Peshawar mosque attack confronts Pakistan with tough security choice

Plain-clothed policemen gather over the rubble of a damaged mosque following January's 30 suicide blast inside the police headquarters in Peshawar on February 1, 2023. (Photo courtesy: AFP)
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Updated 17 February 2023
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Peshawar mosque attack confronts Pakistan with tough security choice

  • Government under pressure to launch all-out offensive against militant groups amid economic, political turmoil
  • January’s suicide bombing at the police mosque in Peshawar was the deadliest terrorist attack in several years

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s perfect storm of crisis — economic turbulence, plunging currency, political polarization and Islamist militancy — has been compounded by last month’s suicide bombing at a mosque in a highly fortified police compound in Peshawar.

The attack — Pakistan’s deadliest in several years — harked back to a period more than 10 years ago when Peshawar, a city near the former tribal areas that borders Afghanistan, was scarred by militant violence and a military counteroffensive.

Authorities in Peshawar believe the Jan. 30 attack was in retaliation for the police force’s role on the front line of Pakistan’s battle with a resurgent insurgency since the Taliban returned to power across the border in Afghanistan.




Family members of a mosque blast victim weep during a protest against the militancy and the suicide blast inside a police headquarters in Peshawar on February 1, 2023. (Photo courtesy: AFP)

The suicide bombing was the latest in a string of attacks targeted at security personnel across the country since the militant group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, called off its cease-fire deal with the Pakistan government in November.

Visiting Peshawar soon after the attack, Pakistan Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif said “all resources” would be mobilized to flush out the militants. “This is no less than an attack on Pakistan ...  I have no doubt terrorism is our foremost national security challenge,” he said in a tweet.

If Sharif’s government decides to match words with resolute action, it would not be lacking in support judging by the public outrage fanned by the high death toll.

“Pakistan needs to come out of the confusion, end appeasement of the militants through peace talks, and go all out against them to achieve permanent peace,” Mosharraf Zaidi, a Pakistani security analyst, told Arab News.

Until Pakistan “separates itself from its romance with violent extremism,” the militants will continue to believe they can seize power, he said.

“We have to crush the militants’ ideological infrastructure and supply chain to break their backbone,” Zaidi said, adding that the government needed to formulate a “decisive strategy” to flush out the terrorists.

The Peshawar attack happened at a time when Pakistan is facing a slew of daunting challenges, with domestic political tensions soaring over a worsening cost-of-living crisis in the run-up to general elections due by October.




This handout picture taken on January 30, 2023 and released by Pakistan's Police Department shows Pakistan's security officials gather to attend funeral prayers for police officers who were killed in a mosque blast inside the police headquarters in Peshawar. (Photo courtesy: AFP)

Analysts say political disunity and ideological confusion have provided space for militants to regroup and target the state.

The situation is complicated by the fact that the TTP has distanced itself from the Peshawar bombing, claiming it does not target mosques. Police are investigating whether the attack was the handiwork of an on-off TTP affiliate, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar.

Although separate, the Pakistani Taliban, established in 2007, is allied with the Afghan Taliban, which returned to power in neighboring Afghanistan in August 2021 when US and NATO forces concluded their 20-year occupation of the country.

Several militant groups, including the TTP, began operating in Pakistan’s former Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, shortly after the US and its allies invaded Afghanistan in response to the Taliban’s refusal to hand over Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

During that time, the militants unleashed a wave of terror in FATA, killing soldiers, murdering outspoken politicians and celebrities, and eliminating perceived opponents. Compounding the crisis, they outlawed women’s education in the area, destroying about 200 girls’ schools.

It was in 2012 in the Swat district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by a Pakistani Taliban militant. She miraculously survived the attack, going on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy of girls’ education.

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Allied with Al-Qaeda, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan emerged in 2007, killing tens of thousands of civilians and security personnel.

Crushed in a military crackdown after 2014, TTP has regrouped since the Taliban came to power across the border in August 2021.

For the Jan. 30 Peshawar blast, Pakistani police have blamed Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a more radical group occasionally affiliated to the TTP, which has denied involvement.

Large-scale counterinsurgency operations began in 2014, killing most militant commanders and fighters and driving the rest into Afghanistan. The areas constituting FATA, established at the time of partition from India in 1947, were amalgamated into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2018.

However, after the Taliban returned to power in Kabul and the US ended counterterrorism operations in the border region, Pakistani militants began to regroup in the former tribal districts. Since then, a rash of deadly attacks have left Pakistanis in little doubt that their country faces a renewed insurgency.

Ismail Khan, a Pakistani journalist and security analyst, believes the Sharif government urgently needs to devise “a holistic and long-term strategy in the conference to deal with the problem at hand.”

At the same time, he told Arab News, “the government should also directly engage with the Afghan government to put an end to the cross-border movement of the terrorists, besides formulating and implementing a robust counterterrorism strategy.”

In January alone, the militants killed 124 security personnel and injured 247 in 26 separate attacks, the majority of them in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which borders Afghanistan, according to data shared by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, an Islamabad-based think tank.

The breakdown of the data shows that of these 26 attacks, seven took place in Balochistan, in which six people were killed and 17 were injured; one in Sindh with no casualties; two in Punjab, killing two; and 16 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, killing 116 and injuring 230.

According to the think tank, attacks rose by 50 percent in Pakistan, mostly along the western provinces bordering Afghanistan, during the first year of Taliban rule in Kabul.

In recent months, Islamabad has accused Kabul of failing to secure its borders and allowing militants inside Afghanistan to plan attacks against Pakistan.

Peace negotiations between the TTP and Pakistan, mediated by the Afghan Taliban, fell through in November, shattering a shaky cease-fire. During the talks, the militants had their numbers boosted by the release of about 100 low-level fighters from Pakistani jails.

Major General Ejaz Awan (retired), a prominent security analyst and former Pakistani ambassador to Brunei, believes a military response is the only solution to the terror threat.

“They are not willing to acknowledge Pakistan’s constitution, law, and writ of the state, therefore there is only one option left now and that is to wage a full-fledged war against them,” Awan told Arab News.

Awan, who held several rounds of unsuccessful peace talks with the militants in the early 2000s, wants the Pakistani government to launch an intelligence-based operation in the country’s tribal districts and other areas to eradicate the militants, their facilitators and supporters.

“These militants are equipped with the latest gadgets like night vision goggles left by the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan after their withdrawal, so Pakistan should also take it up with the Afghan authorities,” he said. 

According to investigators who spoke to the AFP news agency, the suspect appeared on CCTV arriving at the compound gates on a motorcycle before walking through a security checkpoint and asking officers where the Police Lines Mosque was located.

Moazzam Jah Ansari, the head of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province police force, said the bomber used 10-12 kg of explosive material, brought to the site in advance of the attack in bits and pieces.

Authorities have been hard put to come up with an explanation for the suicide bomber’s success in gaining access to the mosque dressed in police uniform.

They are investigating how such a major breach could have occurred in one of the most secure areas of the city, which houses the intelligence and counterterrorism bureaus, amid concerns that people inside the police compound may have enabled the attack.

Hundreds of police were attending afternoon prayers inside what should have been a tightly controlled police headquarters when the blast erupted, causing a wall to collapse and crush scores of officers.

On Feb. 2, police officials revised the death toll down from 101 to 83 officers and one civilian, after saying there was confusion in registering bodies. Many survivors remain in hospital in a critical condition.

Expressing solidarity with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs “stressed the Kingdom’s firm position that rejects targeting places of worship and terrorizing and shedding the blood of innocent people,” according to a Saudi Press Agency report.

The ministry “also affirmed that the Kingdom stands by the brotherly Islamic Republic of Pakistan against all forms of violence, extremism, and terrorism, regardless of its motives or justifications.”

The attack also drew strong condemnations from the Muslim World League and the secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council, among other international organizations.

“It is particularly abhorrent that the attack occurred at a place of worship,” Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, said through a spokesperson. “Freedom of religion or belief, including the ability to worship in peace and security, is a universal human right.”

Imran Khan, the former Pakistan prime minister who is a fierce critic of the current government, said: “It is imperative we improve our intelligence gathering and properly equip our police forces to combat the growing threat of terrorism.”

Prime Minister Sharif has appealed for national unity in the wake of the Peshawar attack. “We should unite and tackle this,” he said on Feb. 3 during his visit to the city.

But given the array of challenges facing Pakistan, his government’s attention is likely to continue to be divided across multiple fronts.

 


PSL 2024: Rutherford blitz ensures Quetta snatch last-ball win over Karachi

Updated 29 February 2024
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PSL 2024: Rutherford blitz ensures Quetta snatch last-ball win over Karachi

  • Sherfane Rutherford scores 58 runs from 31 balls to hand Quetta the victory
  • Quetta spinner Abrar Ahmed returns figures of 3/31 to put Karachi Kings at bay

ISLAMABAD: West Indian batter Sherfane Rutherford handed Quetta Gladiators their fourth victory of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) 2024 tournament on Thursday, smashing a fiery half-century as the Gladiators edged out Karachi Kings, the home side, in a last-ball thriller. 
Batting first, the Kings were considerably troubled by the Gladiators’ bowling line-up. Spinner Abrar Ahmed returned figures of 3/31 while Usman Tariq and Akeal Hosein finished with figures of 2/16 and 2/34 respectively.
James Vince top-scored for the Kings, scoring 37 runs from 25 balls while all-rounder Anwar Ali contributed with an impressive 25 runs from 14 balls. The Kings finished with a score of 165-8 from their 20 overs. 
“#PurpleForce breathe.. we have won the thrilling encounter,” the Gladiators wrote on social media platform X after securing the win. 
The Gladiators had a strong start to their batting, with opener Jason Roy scoring 53 runs from 31 balls while left-handed Saud Shakeel scored 24 runs from 20 balls. Middle order batters Khawaja Nafay, former skipper Sarfaraz Ahmed and Gladiators skipper Rilee Rossouw fell in quick succession, all failing to score in the double digits. 
However, an 80-run stand between Rutherford and Hosein proved to be fatal for the Kings, who lost to Quetta by five wickets in the end. 
Rutherford scored 58 runs from 31 balls, smashing six sixes and a four at a strike rate of 187.10. Hosein, on the other hand, scored 22 runs from 17 balls. 
For the Kings, Hasan Ali and Zahid Mahmood were the best bowlers, returning figures of 2/39 and 2/17 respectively. 
The Gladiators remain at number two on the PSL points table, with four wins from their five matches so far. The Kings remain at the number five spot with only two wins from their five matches in this year’s PSL.


OIC’s COMSTECH joins hands with Pakistan hospital for eye surgeries in Somalia

Updated 29 February 2024
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OIC’s COMSTECH joins hands with Pakistan hospital for eye surgeries in Somalia

  • COMSTECH, Al-Shifa Eye Trust Hospital to set up free cataract eye surgery camp in Mogadishu from March 1-10
  • Initiative aims to eliminate “avoidable blindness” with free cataract eye surgeries to those in need, says state media

ISLAMABAD: The Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s (OIC) Ministerial Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation (COMSTECH) has joined hands with a leading Pakistani hospital to provide free cataract eye surgeries in Mogadishu, Somalia, from next month, state-run media reported on Thursday. 
COMSTECH and Pakistan’s Al-Shifa Trust Eye Hospital are collaborating with Al-Nur Foundation Somali and the Benadir University Somalia to organize a free cataract eye surgery camp in Mogadishu from March 1-10, the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP) said in a report. 
“The goal of this initiative is to eliminate avoidable blindness by providing free cataract surgeries to those in need,” the report said, adding the camp would be organized at the Dalmar Specialized and Teaching Hospital in Mogadishu. 
APP said that the eye surgery camp is poised to make a “significant impact” on the lives of individuals in need. 
“By offering free medical consultations, medications, eyeglasses, and surgeries to address cataract-related issues, the camp aims to alleviate the burden of visual impairment and improve the overall quality of life for participants,” APP said. 
Headquartered in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, COMSTECH aims to strengthen cooperation among OIC member states in science and technology, and enhance their capabilities through training in emerging areas.


Pakistan’s stock market records gain as National Assembly holds maiden sitting

Updated 29 February 2024
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Pakistan’s stock market records gain as National Assembly holds maiden sitting

  • Analysts say maiden National Assembly session boosted investors’ confidence in Pakistan’s stock market
  • After much political uncertainty and rigging accusations, Pakistani legislators will elect a new premier on Sunday

KARACHI: Pakistan’s stock market continued its bullish run on Thursday, extending its previous day’s gains to close with an increase of 1.3 percent, as political uncertainty somewhat decreased after the country’s National Assembly convened its maiden session following controversial polls this month.
The stock market’s benchmark KSE100 index gained 875 points to close at the 64,579 level on Thursday, official data showed. On Wednesday, the KSE100 index had gained by 484 points to close at 63,703 points. 
Pakistan has been wracked with political uncertainty due to countrywide protests by political parties, who say the national polls of Feb. 8 were heavily rigged. However, financial analysts noted that investors’ confidence in the market increased as Pakistan’s National Assembly held its maiden session on Thursday, indicating that the country would soon be led by a new democratic government. 
“Stocks closed bullish after the president summoned the National Assembly session himself for the formation of a government,” Ahsan Mehanti, the chief executive officer of Arif Habib Corporation, told Arab News. 
“The move is easing political noise.” 
The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) parties have announced joining hands to form their government at the center. The two parties have the required number of seats to form a coalition government. They also have the support of smaller parties in the assembly and have announced former premier Shehbaz Sharif as their candidate for prime minister. 
Sheheryar Butt, portfolio manager at Pakistani securities brokerage company Darson Securities, said the market had continued its bullish trend from Wednesday amid growing anticipation of the PML-N forming the next government. 
“The next government will have to negotiate with IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the manifesto of the PML-N is compatible with the IMF,” Butt noted. 
He said that Pakistani investors expect the new government will continue to implement the measures undertaken by the caretaker administration to secure a new long-term program from the IMF.
One of the principal tasks of the new government would be to secure a long-term bailout program from the international lender, as its short-term program expires next month. Pakistan’s fragile $350-billion economy is in desperate need of external financing to shore its up its foreign exchange reserves and escape its economic crisis. 
“Pakistan needs a long-term program for at least three years to ensure economic stability, so the market expects that the PML-N will follow the footprint of the caretaker government,” he explained.
Butt was confident Pakistan would secure the last tranche from the IMF under the $3 billion short-term financing agreement it reached with the lender last summer. 
Pakistan’s National Assembly will elect the country’s prime minister on March 3 while elections for the speaker and deputy speaker’s posts are scheduled to be held on Friday, March 1.


Pakistan concludes 60-hour joint military exercise with Saudi Arabia, US, other nations 

Updated 29 February 2024
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Pakistan concludes 60-hour joint military exercise with Saudi Arabia, US, other nations 

  • The exercise was held at semi-mountainous terrain of Pakistan’s Punjab province from Feb. 25-27
  • Pakistan’s army chief attends closing ceremony, lauds participating teams for their professionalism

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan concluded a three-day, 60-hour joint military training exercise with participating teams from Saudi Arabia, the United States, Jordan and other countries this week, Pakistan Army’s media wing said on Thursday.
Pakistan opened the 7th International Pakistan Army Team Spirit (PATS) Exercise in the northwestern town of Pabbi on Sunday. The exercise, which ran from Feb. 25-27, was aimed at enhancing combat skills through the sharing of innovative ideas and experiences by participants. 
The exercise would also help hone basic soldierly attributes besides interoperability through the sharing of innovative ideas and mutual best practices, the ISPR said last week. 
Seven teams from the Pakistan Army and 15 teams from Bahrain, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Maldives, Morocco, Qatar, the US, Uzbekistan, Srilanka, Thailand and Turkiye participated in the exercise. Azerbaijan, China, Germany, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Myanmar witnessed the exercise as observers, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said.
“The exercise was conducted from 25-27 Feb 2024 in the semi-mountainous terrain of Punjab,” the ISPR said. “Over the years, the exercise has gained much prominence as a very competitive professional military activity for friendly countries.”
Pakistan’s army chief General Syed Asim Munir attended the event’s closing ceremony at the eastern city of Kharian, the ISPR said. Munir appreciated the participating teams for their professionalism, and for demonstrating physical and mental endurance during the various stages of the exercise.
“At the end, COAS [chief of army staff] gave away individual and team awards to the participants of the exercise,” the ISPR said.
Pakistan routinely holds joint air, ground and sea exercises with friendly nations to foster interoperability and joint deployment concepts to counter threats to global peace.
Several cadets from these nations annually visit the South Asian country, which has fought back militancy for decades, to undergo specialized military training.


Pakistan’s Rawalpindi administration to deploy over 5,000 cops for next month’s PSL matches

Updated 29 February 2024
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Pakistan’s Rawalpindi administration to deploy over 5,000 cops for next month’s PSL matches

  • Pakistan’s eastern Rawalpindi city will host Pakistan Super League matches from March 2-10
  • Snipers, police to be stationed along ‘critical routes’ and at rooftops near stadium says state media

ISLAMABAD: The administration in Pakistan’s Rawalpindi has taken “extensive measures” to provide security to players and citizens as the city gears up to host the remaining matches of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) 2024 tournament next month, state-run media reported on Thursday.
Pakistan’s eastern city of Rawalpindi will host PSL matches from March 2-10. PSL matches every year draw thousands of people to stadiums in Lahore, Multan, Karachi and Rawalpindi, where matches are usually held. The PSL also features apart from local cricket stars, international cricketers of renown. 
The Rawalpindi administration has finalized a security plan ahead of the tournament’s matches, the Associate Press of Pakistan (APP) said in a report, amid a surge in militant attacks across the country. 
“Under the security plan finalized for PSL matches, over 5,000 police personnel, including elite forces, would be deployed to provide foolproof security cover to the matches,” the APP said. 
It said the security plan includes closing stations, managing traffic, and “strict surveillance” to ensure the safety of the cricketers, officials and spectators. 
It said around 750 police officers would be tasked with managing the teams’ movement from the Islamabad airport across the districts of Attock and Rawalpindi.
“Snipers, along with police equipped with advanced security tools, would be stationed along critical routes and rooftops near the stadium,” the report said. “These measures are designed to ensure a secure environment for the event.”
It said Rwalpindi’s traffic police has also developed a traffic management plan to cope with the expected increase in vehicles during the matches. 
Pakistani authorities have been wary of attacks targeting cricketers and cricket events, especially since 2009 when militants attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. The incident scared international teams from touring Pakistan, forcing the South Asian country to choose the UAE as its home ground for several years before international teams started touring the country again.
Pakistan has seen a surge in militant violence, especially in its western regions bordering Afghanistan, since November 2022 after a fragile truce between the state and the Pakistani Taliban broke down.