3 March 2009

Dr Gareth Price

Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme


The attack on Sri Lanka's cricketers in Lahore is the latest in a line of high-profile incidents in Pakistan, the frequency of which has increased since the army launched an assault on the Red Mosque in Islamabad in July 2007.

While a number of international cricket teams have already stopped touring Pakistan, there had been a working assumption that targeting the most-loved sport in Pakistan would be counter-productive. But the militant groups face two issues. First, the number of international targets is now greatly reduced: diplomatic staff rarely move around the country, foreign-owned businesses are run by locals and tourists are few and far between. Second, the militants are clearly becoming more brazen. The recent peace deal in Swat has led to demands for the imposition of Sharia law in other parts of Pakistan.

This latest incident comes at a time when public support for the government of Pakistan is waning rapidly, not least because of its perceived support for US drone attacks against militants in the tribal areas. While most Pakistanis abhor the radical groups, they equally dislike what they see as US violations of Pakistani sovereignty.

If ever Pakistan needed a government of national unity to confront the threat from radical groups, that time is now. Instead, politicians in Islamabad are involved in an ever-more frenetic battle for power. Last week the Supreme Court banned the leader of the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), Nawaz Sharif, and his brother, Shahbaz, the chief minister of Punjab, from holding office. So Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province, is effectively without a government at present.

Radical groups are clearly intent on implementing Taliban-style laws in Pakistan. In large parts of the North West Frontier Province, and in southern Punjab, the puritanical streak of the Taliban (that alienated the population when it was in power in Afghanistan) is already coming to the fore. Leaving aside their attitudes towards women, attacks on video and music shops are becoming more commonplace. The ending of international cricket within Pakistan is the almost certain outcome of this round of violence.

The operation appears to have been well-planned. Suspicions that elements within Pakistan's security apparatus may have been in some way involved in providing intelligence will remain until the motivations of the ISI become more transparent, an event highly unlikely anytime soon.

The attack is a demonstration of both the weakness of the Pakistani state and the strength of militant groups. Both factors are understood by policymakers. The US now looks at events in Pakistan and Afghanistan through the same prism. But there is no easy solution of how to shore up a Pakistani state which appears at times not to want to be shored up.

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It Could Have Been India's Cricket Team
The Guardian, March 5 2009
Gareth Price