Post-Lahore, Pakistan’​s Timid Efforts To Fight Terrorism

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has pledged to crack down on terrorism after the Easter Sunday attack that killed 72 people. But the tragedy has raised serious questions about the country's strategy and the political factors at play.

Woman in Lahore ,just after the March 27 blast
Woman in Lahore ,just after the March 27 blast
Naeem Sahoutara

LAHORE â€" Seven-year-old Shina Ahmed lies in a bed at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Center in Lahore. Her uncles had taken her to the park to play on Easter Sunday, when all of sudden there was a loud explosion. She doesn't remember much more after that.

The blast at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park killed 72 people, including Danish Masih's sister. "We were sitting at the canteen," he recalls. "I had just gone outside the park to find my other relatives, who were also coming to join us. There I heard a big bang. When I turned back, there was big spark of fire and many dead bodies on the ground.”

Masih's family had come to the park after attending mass on Easter Sunday. His older sister died on the spot, while another sister is fighting for her life in intensive care.

Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack. The group recently pledged allegiance to ISIS, which is working to deepen its roots in South Asia. The militant group said it was targeting Christians, but most of the victims were Muslim, like Zulekha Yaqoob, a housewife.

"We didn't know that it was Easter," she says. "We were at the swings when the blast happened. My intestines came out of my stomach. I tied them myself with my veil as I took my young daughter to the hospital."

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took to the airwaves nationwide after the attack and vowed to continue an ongoing military offensive.

"The enemies of humanity have crossed geographical and ethical boundaries and limits," he said.

The army launched an offensive against Taliban militants in the mountainous region of North Waziristan, after they massacred 134 schoolchildren in Peshawar in December 2014. The government has also devised a 20-point National Action Plan, known as the NAP, to tackle terrorism and its financial backers, and to crack down on religious hate speech.

Too little, too late

But many say the plan is yet to be fully implemented. For Zehra Yousuf, chair of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission, there are many aspects of the National Action Plan that haven't yet come into force.

"Particularly, the aspects that were the responsibility of the civilian government â€" we see that very little progress has been made," she says. "Whenever the organization of the madrasas Islamic seminaries protests, the government backs down. So we see a lack of political will there."

There are around 8,000 private madrasas, which are essentially Islamic boarding schools, in Pakistan, and most operate without any government monitoring. About half of them are found in the eastern province of Punjab, which is also the home state of the prime minister.

Sharif has been accused of inaction against hard-line teachings at religious schools, which critics say ensures his public support in the state.

Sharmila Farooqui, from the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party, says her party has been demanding the action plan be implemented in Punjab for years.

"The government's spokesperson used to make fun of us, saying we were just trying to hide our own wrongdoings," she says. "But now, again, the same thing has happened: Children and women have been martyred."

Zehra Yousuf says there are also strong financial and personal links between extremists in Waziristan and Punjab. But that hasn't stopped some politicians, such as former Punjab Home Minister Rana Sanaullah, from courting extremists.

"There are certain instances â€" there was even footage at one time â€" of Rana Sanaullah going around with the representatives of the religious extremist groups in his campaign," Yousuf says.

Under the NAP, the army has created special military courts to conduct speedy trials in terrorism-related cases, and many people have been sentenced to death. Last year, more than 326 prisoners were hanged, according to Amnesty International.

But activists argue that executions won't solve the problem: The education system also needs reform.

"Even the textbooks you see contain a lot of discriminatory material â€" you know, Hindus and Christians are shown in a bad light and Muslims are glorified," Farooqui explains. "A woman not covering her head is depicted as a bad woman. So there's lot of material that can distort young minds."

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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