All signs pointed towards violence ahead of elections in Pakistan, but little had been done to protect election candidates. On the contrary, many were stripped of protection.

Within the space of a week, Pakistan’s hopes for a peaceful general election campaign have been rendered asunder by terrorists determined to belie the government’s simplistic claims of “mission accomplished” against an elusive, ruthless enemy.

The ongoing campaign of suicide bombings, waged in tandem by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and the so-called Khorasan branch of the Islamic State (Daesh), has targeted prominent candidates from across the political spectrum in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces.

Both are located within range of terrorist bases in neighbouring Afghanistan and susceptible to the kind of attacks which have claimed the lives of more than 170 people, including candidates Haroon Bilour and Siraj Raisani. Had they lived, both would have been expected to enjoy noteworthy political careers - like Akram Durrani, a former Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief minister who survived an attack on his motor cavalcade.

Belatedly, police and intelligence agencies have swung into action to prevent further attacks on electioneering politicians, as well as the spread of the terrorist campaign to other parts of the country; the bustling port city of Karachi is thought to be in jeopardy.

But the damage is already done. The terrorists’ tactic of cherry-picking leadership figures of different parties has prompted party chiefs to curtail their campaigns in the country’s vulnerable western half, amid (legitimate) wailing about a glaring lapse by the national security apparatus.

The failure, however, extends far beyond the state’s inability to prevent a terrorist campaign. Pakistan’s decision makers have been preoccupied with cynical power politics in the runup to the July 25 election, reducing the value of the national discourse on terrorism to point scoring and blame shifting.

Riding a populist media wave in April, the Supreme Court ordered the withdrawal of state-provided security for politicians after determining the privileged should arrange and pay for their own protection. It was as if the judiciary had wilfully blinkered itself to the cold, hard facts of Pakistan’s security environment. In passing its order, the court flippantly ignored the murders of hundreds of politicians and the terrorists’ track record of cutting down the members of influential families, including elders of the Bilour and Raisani clans.

It has also displayed ignorance about the layers of state-provided security that the honorable judges enjoy: however deep their pockets, politicians cannot hire the networks of deep-penetration human operatives or build the communications interception capacity necessary to combat active terrorist organisations. Even if they could, it would be illegal to do so.

Missing the forest for the trees

This is symptomatic of the denialism about terrorism which persists in Pakistan. The government recites statistics to quantify the human and economic cost of the war, but never publicly examines the root causes because that would expose the deep failings of the military-dominated state. It would also require the assigning of responsibility for the blunders which have exposed the country to avoidable existential threats, and build pressure for the abandonment of narrowly focused policies.

The last two elected governments attempted to enact changes, but were decisively thwarted. Both were maligned as the treacherous cohorts of Pakistan’s foes, while any journalistic examination was deemed to be tantamount to “speaking the enemy’s language”. 

Meanwhile, responsibility for terrorist attacks has been mostly assigned to Pakistan’s hostile neighbours, particularly India, as part of an unintelligent riposte to their complaints about cross border terrorist attacks emanating in Pakistan.

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of politicians and commentators have chosen to steer clear of this minefield, except for when occasion has demanded that they parrot the state’s narrative.

This has erected the illusion of peace in the minds of many Pakistanis, especially those living in the populous east of the country. They have suffered far fewer terrorist violence attacks than their compatriots in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, and have tended to swallow the state’s version of the story.

For the most part, the residents of Punjab and Sindh provinces have treated the distant wars with the TTP and Islamic State as somebody else’s problem, thereby denying their affected compatriots of desperately needed empathy and help.

This has intensified their cycle of suffering and fueled resentment against the “Punjabi” state, in effect recycling the sense of deprivation used in the first instance by the terrorists to fuel insurgencies against a state perceived as oppressive and uncaring.

This has already given birth to a popular Pashtun nationalist rights movement which has shocked Pakistanis with its accusations of collusion between the military and “good Taliban” terrorists. The military has angrily denied the activists’ allegations and branded them “anti-state”, but the movement has proven to be resilient.

More than any single factor, this conspiracy of silence is responsible for the failure of the Pakistani state to preempt the inevitability of a wave of terrorist attacks during the election campaign.

More than a month before the bombing campaign commenced, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa-based columnist Saleem Safi warned that the ominous silence being maintained about the election by the TTP was not a sign of its incapacity, but the calm before a probable nationwide storm of attacks against campaigning politicians.

His assessment was based on the patterns of the terrorists’ tactical thinking established by their actions over the course of the war. Recently, these have been manifested by a campaign of targeted attacks carried out by the TTP and Islamic State affiliates against security personnel in Pakistan’s two western provinces. For the purposes of the election campaign, politicians replaced the security personnel at the top of the terrorist hit list.

The same patterns determined the TTP would exact bloody revenge for the assassination of their chief, Mullah Fazlullah, in a mid-June US drone strike conducted in eastern Afghanistan on the basis of intelligence personally handed to the Afghan president by the Pakistani army chief of staff.

The failure of Pakistan’s decision makers to focus on averting the attacks on election candidates is thus inexplicable unless viewed through the lens of their Machiavellian politicking. They would do well to remember that the security of their nation must come first.

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