Is Pakistan heading towards another military coup after Lahore terror attack?

arya sharma/catch news

Is Pakistan heading towards another military coup after Lahore terror attack?

R Akhil @catchnews

The attack

  • Jamaat-ul-Ahrar bombed Lahore's Gulshan-e-Iqbal park on 27 March, killing 72 people
  • The victims were mostly Christian women and children, who had gathered there on Easter Sunday

The fallout

  • The Pakistan army has launched a crackdown on terrorists in the Punjab state
  • The Nawaz Sharif-led Pakistan govt and his brother's Punjab govt are resistant to the army crackdown

More in the story

  • There have always been faultlines between the govt and the army - is another coup coming?
  • Why the Sharif brothers are resisting the crackdown

On 27 March, a suspected Taliban splinter group, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, bombed the famous Gulshan-e-Iqbal park in Lahore, claiming 72 lives - mostly women and children. The Christian families gathered in the park on Easter Sunday were the main target of the terror strike.

It was the bloodiest attack on Christians in Pakistan since the 2013 Peshawar church bombing that killed more than 80 people. The dastardly act was yet another reminder that extremist elements still remain a potent force in Pakistan, despite the army's sweeping claims that its Zarb-e-Azb operation has managed to break the backbone of the insurgency.

Also read - Blast in Lahore park kills 72 & injures more than 300; children main target of suicide bomber

It has also once again exposed the faultlines between the army and the civilian government.

Army decides to go all-out against terrorists

Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif went into a huddle with senior commanders and intelligence officials soon after the attack. The orders for an all-out military operation against terrorists in Punjab were issued from the army headquarters in Rawalpindi.

Military spokesman Lt-Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa confirmed on Twitter that the operation commenced on Sunday night, with Pakistan Rangers and the army conducting raids in Multan, Faisalabad, and Sialkot.

However, subsequent developments have made it clear that both provincial and federal governments are against the military intervention in Punjab. They are also apparently upset at some of the statements issued by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the official media-wing of the armed forces, questioning the government's performance in implementation of the National Action Plan (NAP).

The national media has reported that the decision to launch a military offensive in Punjab was taken by Gen. Sharif without consulting the government. The ongoing wrangling between the two sides over the issue has only widened the rift.

On 27 March, Lahore's Gulshan-e-Iqbal park was bombed, killing 72 people - mostly women and children

On 28 March, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif stated that local police and intelligence agencies would assist the army in nabbing the culprits behind the blast. He was contradicted on the same day by Gen. Sharif, who categorically denied the possibility of the army and central intelligence agencies taking assistance from the local security apparatus.

A defiant PM Sharif issued yet another statement on 30 March, rejecting military action in Punjab. He argued that no part of the province was controlled by the terrorists and, therefore, army intervention was not required.

Punjab Chief Minister (and the PM's brother) Shahbaz Sharif and Union Interior Minister Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan held a long meeting with the army chief the following day. There have been three meetings between the political and military leadership on the issue since last Thursday - the latest one on Monday chaired by the Prime Minister himself - but there's little sign of a compromise.

Why Nawaz and Shahbaz are resisting army action

The resulting impasse has led to speculation over whether Pakistan is heading towards its fifth military coup in less than 69 years of existence.

The army has gone ahead with its offensive in Punjab over the past week, killing around 10 suspected terrorists and arresting over 700 people.

The army has been demanding military action in Punjab for quite some time. The issue came up for discussion during the PM's visit to the army's Rawalpindi headquarters last May.

The generals reportedly presented 'credible' evidence to convince him that operation Zarb-e-Azb should, at least, be extended to the southern parts of the province.

The government has refused to give in to this demand despite repeated claims by the army that southern Punjab has become the hotbed of extremist elements.

Despite the Pakistan govt's objections, the army is cracking down on terrorists in Punjab

The Pakistani English daily newspaper The Dawn published a report last January claiming thousands of madrasas in southern Punjab are preparing fighters for jihad.

According to the report, several jihadi organisations, including Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahiba, Jamat-ud-Dawa, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami were active in regions like Lahore, Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Khanewal, Dera Ghazi Khan and Muzaffargarh.

This raises two pertinent questions: why is the government against the military operation in Punjab? What happened to the co-ordination between civil and defence establishment that was evident after the Peshawar army school attack?

Another English newspaper, The Nation, answered these questions on 31 March. Its report stated that the ruling PML (N) fears that a crackdown on Punjab-based jihadi groups could alienate its traditional vote bank. The report claims that Nawaz Sharif's party is supported by many banned terror outfits, and any military action could upset this equation.

Punjab is politically and economically the most important province of Pakistan - 183 out of 342 members of Pakistan's Parliament come from the state. The politics of the Sharif family has centred around the region for long.

This is at the root of the dilemma faced by PML (N) in the province. A recent article published in 'The Dawn' aptly surmised that Nawaz Sharif is not in a position to support the army action in Punjab, because he will lose everything if Punjab slips from his hands.

Three approaches

The unilateral action by the army brass has drawn criticism from the liberal sections in Pakistan. Several media analysts believe the army would never succeed in its mission unless it is supported by the local government and security agencies. It may result in a prolonged battle for the armed forces.

On the other hand, some people think it is the appropriate time for the army to extend its operations in Punjab, after successful campaigns in Sindh and Waziristan.

There is another section that advocates a middle path, suggesting that the army should hand over security operations in Punjab to the para-military forces, as it did in Karachi.

Still, the fear of a coup has been never beyond the horizon in a country like Pakistan.

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R Akhil @catchnews