Sense of crisis deepens in Pakistan after Lahore attack

ISLAMABAD, (Reuters) – The attack on the Sri Lankan  cricket team in Lahore deepened a sense of crisis surrounding  Pakistan’s civilian government as it confronts political  turmoil less than a year after it took office, analysts said.

Asif Ali Zardari
Asif Ali Zardari

“They (militants) are trying to create a vacuum of power in  which eventually they can take over,” said Ahmed Rashid, a  respected analyst and author of “Descent into Chaos,  chronicling the nuclear-armed Pakistan’s mounting insecurity.

Around a dozen assailants attacked the Sri Lankan players  bus and a police escort with AK-47 assault rifles, rockets and  hand grenades as they were driving to a stadium in the eastern  city of Lahore for the third day of a match.

Six Sri Lankan players and two officials were wounded while  eight Pakistanis, including six policemen, were killed. Officials said the attack bore similarities to the assault  by Pakistani-based Islamist militants on the Indian city of  Mumbai that killed at least 170 people in November.

Pakistan has detained some members of the Lashkar-e-Taiba,  a militant group that has had friendly ties with Pakistani  security agencies in the past, over the Mumbai attack. India  and the United States have been watching to see how strongly  the government acts against the jihadis and attack in Lahore  could reinforce those compulsions.

“This embarrasses the Pakistani government enormously,”  said M.J. Gohel, executive director, of the U.K.-based  Asia-Pacific Foundation think-tank.

It also further chills Pakistan’s investment risk outlook  at a time when the government is trying to raise more money  abroad, having staved off virtual bankruptcy with an emergency  loan from the International Monetary Fund last November.

The stock market slumped due to a political crisis that  blew up last week, because of President Asif Ali Zardari’s  decision to dismiss the Punjab provincial government led by the  party of his main rival, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Sharif has urged street agitation against the government  after the Supreme Court last week barred him and his brother  for standing for elected office.

“Obviously the country is in a very, very serious danger  and instead of concentrating on the war against the extremists,  the government is fighting other political parties…This is a  time they should reconcile with Nawaz Sharif,” Rashid said.

“NO ONE SAFE”

While Westerners have long feared becoming targets,  analysts could divine no other reason for the attack on the Sri  Lankans other than to give a message that nobody was safe.

“Obviously the idea was that the message be sent to the  rest of the world that Pakistan is not a safe place to go to. I  think that way they have succeeded,” security analyst Ikram  Sehgal said.

Some Pakistanis are getting that message as well. “I never wanted to leave my country, but these attacks have  proved no one is safe. If I had the option, I would leave,”  said Amina Ansari, a 26-year-old working in a multinational  bank in the southern city of Karachi.

Most analysts won’t look far beyond Pakistan’s militant  Islamist groups for likely suspects, though Pakistani hawks and  nationalists are predisposed to blame India.

During the past two years, Islamist militants, angered by  their government’s alliance with the United States, have  launched a wave of suicide attacks and bomb blasts.

The brazenness of the attack in Lahore, Pakistan’s cultural  capital and political nerve centre, was similar to the Mumbai  attacks, though the gunbattle lasted only 30 minutes instead of  three days and unlike Mumbai the attackers all got away.

“Any terrorist in his right mind would have looked at the  Mumbai attack and noted the massive coverage it had and decided  that this is the model to follow in future,” said Robert Ayers,  security analyst at Britain’s Royal Institute of International  Affairs. As was the case in the aftermath of the attacks on Mumbai,  eyes will be on Pakistan to see if Islamabad mounts a serious  crackdown on militant groups or whether relations with India  will be further destabilised.

Zardari’s dovishness towards India has angered nationalists  and militant groups alike. His government is also under pressure from the United  States to take concrete measures to fight the Taliban and al  Qaeda, again to the chagrin of the religious nationalist  constituency. Information Minister Sherry Rehman denied the government  had any information of any Indian involvement, contradicting  comments by a junior cabinet minister who said the government  had evidence the militants came from Pakistan’s old foe across  the border.

Suspicion of India finds a ready audience in the Muslim  nation created out of the partition of the Indian Subcontinent  in 1947. The countries have fought three wars since then, and  India put a peace process on ice after the attacks on Mumbai.

“It’s all too obvious that it (the attacks in Lahore) is  the handiwork of the Indian intelligence,” said Hamid Gul, a  retired former head of the military’s Inter Services  Intelligence (ISI) agency.

“We have to now walk out of our participation in war  against terrorism. We will fight terrorism in our own way,”  said Gul, an avowed sympathiser for Islamist causes.

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