As rescue workers tried desperately to pull scores of dead and injured from the Lahore park targeted by a suicide bomber on Sunday, Pakistan’s government faced another challenge from extremists nearly 300km away in the capital.
Thousands of Islamists who were commemorating an executed assassin’s chehlum — a ritual marking 40 days after a Muslim death — in the city of Rawalpindi marched to nearby Islamabad. They broke through police lines and breached the “red zone”, a supposedly secure area of embassies, parliament and the office of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Mr Sharif was left with no choice but to call in the army.
As the protesters on Monday remained camped across the road from the parliament, Pakistani commentators and western analysts said the latest Islamist terror attack — which killed 70 people, mainly women and children, and injured more than 200 — and the march to Islamabad were indicative of Mr Sharif’s troubling failure to build any kind of national consensus against militancy.
The Lahore bombing, claimed by a faction of the Pakistani Taliban, was unusual in Pakistan not for its death toll but for its location.
Punjab is the stronghold of Mr Sharif and his brother Shahbaz, the province’s chief minister, and had until Sunday escaped the worst of the political violence afflicting the rest of the country, apparently because of the discreet political alliances struck between the Sharif family and influential Islamists.
The Islamabad protesters were commemorating Malik Mumtaz Qadri, a former policeman hanged last month for the assassination of Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab province. Qadri killed Taseer in 2011 and defended his act on the grounds Taseer had defended a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy. The case has exposed deep divisions across Pakistani society.
“There is clearly a disconnect between Sharif’s government and all that is happening across Pakistan,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a security affairs commentator. “Fighting militancy is not just about a military battle. It’s also about building a new national consensus to rally Pakistanis on a single platform.”
Mr Rizvi echoed other critics in arguing that Mr Sharif’s enthusiasm for new infrastructure projects has distracted him from the important task of combating militant violence. “The prime minister believes that Pakistan’s salvation lies in making fancy big roads, trains and other networks,” said Mr Rizvi. “But the battle to change Pakistan is a battle for the hearts and minds. Militancy will not end if there are more high-speed roads.”
In Islamabad, a capital territory that also lies within Punjab, police officers and diplomats say the government was caught unaware when the crowd of passionate pro-Qadri protesters marched to parliament on Sunday.
“You had thousands of people march from Rawalpindi to the heart of the capital and they were not blocked anywhere along the route,” said one western diplomat. “This was a police failure. But it also raises the question about how many Pakistanis want to rally behind their government.”
Western governments are worried about extremism not only on the streets but also within the military establishment of the nuclear-armed Pakistani state. The leaders of both Pakistan and its neighbour India, also nuclear-armed, will attend a nuclear security summit hosted by President Barack Obama in Washington later this week.
While Mr Sharif has repeatedly spoken out against terrorism, he appears to have abdicated broader responsibility for security policy to General Raheel Sharif, the unrelated army chief, underlining the military’s dominance over the civilian government when it comes to Pakistan’s foreign and defence affairs.
It was Gen Sharif who launched the 2015 campaign against the Taliban and who is seen as a saviour in Karachi, the nation’s biggest city, for the military crackdown there on criminal violence.
The Lahore bombing has raised the question of whether the army should launch an antiterrorism operation in the Punjab, as it did in Karachi and Sindh and in the areas close to the border with Afghanistan.
In the past, Mr Sharif and other leaders of the ruling PML-N party have resisted the idea, but the death of so many people in Lahore and the latest Islamabad confrontation may force them to change their minds.
“I do not believe the army can be kept out of southern Punjab now,” said Farooq Hameed Khan, a retired army officer and TV talk show host. “Sunday’s events in Islamabad have proven that the government cannot even defend Islamabad’s well fortified centre.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016. You may share using our article tools.
Please don’t cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.