Rise in terror attacks ahead of Pakistan General Election gives polls new complexity with international implications
With the Pakistani General Election just a week away, statistics touted very recently have taken a beating. A central point in Nawaz Sharif’s manifesto had been the lowering of terrorism by 271 percent in Pakistan during his (shortened) term. That statistic has gone out of the window during the last week, with various terrorist groups claiming a series of attacks largely in Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa killing over 150. Not that Baluchistan was particularly peaceful even before this, with most violent incidents being swept under the carpet. But the recent violence is surprising, even by Pakistan’s standards.
The worst attack was in Mastung, Balochistan where a suicide attacker hit a corner political meeting of the newly formed Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) killing a reported 149 people, including children. That makes it the worst ever attack in Pakistan in recent times, surpassing even the Peshawar Army school attack, which killed 147 three years ago. The blast was claimed by the Islamic State through its Amaq news agency together with photographs of the alleged bomber. Its notice also claimed that the attack was targeted at Siraj Raisani since he was “an intelligence agent” of the Pakistani government.
Representational image. AP
That is a strange allegation. Raisani is a well-known politician from a blue-blooded family, who recently clubbed his own small party (the Balochistan Muttahida Mahaz) with the BAP that was set up in March 2018 with the blessings of then Balochistan chief minister Abdul Quddus Bizenjo. It is certainly true that Bizenjo was made the chief minister through a palace coup engineered by the “Milt-establishment”, making him the third chief minister in four years. Certainly also, the BAP was made up of "Independent" politicians from the province, as also the dissident PML(N) politicians who had led the palace coup in the first place.
So to add it all up, Raisani was heading a party that ostensibly had the blessings of the Pakistani state, in a province which is absolutely vital for the success of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. He had an illustrious background and was known to be immensely proud of his country and of the army. Why the Islamic State should dislike all of this is unclear. The overwhelming sense conveyed in the Pakistani media is that these acts are committed by loose groups formerly part of the Pakistani terrorist family, and who have now gone off the rails.
Two other attacks targeted a former chief minister, Akram Durrani, who was part of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, and Dawood Achakzai from the secular Awami National Party (ANP), just three days later. Luckily, both survived. Another was not so lucky. ANP leader Haroon Bilour, reached out to shake hands with someone who appeared to be a well-wisher. The suicide bomber could not possibly have missed at that range. Haroon was the son of the highly respected Bashir Bilour who was himself killed in a terrorist attack in 2012. He is survived by his son Danyal, who in a moving speech immediately after his fathers death, swore support to the Pakistan Army and the people of Peshawar.
The ANP has lost a valuable leader, but the party has been somewhat on the backfoot recently. It has been outshone and outdone by the non-political Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement led by the young charismatic Manzoor Pashteen. The ANP had banned its cadres from supporting the hugely popular Pashtun movement, fearing a backlash from the establishment. Its young cadres defied the ban and went anyway, spurred by the emotive call for an end to violence by Pashteen. Ironically, it is the very 'Terrorist Inc' which Pashteen and other leaders deplore, that killed Bilour. The attack was claimed by the amorphous Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan – which as of now has no apparent leader or any particular organisation. In fact, another version of the Taliban that has gone wrong under the tutelage of Pakistan’s deep state.
Which leads to the question of whether there is a pattern to the attacks that have shaken the country. Someone may want the elections delayed, or so affected that voting in specific provinces is adversely affected. The wave of sympathy that has been created by the admittedly courageous return of Nawaz and his daughter could not but have upset the establishment. In addition, it looks like the democratic forces are joining hands, after it became clear that new cases were being opened up against former Pakistani president and co-head of the PPP Asif Zardari.
The PPP is now solidly behind the PML(N) condemning the filing of cases against the latter’s workers, as well as its leadership. Surprisingly, the Jamaat-e-Islami is also extending some support to PML(N) candidates in Punjab. All this is not happy news for those who want to mould the elections to suit their agenda. Notice that no terrorist attack can be seen against the massive rallies being held by the extremist Right. What with the violence, court activism, and the legal hurdles raised by the return of a former prime minister, the Pakistani elections have probably become far more complex than anyone could have imagined.
While all of this happens, New Delhi is far more interested in its own looming elections, not to mention the complexity of balancing several large powers to its own benefit, even as President Donald Trump vacillates between extremes. But New Delhi should beware. Apart from the fact that the emergence of a shaky coalition in Pakistan is not the best of options, there are other dangerous portends in the coming elections that cannot be ignored. The mandarins and the spooks on both sides of the border need to take care.