Attack puts Pakistan on back foot

Assault on Sri Lanka cricketers puts state's ability to provide security into doubt.

    The attack left five Pakistani security officers dead and injured seven Sri Lankan cricketers [EPA]

    The terrorist attack on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, as they travelled to a stadium, has dealt a severe blow to Pakistan.

    Five security officers died and seven cricketers were injured.

    The attacks now put the future of the sport in Pakistan in doubt.

    Despite an attack outside a Karachi hotel where the New Zealand squad were staying in 2002, successive Pakistani cricket administrations have argued that the country was safe for foreign teams to play in.

    That attack was not seen as a direct attempt on the lives of the visiting cricketers but more of an effort by armed groups to assert themselves after the Pakistani government had joined with Washington to fight the so-called war on terror.

    Nevertheless, New Zealand's Pakistan tour that year was cancelled.

    Imran Khan, the former Pakistani cricket captain and founder of the Tehrik-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) party, had once said that armed groups - such as the Taliban - would never zero in on sportsmen, particularly cricketers, because that would risk alienating millions of Pakistani fans.

    Myth shattered

    However, the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team has now shattered that myth.

    The Sri Lankan team's visit, at a time when no major cricket team was willing to so much as make a stopover in the country, was a gesture of support at the highest government level.

    India had cancelled its tour in January following the Mumbai attacks last November, which New Delhi blamed on elements operating from Pakistan.

    Last month, the International Cricket Council decided not to hold the 2009 Champions Trophy in Pakistan due to safety concerns.

    Australia, which has not toured Pakistan in more than a decade, England, New Zealand, South Africa and the West Indies have all shunned touring Pakistan citing security concerns.

    In fact, in a rare modern-day occurrence, Pakistan did not play a single test match last year, an indication that the country has become isolated within the cricket community.

    Security lapses

    Islamabad had promised top-level security for the Sri Lankan squad [AFP]
    Incidental footage grabbed by Samaa, a private TV channel whose offices are located near the scene of the assault, showed the attack.

    The dramatic video grab is as shocking as the failure of the security agencies and official reaction to the attack.

    The Pakistani government had assured the Sri Lankan team of the highest level of security. However, the attacks seem to indicate that Islamabad is losing control of the security situation.

    Sarfraz Nawaz, a former Pakistani bowler, told the media that the Sri Lankan team's convoy did not follow the prescribed security route.

    "The Sri Lankan team was taken through the [Liberty Market roundabout] route, which is not the usual route. Their safety [was endangered] because anyone can hide in the vicinity and attack," he told a private television channel.

    The former cricketer also called for Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, to resign over what he felt was a breach of security.

    Taseer took over the province after last week's controversial court decision to unseat Shahbaz Sharif (brother of Nawaz, the former prime minister) from the post of chief minister of Punjab province.

    The Supreme Court declared elections results which put Shahbaz in power null and void.

    It also barred Nawaz Sharif from ever running as a candidate in elections and holding public office. 

    Taseer responded by saying the perpetrators of the attack were "no ordinary terrorists" doing a "Mumbai" on Lahore.

    Political battle

    The allegations of a breach are connected to the rapidly-changing security scene in Punjab, which in Pakistan's political matrix is the most crucial province.

    It is currently at the heart of a major political battle, which is threatening the state's very integrity after a bitterly-disputed court decision to bar the Sharifs from electoral politics.

    Some analysts have alleged that the court decision was engineered by Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani president.

    Taseer is a close Zardari aide and has immediately implemented changes in the police department including the inspector-general of police.

    Critics say these changes, and Taseer's focus on trying to stop a lawyers' long march scheduled for next week, may have partly taken the attention away from the "fool-proof" security promised to the Sri Lankan team.

    Hasan Askari, a political analyst, believes "it was a clear security lapse. It has proven that the state is not in a position to provide security".

    Aftab Sherpao, the former interior minister, also blamed lax security cover.

    "It [the incident] is a matter of shame for us and will further dent our image globally. The security was not up to scratch," he said.

    Failing state

    The attack on the Sri Lankan cricket squad comes at a time when Islamabad has been criticised for deteriorating security conditions.

    Some have suggested that Pakistan is becoming a failing state.

    In a poignant observation, Kumar Sangakkara, one of the mainstays of the Sri Lankan team who was also injured in the attack, said: "It's very unfortunate that this has happened. Everything had gone on very well until this morning, but it just goes to show that nothing is as it seems."

    In strife-torn Pakistan, that is an understatement.

    The writer is news editor at Dawn News, an independent Pakistani TV channel.

    The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Al Jazeera.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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