April 01, 2020
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Kraits In The Grass

In Pakistan too, the foreign hand story meets with scorn

Kraits In The Grass
Kraits In The Grass
When the bus carrying the Sri Lankan cricket team, escorted by a security vehicle ahead and another behind, reached Lahore’s Liberty Chowk at 8:50 am on March 3, Pakistan once again began a descent into chaos, something it has gotten used to in recent years. About a dozen heavily armed men attacked the motorcade 300 yards from Qaddafi stadium, where the Lankans were to take part in the third day’s play of the second Test match against the Pakistan team. For 25 minutes the attackers went about their mission with insouciance, and Liberty Market, the city’s commercial hub, was raked with bullets and rocked by explosions.

Although some of the players were injured, their courageous driver, Mahar Mohammed Khalil, managed to save their lives by stepping on the accelerator and steering the bus to safety. He also saved Pakistan from deep embarrassment. "Thank God," says Khalil, "the rocket they fired at the bus missed its target. The next moment, a man came out of a white car and threw two hand-grenades, which also did not explode. Then another man came out of the car and opened fire at us." (Police sources claim the rocket was actually aimed at an escort vehicle, not the bus carrying the players.) Khalil heard the Pakistani liaison officer to the Lankan team shout at him to flee. "It was as if I got a 400-volt jolt. We made for Qaddafi stadium and it was only there I found out that some players had been injured." In all, six Lankan players were hurt, eight security personnel died.

As the attack grabbed top slot on news channels, the pundits were quick to point out similarities between the Lahore and Mumbai attacks—an armed group swooping on chosen targets with chilling ruthlessness. But Lahore differed from Mumbai in one major respect—not one assailant was killed or caught. In the absence of a Kasab, there was breathless speculation on who could have masterminded the attack on the Lankan team. From India’s Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) to Kashmiri militant groups, Lankan-Tamil avengers to Al Qaeda-Taliban elements, even sections in government allegedly trying to divert attention from a protest march lawyers were taking out against President Asif Zardari—the possibilities were discussed threadbare. Also speculated on, in whispers, was the involvement of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), which is reported to be furious with the government over the pressure it has come under post-Mumbai.

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In government circles, though, the blame was squarely laid at the door of India’s RAW. Nabeel Gabool, a senior leader of the ruling PPP, and said to be close to Zardari, told a TV news channel: "The Lahore incident was most likely carried out by Indian intelligence agents...investigators have already recovered some weapons and food items of Indian make from the crime scene." Prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s advisor on interior affairs, Rehman Malik, too, did not rule out a foreign hand, while the Pakistani foreign office thought the assault was perpetrated by those opposed to Pakistan’s friendship with Sri Lanka. No prizes for guessing which country was being referred to. Pakistani television news channels also broadcast footage of a Sonia Gandhi speech in which she had spoken of teaching Pakistan a lesson. "This attack is the lesson," many anchors declared.

Then, Khawaja Khalid Farooq, the inspector-general of police of Pakistan’s Punjab province, alleged that the provincial CID had in a secret communique dated January 22 warned of an Indian plan to target the Sri Lankan team. The report said RAW had planned an attack on the route the team would be taking from their hotel to the ground and added that it was "evident that RAW intends to show Pakistan as a security risk state for sports activities". Islamabad hasn’t yet explained why the provincial administration of Governor Salman Taseer didn’t act on the report.

Even in Pakistan there are many who do not buy the government version that RAW was involved in the Lahore attack. Ahmed Rashid, a respected journalist, told a news agency that the attackers seemed like semi-educated city-dwellers, more likely to be from Punjabi or Kashmiri extremist groups than from the Taliban. "They could be from the LeT," he said.

Particularly dismissive of the official thesis is defence analyst Ejaz Haider, who told Outlook that if indeed it was RAW that had carried out the Lahore attack, the Indian agency should be commended for getting Pakistani recruits to carry out its mission. "Given how late the Sri Lankan team decided to play the Test in Lahore, and considering the logistical and other requirements for mounting such an operation, India didn’t have much time to put this together," he reasons. "If it did, it seems to have done an impressive job."

Haider says the Pakistani state shouldn’t slip into denial mode: "How long will we deny that we have extremist groups in Pakistan that have run amok and whose obvious agenda is to destroy the country as a nation-state? To point to an Indian khufia haath (hidden hand) in the Lahore attack without bothering to look at other evidence, for which we now have a long trajectory, is not simply ignorance, it is deliberate perfidy." And The News, Pakistan’s leading English daily, said that a domestic terror group was as likely to have organised or facilitated the attack as a foreign hand. It wrote: "They (militant groups) have no need of foreign assistance or foreign money as there are plenty of people here happy to finance them and offer logistical support."

Apart from these voices, there are sources in intelligence and the security forces betting that it was the LeT that carried out the attack. Apart from the Punjabi features of the attackers, their choice of Lahore just about rules out every other militant group operating here. For one, the group has strong and deep roots in Punjab province and Lahore—the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the charitable face of the LeT, has its headquarters at Muridke, 30 km away from Lahore, and runs two major centres in the city. One of the centres is in Model Town, a suburb adjoining the attack site.

These sources believe that LeT’s gameplan was to hijack the bus carrying the Lankan players and demand the release of the group’s chief operational commander, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, who’s now in custody. This is why the police suspect the militants aimed the rocket at the escort vehicle in front, hoping to kill the security guards so as to be able to board the bus without resistance. Once the attackers realised they may not succeed in hijacking the bus, they riddled it with bullets.

Even Rehman Malik, who’s the de facto interior minister, told Associated Press on March 4 that the preparations made by the attackers, whom he did not identify, demonstrated their intention to hijack the bus. The attacker moved in twos or threes, had walkie-talkies, and carried backpacks full of water, dry fruit and other high-energy food—signs that they anticipated a protracted siege or hostage situation.

Significantly, even as the bus came under attack, Lakhvi and four other Mumbai suspects were preparing to appear before Judge Sakhi Mohammad Kahut of anti-terrorist court no. 2 in Adiala Jail, Rawalpindi. Sources say the attack was aimed at both damaging the Pakistan government’s credibility and compelling the Indian government to ease the diplomatic pressure it had mounted on Islamabad. Indeed, no world power would have wanted to push a weakened federal government in Pakistan to meet India’s demands.

These sources also dismiss the theory that RAW could have had a hand in the attack, saying it hasn’t as yet demonstrated the ability to carry out a well-organised terrorist attack through a group of local gunmen in urban centres of Pakistan. They say RAW’s activities have been confined to small-intensity bomb blasts executed by elements like Sarabjit Singh, who is languishing in a Lahore jail.

About Pakistan’s slide into chaos, there’s a general sense of lamentation, in civil society and in the saner elements in the establishment. Analyst Nasim Zehra put it thus: "The bloody assault has come as a huge setback to Islamabad, for it has confirmed the fears of the international community that Pakistan today is one of the most dangerous places on earth."

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