Pakistan plunged into election dilemma
By Syed Fazl-e-Haider
KARACHI - Violence continues unabated and tragically in Pakistan. As Shi'ites in Karachi buried their dead on Monday - a day after twin bombs killed 48 people in Abbas Town - gunmen in the Sohrab Goth area of the southern port city opened fire on mourners returning from the funeral procession. Four people were killed and more than 40 injured.
After participants from the funeral procession came under heavy fire near Al-Asif Square in Sohrab Goth, an enraged mob set 30 vehicles, including cars, motorcycles and an ambulance on fire.
"Gun-wielding arsonists and violent vandals are on the loose
everywhere. Various areas have plunged into total chaos," a private TV channel quoted one of its sources as saying.
The surge in sectarian terror attacks in Pakistan has actually plunged the country and democracy into a dilemma. General elections for the provincial and national assemblies are due to be held by mid-May. The violence and continued threats from Islamist militant groups such as the Pakistan Taliban are likely to sabotage the whole exercise of pre-poll campaigns and the voting process. Yet if the government responds to calls for a vigorous military campaign to root out the terrorists, that may lead to postponement of the elections.
As the election nears, the politicians do not want the vote to be postponed, and so agreed last week to hold talks with Taliban militants. But Sunday's bombing in Karachi that killed more than 40 people from the minority Shi'ite sect has highlighted "terrorism" as the gravest threat and an essential challenge confronting the state.
Sectarian terror attacks in January in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan in southwestern Pakistan, led to the sacking of the provincial government, with calls for the civil administration to be replaced by armed forces who could give citizens a greater sense of security. As the violence spreads to Karachi, demands have been made for the country's commercial capital to be placed under military rule.
The Daily Times commented,
"How will elections take place in such a hostile atmosphere? The security apparatus of the country including the intelligence agencies must act now and fast. Their slack and incoherent attitude has already made the enemies powerful. The caretaker setup would have to be on guard to keep the law enforcement agencies functioning. The responsibility is indeed high on them as it is on the outgoing government."
It further said,
"The recurring targeted attacks on Shias reflect the failure of the state to protect its people, especially the vulnerable class. So far, besides some cosmetic actions and a few token arrests, no consequential step has been taken against the criminals who are not only known but have been brandishing their deeds openly. These unusual circumstances require extraordinary actions by the state. Our legal system and the corresponding judicial process has in fact been an escape hatch for the terrorists.
"They have been set free for lack of evidence and a witness protection mechanism. Why can't we, as has been done by all those countries that had terrorist threats, redo the legal system and if need be suspend the fundamental rights given in the constitution, to try and punish the culprits. What would be catastrophic if the state agencies do not get their act together is a possible sectarian civil war."
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the Karachi bombing. Federal Interior Minister Rehman Malik on Monday claimed that the same Punjab-based group of terrorists that hit the Hazara Shi'ite community in Quetta was involved in the Karachi blasts. The banned militant outfit Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) had claimed the responsibility for January 10 and February 16 attacks that killed 200 Shi'ite Hazaras in their own community.
Malik also lashed out against the Punjab government, saying that all headquarters of the LeJ were in Punjab and there was no history of Shi'ite-Sunni conflict in Karachi.
The News reported Abdul Khaliq Hazara, the chairman of Hazara Democratic Party, as saying,
"It is an open secret that the PML-N [Pakistan Muslim League led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif] government in the Punjab is not in a position to launch a crackdown against the Lashkar and the Sipah [another banned militant group] because of the recent seat adjustment deal between the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat and the Sharif brothers for the coming polls. But I would like to warn the PML-N leadership that they would have to pay a heavy price in the elections if they decide to join hands with these anti-state extremists whose ultimate agendas is to destroy Pakistan."
Dawn newspaper commented,
"Perhaps the greatest challenge is the geographical spread of violence against Shias: from Quetta to Peshawar and Karachi to Gilgit-Baltistan with Lahore thrown in for good measure recently, no one federal or provincial intelligence or security agency can address the threat on its own. But with meaningful cooperation between various tiers being intermittent and institutional turf wars a reality, the country is no closer to finding a solution to a problem that just keeps growing in complexity and scope."
Political parties and the judiciary have vowed to ensure the continuation of the democratic system through elections.Pakistan's Supreme Court on Monday took suo motu notice of Karachi's twin blasts in a Shi'ite-dominated area. The court has issued notices to the Sindh Advocate-General and provincial police chief to submit a detailed report over the deadly bombing.
Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry is already hearing evidence connected with the earlier bomb attack on the Hazara Shi'ite community in Quetta. But the political parties' song for peace with Taliban militants is starting to lose its attraction in the face of the consecutive terror attacks on minority Shi'ites.
Zeeshan Husain wrote on Dawn blog,
"It is astounding that in such circumstances political parties have been mulling over, nay, actually working to initiate a dialogue with the TTP [Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan]. The very premise that we'll achieve peace by negotiating with the Taliban is wrong as for that we would need complete cooperation from the state agencies.
People in Swat, Waziristan, Quetta and now in Karachi have been crying that attacks are launched when security officials are stationed only a few yards away from the scene but the media is diverting the attention from the real issue by implicating analysts in the question as to whether we should start a dialogue with the Taliban or not. When the valid question to be asking is, whether the state will take action or will it compel members of the country's Shia community to take up arms?"
Syed Fazl-e-Haider ( www.syedfazlehaider.com ) is a development analyst in Pakistan. He is the author of many books, including The Economic Development of Balochistan, published in May 2004. E-mail,[email protected]
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