Where does one draw the line between a threat, any threat, and one that may not be just another threat? Example: one may afford to sit back and watch when fire devours a house down the lane; but one must scramble to secure one’s house when the flames threaten to lap it up, too. This lesson, in cold reality, was delivered to Pakistan in its damning dimensions last week in Quetta, the capital of a beleaguered Baluchistan, when in a matter of hours a devastating blast of terrorism killed more than 80 people, mostly lawyers and journalists. The dastardly crime was meticulously planned to kill the maximum.
In its opening salvo, the President of the Baluchistan Bar Association — an outspoken critic of the Pakistani Taliban and their deadly ilk — was killed in broad daylight. But the second salvo was the real killer. As hundreds of angry mourners — mostly his professional colleagues and media men — of the slain man gathered outside the hospital where his body was lying, a suicide bomber exploded, killing, instantly, nearly 80 more in completion of the deadly mission of mayhem.
But the bizarre post-script to the crime literally rubbed salt into the wounds of a shocked and traumatised nation: not one but three different factions of the outlawed Pakistani Taliban (TTP) proudly proclaimed their master-minding of the carnage.
Any well-informed pundit should be very reluctant to call the ghastly incident a wake-up call for the omni-potent Pakistani military establishment, which has been in the vanguard of the fight against terrorism for nearly five years and has hundreds of its men killed in the process.
The Quetta carnage shouldn’t be called a wake-up call because numerous other incidents — some far deadlier than this one — have happened in the past, at regular intervals. The GHQ, itself, was once infiltrated by the terrorists and it took the army commandoes hours to ferret them out. Installations of the Pakistan Air Force, not far from Islamabad, have also been targeted. So was the security of a naval base in the heart of Karachi breached with impunity and precious assets trashed.
The deadliest was the blood-bath at the Army Public School at Peshawar, in December 2014, when nearly 150 school children were killed in utter cruelty numbing a nation for which blood-letting and terrorism have been routine stuff for decades. In the wake of that mayhem the army launched its National Action Plan (NAP), which has gone after the Taliban and their ilk with determined precision and put the murderers on the back-foot.
However, the likes of brazen acts of barbarity, Peshawar, in 2014 and the latest one in Quetta, are pointers to what should be deeply troubling to those sworn to uprooting terrorism from Pakistan. It could mean one of the two things, or both: either the terrorists aren’t really on the run, as proclaimed by the Khakis from their roof-tops, or they have inside help available to them to carry out acts of absolute cruelty with ease, if not impunity.
In reality, it seems to be a deadly mix of both phenomena. The fine-toothed anti-Taliban dragnet may have chased the terrorists out of their safe havens in the tribal hinterland — some have been driven into Afghanistan, according to intelligence sources — but others have found refuge in places like Karachi, for instance, where some of their compatriots have dug their heels into the urban thicket for years.
Karachi, in particular, is a terrorist-friendly safe-haven.An urban jungle of nearly 20 million, it offers hideouts for all sorts of criminals. On top of it are its caches of arms, of every calibre — a veritable Manna to terrorists. Terrorists holed up in urban niches should be a nightmare for any anti-terrorism effort. The latest Quetta carnage is proof of that being a reality and not a fiction.
And then there is the more worrisome phenomenon of fellow-travellers and ideologically-inspired sympathisers of terrorists embedded — deeply according to some — into both the civil and military establishments of Pakistan.
Pampering and molly-coddling terrorists is Pakistan’s self-inflicted wound — an own-goal, in other words. An overzealous and ideologue military establishment calling the shots at the peak of the Afghan ‘jihad’ of the 1980s may have eyed the religion-indoctrinated Taliban as its best exit card to offset its perennial — and thoroughly irrational — obsession of encirclement from two sides, India and Afghanistan. But like any proverbial Frankenstein monster, this contraption, or invention, if you like, has become an albatross around Pakistan’s neck, too.
It’s a typical story of the chickens coming home to roost and bringing all sorts of ugly baggage in tow behind them, whether one likes it or not.
So now the Pakistani ‘establishment’ has its hands full with an agenda that has the defence of both Pakistan’s physical and ideological frontiers on top of its list of priorities, because the nihilist Taliban and their fellow-travellers threaten to undo the moorings on which Pakistan was founded. Marking Pakistan’s Independence Day, August 14, Pakistan’s iconic Imran Khan reminded his countrymen of the enormity of the challenge, compounded by the fact of a bone-corrupt ruling cabal on its ramparts.
The task could get still harder to accomplish with a change of guard in the military leadership, three months hence. The incumbent Chief, General Raheel Sharif is to retire in November and he has made known, already, that he doesn’t covet an extension in his tenure. So Nawaz Sharif, hated by the Pakistanis, will have the privilege of choosing a new military head.
Ironically, he has chosen five of the last six chiefs. But changing horses in mid-stream could have unforeseen consequences in the war against terrorism.
karamatullah k ghori is a former Pakistan diplomat Email: firstname.lastname@example.org