Lahore killing threaten Nawaz’s home base. By Manzoor Ahmed

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The Easter massacre in Lahore that killed scores of men, but more significantly, women and children out on a Sunday evening outing, has brought the battle right at the doorsteps of Punjab from where both the Sharifs – Prime Minister Nawaz and Army chief Raheel – draw their principal support. If Nawaz’s ruling PMLN is essentially a Punjab-based party, the most populous province is also from where Raheel’s army comes in numbers and dominates the military as no other province does.
Commercial capital Karachi has been attacked many times, so are the military headquarters in Islamabad. Even Peshawar has seen violence, the most poignant being the attack on the army public school in December 2014. But Lahore’s importance cannot be overestimated, both politically and militarily. It brings tangible losses for both as no other province, city or incident does.
Punjab elects the maximum number of lawmakers; it is also the granary of the nation. It is where much of the industry is. But it is also the province where sectarian groups have been nurtured. Nawaz and his party have had a cozy relationship with them in that they are not touched as long as they support the establishment – both civil and military.
These groups have been used to needle India, especially in Kashmir and Afghanistan. They have traditionally been the “good boys”, the “strategic assets”. They were not touched while the two Sharifs unleashed the National Action Plan in Karachi and elsehwhere and the Zarb-e-Azb against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), against the terrorists, mainly tribals and foreign nationals.
But now chicken has come home to roost.
As Lahore bled, a horde of zealots protesting the execution of Mumtaz Qadri stormed Islamabad breaking security barriers and leaving behind a trail of destruction. They virtually put the high-security Red Zone under siege demanding that the former police guard and murderer of former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer be declared a national hero and martyr. The army was called in after police and paramilitary troops were unable to control the rampaging fanatics.
Lahore massacre has shown that Punjab militants are ready to dare the establishment that has nurtured them all along. Whether or not that relieves any pressure on the TTP in the tribal areas, it certainly threatens the civil-military base as never before.
Lahore happened when Pakistan was patting itself on the back for “breakthrough” against terrorism and talking of “political stability” ushered in by the two Sharifs working in tandem. There has been much self-congratulating and expressing of satisfaction, even joy, at the civil-military cooperation. All that has been punctured for the moment at least.
Going by the seriousness of violence and casualties, several attacks on Shias and Ahmediyyas through the year 2014 did not cause the type of alarm because the minorities were involved. Even the two attacks on churches in Peshawar did not cause the level of revulsion it should have. The attack on school in Peshawar became the landmark tragedy because children were involved. Like tackling of terrorism, is the mourning of the dead also selective in Pakistan, one wonders.
Lahore massacre has led to another development that was, perhaps, inevitable. For the last year and more, save a few critics, nobody seemed worried about the growing clout of the army and individual popularity of Raheel who was being seen as a hero and a savior.
Post-Lahore, Raheel and the army is getting stronger vis-a-vis the politicians, but they are also under the public scrutiny for having done their job well, but leaving out loopholes and being vulnerable to criticism -- not that there any serious threat to the army’s overwhelming presence.
But Lahore incident, the heart of the political capital, makes Nawaz more vulnerable vis-a-vis the military. The army has begun an all-out offensive on the militant groups. It makes Raheel stronger and appear more determined, but also stretches his strength – the manpower and firepower – well beyond the tribal areas of FATA. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and from time to time, Balochistan. Such a situation has already alarmed the Islamist parties and groups who have been unhappy with Nawaz’s recent reformist actions like legislation of religious minorities, for protection of women and endorsing the campaign against honour killings, acid attacks etcetera. The mullahs have already sent ultimatums to the government to unroll these measures.
While the chief cleric of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid blows hot and cold daring both the civil and military rulers, the execution of Mumtaz Qadri has simply worked as a catalyst uniting various religious factions. It is not just the alliance of different sectarian and militant outfits, they are also joined by mainstream Islamic parties like Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and factions of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam. It is a coalition of Islamists against the common enemy— Nawaz. It is only Nawaz because when push comes to shove, the Islamists will buckle under, if not openly side with, the army. That has been their tradition.
Reports indicate that the army went into action even before Nawaz was on TV condemning the Lahore massacre. Indeed, he made no mention of the army action in his telecast that was otherwise full of high-sounding emotion-charged words.
Raheel may be changing tack, from predominant counter-insurgency to more counter-terrorism goals. It is a push for ever-more militarised counter-terrorism. That means the long war will be longer yet. Not only Zarb-e-Azb will prolong, so will be action under the National Action Plan in Karachi and so will be the campaign in Punjab – whether or not it is a politically sound approach from Nawaz Sharif’s viewpoint.
It is possible to speculate whether Lahore massacre has driven some kind of a wedge between the two Sharifs. Public postures apart, they could be eating into each other’s support base. An all-out campaign against the militants, assuming it would really be all-out, not selective and truly effective, is bound to threaten the groups that have supported PMLN, essentially a right-wing conservative party.
This situation makes Nawaz vulnerable vis-a-vis Raheel. Nawaz had confronted Pervez Musharraf, which forced the latter to depose him in 1999. Will history repeat itself with Raheel going well beyond his self-accorded mandate and move against Nawaz – even though Nawaz has all but surrendered to him?

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