Argument

Missing in Action

Extremists are destroying the fabric of Pakistani society. Where is the government?

On the evening of March 3, as Shiite worshipers filed out of mosques in Karachi's Abbas Town, twin explosions devastated their neighborhood -- and struck another blow against the country's social fabric. One of the giant blasts sheared the fronts of two four-story buildings. "It's like doomsday to me," said one witness. "I saw children lying in pools of their own blood and women running around shouting for their children and loved ones." Sixty-five people were killed -- including women, children, and as many as 18 Sunnis -- and over 100 were injured.

So far, no group has claimed responsibility for the attack. But Lashkar e Jhangvi (LeJ), an anti-Shiite terrorist group with links to both al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, has boasted of its role in a series of horrific bombings in the city of Quetta earlier this year, which killed over 220 people in total and explicitly targeted Hazaras, a small ethnic group of Shia Muslims. Many suspect that LeJ is also behind the Karachi attack.

Regardless, here is the good news: There are very few takers in Pakistan for the kind of permissive, undiscriminating anti-Shia violence taking shape in the country. In fact, there seems to be an unprecedented degree of revulsion at these attacks.

"Otherizing" Shia is not impossible, but it is certainly among the more complex tasks that Pakistan's radical Sunni terrorists have attempted. The Shia are not considered heretics by mainstream Sunnis, nor are they powerless or sprinkled across only some parts of the country. Estimates of the size of the Shia population in Pakistan range from 25 million to as many as 40 million -- even in a country whose population is approaching 200 million, this is no small number. Moreover, Shia traditions are part of the core of Pakistani culture, and Shia icons, including the country's founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, are not easy to shun -- even among radicalized petro-emigrants returning home after years of anti-Shia indoctrination in Saudi Arabia.

In the wake of this string of attacks, a wide spectrum of Pakistani political, economic, and religious groups has been vocal in its expression of sympathy for Shiites. Even the right-wing Jamaat e Islami and the more hardcore Jamiat e Ulema e Islam have issued occasional condemnations of the attacks.

The Pakistani mainstream is even more emphatic in its condemnations and expressions of solidarity. Immediately following the attack in Karachi, the chief minister of Sindh province, where the city is located, announced a day of mourning. Unions quickly joined in: The Transporters' Association announced all public transport would be suspended and the Traders and Merchants' Union announced all shops would be closed. One of the opposition parties' provincial wings also announced a day of mourning.

This degree of compassion is admirable. But all Pakistan seems to be capable of doing lately is announcing days of mourning, expressing condemnation, and occasionally mobilizing a protest -- often joined by members of the government, including senior members of the cabinet. If this is the only response to the killing of innocent people because of their religion, it probably makes sense for the killers to carry on with the carnage. And that's exactly what has been happening.

This neutered response is largely par for the course in Pakistan. Not counting its operations against various al Qaeda terrorists in the northwest tribal areas since 2004, the major exception to Pakistan's meekness in the face of violent extremists was the 2009 operation to clear the Swat Valley of Taliban-aligned terrorists. And that only happened because the Swat Taliban had begun to implement their cartoonish brand of governance. When a video of a girl being whipped went viral, Pakistan reached for the medicine -- a swift and vicious military operation. The national response was well-organized and well-orchestrated. The resulting military operation rid the Swat Valley of those particular militants, though many questions continue to linger about the area's future.

The worrying question now is whether Pakistan's leaders -- be it the politicians or the generals in charge of the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, the country's most powerful spy agency -- are waiting for Karachi to resemble Swat in the spring of 2009 before acting decisively. Worse still is the other question: How far will the Lashkar e Jhangvi and its anti-Shia allies be allowed to go before the Pakistani mainstream says "enough"?

For Pakistanis of all sects and ethnicities, of all political persuasions, these are bone-chilling questions. And nobody can give an answer, for one simple reason: More than at any recent time, Pakistan feels leaderless.

There are some bright spots in the current galaxy of politicians, judges, and generals that run Pakistan. Many among them have done some remarkable things, from President Asif Ali Zardari's transformation of his country's relationships with Afghanistan, India and Iran, to Army chief Ashfaq Pervez Kayani's steadfast refusal to be explicitly drawn into politics, and from opposition leader Mian Nawaz Sharif's consistent support for democracy, to the chief justice's repeated attempts to plug failures in governance through judicial activism, to cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan's exceptional ability to energize and inspire young Pakistanis. But despite these important achievements, Pakistan reels under the stress of a series of interconnected failures -- perhaps none as agonizing as the newfound brazenness of anti-Shia terrorists.

Khan may have gone furthest in condemning the Lashkar e Jhangvi's campaign of anti-Shia violence, but no one seems to have any plan on how to stop it. On the contrary, all kinds of speculation exists about why the terror group enjoys impunity. At this point, Pakistanis only have theories: The military and the intelligence services continue to be viewed suspiciously because of their one-time association with sectarian groups. More recently, allegations have surfaced of an electoral alliance between the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), the political epicenter of anti-Shia rhetoric, and Nawaz Sharif's PML-N, the party with the strongest poll numbers going into the 2013 elections. There have also been allegations that the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party is close to the ASWJ.

Could the country's political parties be treating violent extremists with kid gloves in the hopes of gaining an edge at the ballot box? It is a question that shouldn't require asking in a country that has lost as many as 40,000 people in violent conflict with terrorists.

Meanwhile, the attacks continue. At the scene of the March 3 bombing in Abbas Town, while rescue ambulances provided by charities and volunteer rescue crews were toiling at the site, news reports suggested that police and law enforcement agencies took as many as four hours to arrive. As the violence in Karachi increases and sectarian groups begin tit-for-tat reprisals, Pakistanis have every right to ask why their government appears missing in action.

The sad truth is that the Pakistani state is increasingly incapable of conducting rudimentary tasks of governance. Pakistan is home to 25 million children between five and 16 years old who are out of school. It is a nuclear power that cannot provide uninterrupted electricity to its manufacturing base, or its major cities.

This isn't rocket science. Terrorists are often stupid, but they are not blind: Pakistan offers a dazzling array of targets because Pakistan's leaders are AWOL. And ordinary Pakistanis have learnt to trust their instincts -- the state will fail to protect them.

For years, angry Pakistani activists have chided their countrymen for a failure to condemn the latest outrage. The pervasiveness of the media, and the fact that Pakistani Shiites are as mainstream as can be, has helped solve this particular problem -- everyone now condemns these atrocities. But these condemnations ring hollow because killers of all hues continue to enjoy both freedom and impunity.

In a functional and self-respecting society, condemnations and days of mourning constitute only the first step in responding to outrages that soak the streets in the blood of innocents. The actual response must end the freedom of killers and include an unambiguous statement of intent to eliminate the threat to innocent people.

In Pakistan, this kind of response has yet to appear on the horizon. When it does, Pakistan will be out of the woods. Until it does, Pakistan will remain locked in a cycle of tragic failure -- failure that is suffocating nearly 200 million people, and strangling some to their last breath.

ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images

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