By Syed Shoaib Hasan
Lahore – Pakistan’s cultural capital – has faced its share of militant attacks, but it has not had to put up with the kind of sustained campaign it now appears to be facing.
Wednesday’s suicide bombing of the police emergency response headquarters on a heavily guarded section of Lahore’s Mall road underlines the fact that the cultural heart of Pakistan is a city under siege. It is a clear statement from the militants seen to be under siege in Swat and elsewhere – they are alive and can strike back.
A raid on the police training centre near the city in March – along with an attack on the Sri Lanka cricket team in the same month – brought home the fact that the city is now in the frontline of Pakistan’s struggle against militancy.
According to security officials, part of the reason Lahore is now under threat may be because it has previously been seen as stable.
“Lahore is the only city in Pakistan which has remained relatively peaceful since the 9/11 attacks,” says a security official.
“It has been Pakistan’s saving grace, and whoever wants to destabilise the country or the government, would go after Lahore,” the official says.
There are a number of reasons why Lahore could be the centre of such attacks.
Many people suspect Taliban militants in Pakistan’s north-west. Almost all major attacks inside Pakistan in recent years have been traced back to the tribal areas near the Afghan border.
Taliban militants fighting the Pakistani army have openly admitted planning and carrying out many of the attacks.
They recently issued a propaganda video which took responsibility for carrying out a number of suicide bombings on security forces over the last two years. At least two of them were carried out in Lahore.
Fingers have also been pointed at the Lashkar-e-Taiba, as they were after the attack on the Sri Lanka team.
Some experts say the attacks could be retaliation by elements within the group for the crackdown on it following the attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai (Bombay) last November.
Others, like Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik, accuse another militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which the US believes has close ties with al-Qaeda.
“Almost all the recent major terror attacks have either been claimed or traced back to the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi,” he told reporters in Lahore in March.
India, too, is blamed by many Pakistani government and security officials, who suspect retaliation for the Mumbai attacks. This was also a view voiced after the attack on Sri Lanka’s cricketers.
Many analysts are quick to point out the change in tactics, and believe that the attacks are the handiwork of a new militant group.
But what many seem to have forgotten is how it all began.
Pakistani militants only started using suicide attacks in a co-ordinated manner in 2004.
The first target was Karachi, where a series of bomb attack in May of that year left more than 100 people dead.
Since then, they have become increasingly popular, and now a suicide bombing is almost a daily occurrence in North West Frontier Province.
While experts have suggested a number of theories for this change of tactics, the militants themselves say there was one clear reason.
“We started using the suicide bomber because we were under siege at the time,” a militant leader told me in 2006.
“We were short of trained men as many had been arrested or killed in the crackdown following 9/11.
“The places where we could set-up training camps were also declared out of bounds.
“The easiest way to fight back was to use a bomb and the easiest way to ensure its success was to use someone to manually detonate the device. Little training was needed, and the younger the bomber the easier it was to convince them,” the militant said.
But he added that the suicide bomber was not always effective, especially if the target was spread over a large area.
“We will eventually start using assault tactics again, when we have regained our strength in men,” he concluded.
That increasingly appears to be the case, as the militants deploy a variety of different tactics in the field.
‘Next Taliban state’
More than anything, this means that whatever Pakistan’s government says, the power of the militants has increased substantially over the last two years.
Political instability has given them encouragement, and they have thrived as they once did during the 1990s under state patronage.
Whether Pakistan’s current government is up to the task of taking them on remains to be seen.
President Asif Zardari’s government certainly has the desire to go after the militants.
But whether it has the required backing from the military is an open question.
Pakistan’s military has always seen the country’s “strategic interests” through a different lens from the civilian governments.
In the past the military has acted as godfather to the militants.
But never has the country faced as great an internal threat as it does now.
Experts say the situation can still be remedied if both parties agree that eliminating the militants is in Pakistan’s best interests.
If that does not happen, there appears little to prevent Pakistan from becoming the next Taliban state.