Pakistan Strikes Back
On Thursday, February 16, a suicide bomber attacked the Sufi Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine, located in the city of Sehwan, in the southern Sindh province of Pakistan. The masses gathered that day had been performing a devotional dance when the attack occurred, and the explosion took the lives of 88 individuals and wounded 250 more.
Sehwan is an isolated town, unprepared to deal with the emergency caused by the attack. Local hospitals were quickly overwhelmed with the victims, some of whom had to be carried by military aircraft to Karachi, which lies 180 kilometers away from Sehwan.
The bomber had filled his vest with shrapnel and loose metal, aiming at creating mass casualties. Some hours later, while victims were still being ushered to hospitals, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. The attack was an affront to the Sufi tradition in Pakistan.
The Sehwan shrine bombing was one of six terrorist attacks to hit Pakistan that week. The wave of violence, the bloodiest in recent history, has left the country unsteady. Afrasiab Khattak, an opposition politician, claims that the attack was aimed at destabilizing Pakistan, and it does call into question the Pakistani military’s approach to the issue of violent extremism.
Pakistan continues an urgent fight against violent extremism, but it would seem that senior military officials are overlooking the role ISIL is playing in it. Zahid Hussain, a Pakistani journalist, explains that high-officials claim that ISIL has no holdings in Pakistan, but they ignore the fact that many smaller organizations agree with its goals. Instead, Pakistan has turned its attention towards Afghanistan, claiming that the attacks were coordinated and funded within its borders. It’s a strategy that Pakistan has been pursuing for years, and that political analysts are critical of. Mosharaf Zaidi, a former advisor to the Pakistani government, stated that “the network of terrorists exists in this country, and the solution is also inside Pakistan”, expressing frustration at the government’s policy in blaming Afghanistan and its incomplete terrorism policy. Opposition leaders in Pakistan are calling for a revision to said policy, which in the past has focused on solely dismantling core holdings and ignoring splinter groups. Imran Khan, a prominent opposition politician calls for the need for a cohesive national security policy, one that takes into account how deep and far these terrorist networks go.
But the Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, and the head of the armed forces, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, have responded to recent events with a different approach. The night following the attack, the Pakistani military carried out raids, killing 100 supposed terrorists in less than 24 hours. The next day, the Torkham border with Afghanistan was shut down, and the Afghan government was handed a list of 76 individuals to apprehend, the threat of Pakistani intervention as subtext. Prime Minister Sharif declared that he authorized the armed forces to “eliminate the enemy”.
The White House has been quiet in regards to the Pakistani matter. Earlier this month, President Trump declared that the US’s counter-extremism program would, from now on, focus only countering Islamic extremism, an extremely controversial policy. But, when Pakistan was hit with a wave of terrorist violence, the American President was silent, and in a press conference lamented a made-up tragedy in Sweden. The western media followed the President’s suit, saying little about the blood spilled in Sehwan, and a lot about the non-existent incident in Sweden.
While the world tangled itself up in debates of extremism, fake news, and blame-politics, the citizens of Sehwan reclaimed their shrine from the violence that had struck it. They cleared the debris and scrubbed blood off the marble floors. They climbed over red-tape and congregated for the dhamaal. This time, the devotional dance symbolized more than just their faith; it represented their defiance and strength, their pain, but also their hope. Haj Shah, one of the shrine’s caretakers explained quite simply, “This is our place.”