Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Why the Lahore Cricket Attack Matters

In Lahore, Pakistan, a group of up to a dozen terrorists brazenly ambushed two minivans carrying the Sri Lankan national cricket team and officials, killing 7 police and civilians, and injuring 9 of the cricketers.

Just another sad and pathetic day for Pakistan, fast becoming the Somalia of South Asia? A blow to Pakistan's government, which -- after the destruction of the Islamabad Marriott, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, and the Mumbai attack fiasco -- appears to have no control over the security situation inside its country? All certainly true, but I think, ironically, this incident is potentially more profound in its regional implications.

The government of Pakistan has recently embarked on a new strategy for dealing with its internal security issues. After failing to defeat the Islamic militants in combat over the last year or two (despite inflicting mass casualties on the Talibs in Bajaur and elsewhere), and after failing to root out the Islamist sympathizers in their internal security services, Pakistan has started a campaign of appeasement, including several cease-fires and an agreement to allow the propagation of Islamic sharia law in the Swat Valley. The theory seems to be to grant autonomy and an Islamic identity to these loosely-governed regions in exchange for peace in the rest of Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration continues to assassinate Taliban and al Qaeda leadership inside Pakistan, with 4 CIA drone missile attacks killing 90 people since the new president took office. These attacks have been brutally effective but wildly unpopular inside Pakistan; viewed there as both a provocation of the enemy and an infringement of Pakistani sovereignty.

And, now, the Lahore attacks. This is not like Mumbai (an attack on an old enemy), or the Marriott (an attack on a symbol of American influence), or Bhutto (an attack on a controversial politician) but rather an attack on what is probably an institution second only to Islam in Pakistani esteem: cricket. If you think I'm exaggerating, you've never been to South Asia during a test match. I was in Mumbai and Delhi a couple of years ago when the Indian national team was visiting Pakistan for a series of one day internationals, and these huge cities were literally shut down during the matches. I was trying to get a deal done, and my Indian counterpart was getting a text message from his wife after every couple of balls were bowled. After India won, there was rioting in the streets of Mumbai.

The ICC (the FIFA of cricket) has already questioned whether Pakistan can participate in the 2011 World Cup as a host (they were going to co-host with India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh). No team is going to go to Pakistan to play, and it's equally unlikely that the Pakistan team is going to be welcomed abroad.

I think this could be the tipping point for the moderate majority in Pakistan. Up until now, I think you could be a moderate, worldly Pakistani and still be an apologist for Islamist terror. There is widespread popular support for the Taliban as freedom fighters in Pakistan, widespread hatred for the US and India, and the usual Islamic tendency to blame a long string of political, social, and economic failures on outsiders.

But this is by all indications a home-grown attack, on a national institution that will serve to punish and humiliate average Pakistanis in an area, cricket, where they are reasonably competitive (World Cup winners in '92, runner's up in '99). This attack is indefensible to even to the Pakistani apologist. There is not going to be a solution to the Pak-Afghan terror crisis without the political support of the majority of Pakistanis. And if there is not a change in mindset after this attack, it's likely time to consider a more aggressive worldwide censure and isolation of Pakistan.


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