ISLAMABAD – The twin suicide attacks on Thursday on the shrine of a Sufi saint in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore in which more than 40 people were killed and nearly 200 injured will most likely force the government to reluctantly take action against Punjabi militants while also derailing Washington’s efforts to open dialogue with the Taliban through Pakistan.
The attacks in the capital of Punjab province – also known as the country’s cultural capital – took place in the late evening, with the first bombing in the basement reserved for ablutions followed a few minutes later by one in the major prayer area. The shrine is dedicated to 11-century Persian Sufi saint Syed Ali Hajweri, also known as Data Gunj Baksh, who significantly contributed to the spread of Islam.
The attackers managed to penetrate a highly secured area to sow
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Asia Times Online earlier warned that in the wake of recent overtures between the Pakistani military establishment and Washington to initiate a dialogue process with the Taliban, al-Qaeda-led militants were desperate to attack Lahore, where recently police recovered a record 28,000 kilograms of explosives. (See Explosive mood in Pakistan June 30, 2010.)
Operation in Punjab looms
The attack on the very soul of Lahore leaves the military establishment and the government of Punjab, which have steadfastly refused to act, little option but to crack down on al-Qaeda-linked Punjabi militants
Their inaction, despite international pressure and calls from secular political parties, stems from fears of causing chaos in the country, which might create the grounds for foreign forces to intervene.
Now the masses are enraged against militants, and operations against their hideouts in southern Punjab along the Indian border can be expected. These militants are considered the most dangerous of all, with most of them having been trained by the Inter-Services Intelligence’s India Cell to fight Indian forces in Indian-administered Kashmir.
After action in this disputed region was scaled back, the militants turned to al-Qaeda and now they are the main strength behind the Taliban-led resistance against foreign occupation forces in Afghanistan, where they have changed the dynamics of the war by adding a high level of sophistication.
Thursday’s attack comes close on the heels of talks between former US commander in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal, Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The main topic was to get some Taliban leaders taken off a US terror list so they could set the ball rolling for talks in Pakistan and Afghanistan on a reconciliation process. This initiative would be complemented with increased action against al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
If indeed strong action does now take place against Punjabi militants, the resultant crisis in the country would stall any serious dialogue process with the Afghan Taliban.
Asia Times Online has learned from high-level security contacts that private US defense contractors want to operate in Punjab to trace militant networks and then make recommendations for penetrating them.
Despite intense opposition from the military establishment, a few days before the shrine attack over 50 foreign nationals, including officials of a private American defense contracting firm, arrived in Pakistan – even though they did not have security clearance from Pakistani intelligence agencies.
According to the contacts, these nationals had earlier been denied visas by the Pakistani embassies they first approached, including in the US, Britain and India. However, they were apparently subsequently given visas by the embassy in Abu Dhabi and the consulate in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. This was done without the prerequisite clearance from the Pakistani Ministry of Interior, the Defense Ministry and the security agencies.
“These included over a dozen US nationals who had already been denied visas by our embassy in Washington on suspicion of them having links to Blackwater [Xe Services],” a source told Asia Times Online, adding that the visas had been issued for periods of six months to two years, although usually visas are only give for 90 days.
Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online’s Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org