Lahore to Peshawar: the trophy-target war

Razi Ahmed
11 June 2009

Pakistan's cites are under assault. A series of bomb-attacks on spectacular or otherwise high-profile targets in Islamabad (the Marriott Hotel, in September 2008) and Lahore (the Sri Lankan cricket team and a police academy, in March 2009) has now been followed by the destruction of the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar on 9 June. The campaign, part of the country's rooted political and security crises, can also be understood in symbolic terms.

Razi Ahmed studied politics and economics at the University of Chicago, and now works in Lahore. He writes frequently in Dawn Lahore's Queen's Road is a place of dense urban agglomeration. It starts from the city's bustling electronics wholesale market, passes a Salvation Army school, the pre-partition Ganga Ram hospital, the British visa office, a concentration of media and law offices, a popular cinema, relics of Hindu architecture, and the Red Cross office, before rounding off at Charing Cross, a site of popular protests and rallies opposite the Punjab Legislative Hall.

Here too lies the intended target of the gun-and-suicide attack of 27 May 2009 - the office of Pakistan's flagship intelligence agency, Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). The agency's building is adjacent to a police-station and the police's emergency-response centre, which were ultimately the locations hit. The incident left twenty-six people dead and over 250 wounded, debris, charred buildings, damaged hospitals, and many mangled cars, rickshaws, and electric poles.

The perpetrators of this and similar strikes deep into the urban maze of Lahore's city-centre are a nexus of al-Qaida, Pakistani Taliban, and local Punjabi militants who have adopted a "punishment" strategy designed - in an echo of powerful states's air-campaigns - to "(harm) enemy civilians in order to lower their morale and motivate them to force their governments to end the war." The militants' targets in this urban campaign of terror include key units of state and society, law-enforcement agencies, mosques, hotels, and individual political figures.

The arc of influence of these militants extends from the core Taliban badlands of North and South Waziristan to Lahore and Quetta; it is increasingly exerted through the group's proxies, such as the Punjab-based Lashkar-i-Taiba. The urban heartlands of Lahore, Islamabad, and Peshawar have become "trophy-targets" of militants seeking to punish the Pakistani state for its newfound resolve against terror. These cities represent the heart of national commerce and culture, as well as the key nodes of law-enforcement. This makes them all the more tempting to the militants.

The brutal assault on the Frontier region's sole deluxe hotel in Peshawar's busy Sadder district, executed in the same gun-and-suicide bombing pattern as Lahore's, inflicted a death-toll of eighteen, including United Nations officials, plus sixty injured. It too is part of this emerging pattern of multi-pronged attacks on state and society, in the service of pitiless urban punishment. The strategy is self-evidently "successful" in achieving its short-term objective of spreading chaos, but insofar as it is hardening the resolve of both state and citizens to protect their interests and livelihoods, it is ultimately self-defeating.

The blast-waves reaching across Lahore and Peshawar represent the spreading urbanisation of an internal war for so long fought in the militants' mountainous hideouts. But these are already landscapes of conflict, whose people have the resources to make sense of it and defy those who would intimidate them. Lahore's first suicide-bombing in January 2008 can also be seen as one moment of a history marked by invasions, the turmoil around partition, sporadic religious violence and national wars. Lahore, my city too, has always recovered.

Peshawar has had tougher luck. This conservative city served as the advance base for the United States-sponsored Afghan mujahideen operations against Soviet forces in the 1980s; once concluded with the Red Army's withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988-89, it remained a locus of jihadist ideology and fulmination, and has found a new role with the coming of another Afghan war in 2001. But this time round, the deep penetration of militants inside the city and across the Frontier make this latest protracted conflict both indigenous and more bloody.

There is no sign of the militant campaign on Pakistan's cities abating. It is crucial that the effort to sever the circuits of terror, intended to transform Pakistan's urban nodes into places of permanent insecurity, continues. Lahore and Peshawar can also resist by taking refuge in their legacy and identity as cities, rejecting violence in the name of shared public life.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Pakistan:

Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state" (12 April 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan's permanent crisis" (15 May 2007)

Anatol Lieven, "At the Red Mosque in Islamadad" (4 June 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "The war for Pakistan"  (24 July 2007)

Saskia Sassen, "Lahore: urban space, niche repression" (21 November 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto" (28 December 2007)

Fred Halliday, "The assassin's age: Pakistan in the world" (28 December 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "Pakistan: dynasty vs democracy" (9 January 2008)

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan's judgment day" (22 February 2008)

Irfan Husain. "Pervez Musharraf: the commando who couldn't" (19 August 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan: the new frontline" (18 September 2008)

Shaun Gregory, "The Pakistan army and the Afghanistan war" (25 November 2008)

Shaun Gregory, "Mumbai: Pakistan's moment of opportunity" (3 December 2008)

Paul Rogers, "The AfPak war: three options" (25 February 2009)

Paul Rogers, "A three-front war: Iraq, AfPak...Washington" (20 March 2009)

Nadeem Ul Haque, "How to solve Pakistan's problem" (24 April 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan: sources of turmoil" (30 April 2009)

Anatol Lieven, "Pakistan's American problem" (6 May 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan's war on civilians" (28 May 2009)

Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan and the ‘AfPak' strategy" (28 May 2008)

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "The road from hell" (9 June 2009)

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