PHOTO: A young victim is carried from Sunday’s bombing in Lahore that killed more than 70 people (Arif Ali/AFP/Getty)

Umer Karim writes for EA:

Sunday is a day of picnicking in Pakistan’s cities. In Lahore, the administrative capital of Punjab Province, one is accustomed to see droves of families in parks and public places, with residents joined by others enjoying a bustling metropolis known for its liveliness.

This past Sunday was a special one in the parks, with Christians celebrating Easter. In Lahore, many were in Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park — loosely translated as “the flower garden” — named after the national poet of Pakistan, Dr. Muhammad Iqbal.

Then, for the first time, a Pakistani public park was targeted by a bombing. A suicide bomber detonated his explosives at one of the gates, killing at least 70 people and wounding more than 300.

The attack has been claimed by Jamaat ul-Ahrar, a splinter group of Tehrik-i-Taliban, the “Taliban Movement”, of Pakistan.

Pakistan’s War on Terror

The Taliban insurgency has cost Pakistan more than 40,000 military and civilian lives and more than $67 billion since 2001. The Pakistan Army and paramilitary have fought Al Qa’eda, with its Arab and Central Asian veterans of the Afghan War, and TTP, a loose alliance of jihadist factions composed mainly of Pakistani veterans.

The traditional base of these groups has remained the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that border Afghanistan. The insurgency peaked from 2007 to 2009 when the factions managed to capture parts of Swat and Buner districts of the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), that adjoins the FATA. In Pakistani cities, there were suicide bombings, coordinated terrorist attacks on foreigners and military installations, and jailbreaks.

The Pakistani Army gradually cleared the insurgents from most of KPK and the tribal agencies of FATA. In 2014, it started Operation “Zarb-e-Azb” to control the North Waziristan Agency of FATA, the last stronghold of the remnants of the TTP.

Who are the attackers?

The TTP has split into a number of groups, with some reports suggesting that factions have given allegiance to the Islamic State.

One of the most important groups is Jamaat-ul-Ahrar. Its operational commander is Omar Khalid Khorasani, who left the TTP after differences with its head Mullah Fazalullah.

Jamaat-ul-Ahrar has vowed to establish an Islamic Caliphate through jihad. It carried out a suicide bombing at a flag-lowering ceremony at the Wagah border crossing with India, killing 60 people, and attacked two churches in Lahore, with 15 victims.

Supporting Jamaat-ul-Ahrar’s claim of responsibility, security sources claim that the explosives used in the Lahore park attack are the same as those used in the Wagah and church incidents.

Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and other TTP-aligned groups are feeling the heat of the latest push by Pakistan army to clear hideouts in North Waziristan. Sunday’s response, targeting Christians, appears to be an attempt not only to retaliate but to sow communal discord while threatening minorities. At the same time, the assault is one on all Pakistanis, creating an environment of fear where schools, universities, and other public places are not safe.

How Should the Government Respond?

Last, the Pakistani Parliament and all political factions approved a National Action Plan to root out terrorism from every region of Pakistan. The plan has been implemented vigorously in the provinces of KPK, Balochistan, and in the southern city of Karachi; however, it has failed to produce similar results in Punjab Province, mainly due to the reluctance of the Government.
The Pakistani security establishment is pressing the Government to implement the plan in the southern part of Punjab, where some religious seminaries function as recruiting grounds for terrorist activities.

Since 2013, the Government has failed to show the political resolve for a counter-insurgency drive in its political stronghold of Punjab. Sunday’s attack could be the last catalyst for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to act or else the military will move on its own — indeed, some reports suggest that law enforcement agencies in different cities of Punjab have already acted on the orders of the Military establishment.