What a black day it was for the great city of Lahore, for international cricket and for the crumbling Pakistani state.
Just twelve years ago, the Sri Lankan cricket team stood gallantly to rapturous applause at Gaddafi stadium when then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto handed them the 1996 Cricket World Cup. How Pakistan has changed since. The daring ambush of the Sri Lankan team’s bus while it was on its way to a match at the very same Gaddafi stadium might well mean ‘game over’ for cricket in Pakistan. Not to mention the subcontinent’s chances of co-hosting the 2011 Cricket World Cup.
Who carried out the attack? It is shocking that not a single terrorist was killed or captured on the scene. They came onto the streets, pulled out rocket launchers, lobbed grenades – and got away scot-free despite the selfless, valiant efforts of the Lahore police force.
It is fashionable in Pakistan to blame all the country’s maladies and every brutal act of violence on Indian intelligence. And true to custom, there are already voices in Pakistan, led unsurprisingly by General Hamid Gul, that are blaming India’s intelligence service, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Meanwhile, others are pointing fingers at Sri Lanka’s militant Tamil Tigers. But it would certainly be surprising if either group had any involvement, because neither is known to have the logistics or the operational base to mount an assault of such precision or scale in Lahore.
Instead the Lahore ambush, in its objective and style, bears distinct similarities to the November assault on Mumbai. Both were audacious attacks against high-value targets, and both were carried out by approximately ten very well-trained and well-armed youngsters.
New Delhi laid the blame for the Mumbai attacks squarely on the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), and focused international attention and pressure on Islamabad. After the familiar volley of vehement denials and heated recriminations, Islamabad came around to the Indian story and endorsed the claim that the terrorists were indeed Pakistani nationals that were affiliated with the LET. Yes they had set sail from Karachi, they agreed. Following through, the Zardari government has since arrested several LET operatives and shuttered their myriad fronts and safe-houses.
And so it is well possible that the Lahore ambush was masterminded by the LET, or the Pakistani Taliban, to teach Islamabad a harsh lesson. "This is what happens when you side with the enemy -- the Indian state."
But the role of the powerful Pakistani Army will be the most interesting piece of the puzzle. If we accept the hypothesis, as so many have, that Islamic terror outfits like the LET are funded and supported by the roguish Pakistani security apparatus, then are these apocalyptic groups working in cahoots with the security establishment toward a common objective? Do they both consider an army-supported, mullah-controlled Pakistan as the first step toward achieving a pan-Islamic emirate?
And indeed if the terrorists are working against their erstwhile paymasters, then how long is the Pakistani Army going to sit on the sidelines and watch the civilian government writhe helplessly as the country is overrun with violence and religious fundamentalism?
One wonders what the Army’s long-term plans and objectives are. Will General Pervez Kayani sit on the sidelines and let democracy run its bloody course, or will he seize power and re-establish order? It’s hard to tell which would be worse. Now that the credibility of the Pakistani state is under serious threat, it has become exceedingly difficult for Pakistan to withstand international pressure on its internal issues and interests.
Today, Pakistan’s business is the world’s business.
President Zardari has gone with his only option -- he has ordered a thorough investigation of the attacks and has promised to name the perpetrators and bring them to justice. If indeed this happens, and terrorists are arrested, tried and sentenced, it will be something of a first for Pakistan. And it will surely be welcomed with loud cheers from around the world.
But perhaps more importantly, this is a shrill wake-up call for all of Pakistan’s liberal, progressive, educated populace. Until now they have been hearing the alarm bells ringing almost daily, but have just hit the snooze button and averted their eyes. But hopefully this time they will awaken from their slumber and re-capture their country.
If people don’t say and do anything now, when will they? Cricket, that beautiful game that is one of the few cultural unifiers in Pakistan, has become both a victim and a symbol of the current state of affairs.
Let the people of Lahore march in protest on Liberty Market and Main Market, and fly the Sri Lankan flag on the streets. And let the cricketing lions of Lahore, Imran Khan and Wasim Akram, lead that march. Let there be candles placed at the spots where Lahore’s brave policemen laid down their lives and slogans chanted that decry Islamic terrorism.
And then we will know that, if not the elected government, at least the Pakistani people have made their state’s existential threat their own.
Rakesh Mani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org