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Tuesday, March 03, 2009 

The Lahore attack and the resulting fallout.

The attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore is likely to become one of those outrages which does genuinely change things, if not forever, then certainly for the foreseeable future. While many called the commando-style attack on Mumbai India's 9/11 and suggested that the city would never be the same again, India's capital has more or less returned to normality, just as the 9/11 attacks, as well as our own 7/7 changed very little about our actual way of life, changes in security and foreign policy not withstanding.

Today's attack however was different. Whether it's completely accurate that athletes have not been specifically targeted by terrorists since the Munich Olympics, jihadists have certainly not shown any past inclination towards targeting sportsmen. Perhaps this is because unlike other so-called Western practices which Islamic extremists routinely denounce as decadent or immoral, few jihadis, even the most hard line, find anything much to complain about when it comes to either football or cricket; indeed, at least one of the 7/7 bombers spent some of his last night alive playing the latter with friends. al-Qaida has not shown any real interest in such attacks, perhaps realising that there is nothing more likely to cause even sympathetic opinion to turn against you than to target universally admired individuals completely uninvolved in politics. In any case, much softer targets are more than available, as they have shown time and again, including in the attack last year on the Marriott hotel, which was far more symbolic and powerful without directly affecting Pakistanis themselves too greatly.

Likewise, today's attack doesn't seem to have been by the Pakistani Taliban, whom only last week signed ceasefire agreements with the Pakistan government in exchange for the imposition of Sharia law in the Swat valley. To jeopardise the truce so soon would be doubtful, even if, as today's Guardian's front page reports, the three disparate groups appear to have joined forces to fight the Americans in Afghanistan now that the Pakistani front has been becalmed. Similarly, despite the fact that it was the Sri Lankan team targeted, it also doesn't seem to have been anything to do with the ongoing conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers, neither their work or that of a group acting in solidarity with them, the Tigers also having never previously targeted athletes.

This does however seem to be a day for setting precedents. Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group thought to be behind the Mumbai attacks and on whom suspicion is immediately settling, has also never launched an attack in Pakistan itself. Primarily focused on the Kashmiri conflict, but with apparent increasing links with al-Qaida, if this is their work it still seems to be a baffling choice of target. The immediate effect will naturally be the complete suspension of all international cricket in Pakistan, possibly indefinitely. In a nation which can be without cliché be described as cricket mad, and where the game transcends almost everything else, this seems guaranteed to result in overwhelming anger landing on the radicals throughout the country, not just those deemed to be personally responsible. The attack seems to have been designed to make the country more insular, further severing its links with the outside world, just at the time when tourism as a result of the country's shift towards extremism is already diminishing, also not helped by the global downturn which has left the country impoverished, forced to turn to the IMF for help. That the attack was in Lahore, one of the more culturally liberal and safest cities in the country is also causing deep concern; if such an assault can be launched there, it seems that nowhere is now safe from the spreading tentacles of Islamic militancy.

Pakistan has since its creation been a nation divided, one riven by its differences rather than prepared to unite around its common values. It was hoped that last year's election and the end of Musharraf's dictatorship would be a time for healing the old wounds, yet a year later the country is even more fragmented and in discord than before. Few had high hopes in Benazir Bhutto's widower, Asif Zardari, long known as "Mr 10%" because of the accusations of corruption made against him, becoming an uniting figure, but hardly anyone foresaw just how disastrous he might be. The recent banning of Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the Muslim League (N) from office illustrated vividly the fractious and bitter nature of Pakistani politics, with violent protests from Sharif's supporters in reaction. The army, which has intervened in the past repeatedly, still has the same links to jihadists as before, while the ISI has not even began to be reformed. It seems doubtful that the army will intervene just yet, its humiliation in being forced into making a deal in Swat too recent, but it certainly cannot be fully ruled out.

It has to hoped that today's attack marks a turning point, with the outrage at the attack and its implications uniting rather than dividing where previous events have not. The risk of Pakistan being overran by extremists and gaining power in a nuclear-armed state has long been exaggerated, but the accusations that Pakistan is rapidly turning into a failed state are not so wide of the mark. Only the Pakistani people themselves, as their politicians have long been so hopeless, can arrest the march towards chaos. It might well have taken an attack on sport, and so the people as a whole themselves, to bring to a head what has been developing for some time.

Related post:
Bleeding Heart Show - Which Taliban?

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Great post, I hope that this atrocity is a catalyst for Pakistan to take steps towards unity and the exclusion of extremism from its borders.

This is the best analysis of the attacks in Lahore I've read. It's heartbreaking to see something that unifies everyone from the Indian sub-continent attack. I also hope things turn for the better.

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