Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Ameer Haider Khan Hoti was on his way to address a public meeting in Mardan on February 15 when a suicide bomber attacked his motorcade as it passed by the bustling College Chowk. The chief minister and his entourage escaped unhurt. Three days later, four security personnel and two civilians were killed and 14 others were injured in Peshawar when two militants wearing suicide vests opened indiscriminate fire while walking into the offices of Khyber Agency’s political agent; the attackers then proceeded to detonate themselves. Representatives of various political parties were holding a meeting there to determine a code of ethics for the upcoming general election in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). A few weeks earlier, on January 1, an explosive device attached to a motorbike detonated just outside a Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) public meeting organised to welcome Dr Tahirul Qadri at the party’s headquarters in Karachi.
These incidents, clearly targeting politicians and political activities, evoke little surprise when seen in the light of a recent statement by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) which made it clear that the militants have plans to sabotage elections. “We are in the process of forming a policy and will make it public as soon as a final announcement for elections is made,” the ominous statement quoted TTP spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan as saying.
These attacks are also reminiscent of the previous election season which witnessed attacks on many political activities, parties and leaders, most notably the October 18, 2007 assault on the motorcade of Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister and the then head of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), in Karachi, which resulted in 139 deaths, and her assassination on December 27, 2007. Indeed, both in terms of sources and perception of security threats Pakistan is facing in the run up to the 2013 election there are broad similarities with the situation before the 2008 election. “Every intelligence agency had identified two threats to the election process [in 2008]: the Taliban and other banned militant organisations,” says Lieutenant General (retd) Hamid Nawaz, who served as interior minister in the 2008 caretaker cabinet. It appears that even now threats to security emanate from the same sources. Also, as in 2008, Peshawar in particular and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in general, remain vulnerable to terrorist attacks, owing to their geographical proximity to the epicentre of militancy.
There are, however, some significant departures from five years ago. Firstly, it appears that the overall number of casualties is exponentially higher this time around even though a fewer number of high-profile politicians have been targeted. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, a website that tracks incidents of terrorism in Pakistan, 792 civilians and security personnel have perished as a result of terrorist violence in the first 48 days of 2013. In contrast, in the four months leading up to and during the 2008 general elections (November and December 2007, and January and February 2008), 660 civilians and law enforcers died in acts of violence. It is worth noting, however, that November and December 2007 were deadlier months than those that immediately preceded the previous polls.
Moreover, the explosion outside the MQM meeting in Karachi is an indication that the geographical locus of terrorist violence has expanded considerably. A senior security official tells the Herald that security threats to the election process are coming primarily from the same old groups but the focus of these threats has shifted from Punjab to Karachi and Quetta. Empirical evidence verifies this. According to a newspaper report, 16 suicide attacks took place in the first 71 days of 2008 — falling immediately before and after the last general election. Out of these, the highest number of attacks happened in February, the month of the election, and Lahore, Rawalpindi and Peshawar were primarily targeted. This year, however, Karachi and Quetta appear to have become prime targets.
Security experts and officials say that continued acts of terrorism imply that the government will have to deploy law enforcement agencies – even the army in some cases – in large numbers in many places across Pakistan. In some areas, violence and terrorist activities could lead to a scaling down of electioneering and campaigning. “I don’t know what shape the election campaign will take in this security environment,” says Afrasiyab Khattak, a central leader of the Awami National Party (ANP). “But we will certainly not be holding large rallies,” he tells the Herald. In Karachi, too, according to MQM’s Faisal Sabzwari, “holding big rallies will be problematic for every party.”
The other difference in the pattern of the current violence as compared to 2008 is that terrorist incidents this year are far more sectarian in nature, the most significant examples being the two targeted attacks on the Shia Hazara community in Quetta. Similarly, the high profile assassination of an MQM provincial legislator, Manzar Imam, on January 17, 2013, was also deemed to have sectarian motivations — although it later emerged that he did not belong to the Shia community.
According to a senior official speaking on the condition of anonymity, the ruling PPP is privy to the security assessments carried out by intelligence agencies but, he says, the party wants to avoid being perceived as spreading panic and causing a postponement of election. After a caretaker government is instated, the PPP may become more vocal in conveying its concern to the public, to campaigning politicians and to government officials.
But Brigadier (retd) Asad Munir, who served as the provincial director of the Inter-Services Intelligence in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa around 2008 polls, says the current security situation is better in some areas than it was back in 2008. “The situation then was much worse: the Taliban were virtually ruling 17 districts in the north-west of the country,” he says. “Right now even the tribal areas, except North Waziristan and Khyber tribal agencies, are within the control of the army.”
The immediate impact of the Taliban having lost control is visible in Punjab which has not suffered any major incident of terrorist violence this year. That explains why key political parties, including the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN), have already worked out campaign strategies that hinge on holding large rallies in major urban centres of the province. Apparently, the provincial law enforcement authorities have no objection to this type of campaigning. Khan Beg, Punjab’s inspector-general police, says the provincial police, with the help of elite intelligence agencies, have carried out threat assessments with a specific focus on elections and election processes. “I believe we can manage security at big rallies,” he says. His department’s strategy, he says, is to provide ample security to leading political figures who, according to official assessment, could be on the terrorists’ hit list.
In contrast, the ruling ANP’s strategy in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa appears to be two-pronged — a mix of preventative and curative measures. On the one hand, the party leadership is rethinking traditional methods of interacting with the masses. “Security of the people [during public interactions] will definitely be our foremost concern,” says Khattak. On the other hand, the ANP is trying to convince mainstream political parties across the country to initiate talks with the Taliban; many security planners are of the opinion that the terrorist threat could be mitigated if the prospect of negotiations is kept alive until elections are held in the country. Indeed, this is the strategy that the caretaker government adopted in the months immediately preceding the previous elections: according to Lieutenant General (retd) Hamid Nawaz, the government in 2008 brought together tribal leaders and asked them to formulate a strategy for holding talks with the Taliban.
In strife-torn Balochistan, however, this luxury – of floating proposals for talks with militants – is not available because the government has no formal or informal contact with Baloch separatist groups. In parts of the province, local political leaders simply see holding of polling impossible in the face of threats from the Baloch militants. “The Balochistan Liberation Army has threatened to kill anyone taking part in elections in Makran, Kalat, Khuzdar and Mastung,” says PPP’s Balochistan President Sadiq Umrani.
The result is a frightened political class. “We are all afraid of this situation,” says Lieutenant General (retd) Abdul Qadir Baloch, a PMLN parliamentarian hailing from Balochistan. The possibility of holding elections for the whole of the province in a single day, therefore, seems highly unlikely to him. Election on a single day will “spread law enforcing agencies thin,” he argues. “The government should try to concentrate law enforcers in one area and hold elections there, then wait for two days and repeat the process in other areas.”
Baloch, who has supervised security arrangements in Balochistan as a senior military officer, also believes that more attacks against the Shia Hazara community in Quetta could potentially paralyse the entire country, as was amply demonstrated when, within 12 hours of the February 16 incident, protests spread to more than 20 cities nationwide, including Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. “Terrorist attacks [against the Hazaras] can locally affect two constituencies within Quetta as far as elections are concerned,” he says, “but if the protests that start after such attacks spread and lead to a counter mobilisation in the cities, how then will elections be possible?”