping coup," said Mr Rashid. "The army already has complete control of foreign policy and counter-terror in two provinces (north-west Khyber Pakthunkhwa and southern Sindh), and now is looking at a third."

Lahore is by no means shielded from militancy. It has seen its share of attacks, including one on Christians just one year ago that killed 17.

"The Punjab government has failed to root out our sectarian militants in the province's south," said Mr Aamir Mughal, a former intelligence officer-turned-analyst.

"The provincial government is more concerned with its foreign image and has been stalling a military operation." Such an operation could damage long-standing alliances Mr Sharif's party enjoys with Punjabi Islamist groups, including the Sunni Tehreek movement, which is leading protests in Islamabad calling for syariah law.

Lahore looks on itself as the cultural capital of Pakistan, home to many of the country's liberals and somewhat above the fray. It was the power base for Mr Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's first socialist prime minister, and Mr Sharif, who cut his teeth as provincial finance minister in 1983.

"One family from Lahore has been ruling in Punjab and frequently at the centre since those years. More than three decades," said Mr Badar Alam, editor of Herald magazine. "That is one massive reason why Punjab's power has continued to grow."

That is also what made it such an attractive target for Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, the Taleban faction that carried out Sunday's bombing.

"Nawaz Sharif should know that war has reached his doorstep," militant Ehsanullah Ehsan wrote on his Twitter account on Tuesday. "God willing, the mujahideen will be the winners in this war."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 31, 2016, with the headline 'Bombing at Lahore park a trigger for terror crackdown'. Print Edition | Subscribe