There is no more graphic example of the daunting challenges facing Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif than the bloody events playing out in the west of his nation.
Just over a week after Sharif was sworn in for a third term, at least 24 people were killed in a day of violence that underscored the threat presented by violent militancy to the fabric of the Pakistani state.
More than half the dead were female students, killed by a bomb. The toll also included nurses at a hospital that was the scene of a five-hour siege. Deadly attacks happen daily in Pakistan; these are being seen as exceptionally shocking.
The trouble began before dawn on Saturday when militants bombed and burned down a 121-year-old wooden villa that served as a rural retreat in the last days of a dying Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who’s seen by Pakistanis as father of their nation.
High in the wooded hills of the province of Baluchistan, the building was a national monument; it contained mahogany furniture, rare pictures and other treasures from Jinnah’s life. Most of these are now reportedly destroyed.
The choice of target carries much symbolic significance: The secular Jinnah is revered by many here as a figure of huge historical importance, credited with the creation of Pakistan as an independent nation in 1947. Sixty-six years on, arguments still rage among Pakistanis over what kind of country they’re aspiring to build. This attack is seen an assault on the concept of nationhood itself.
“Here, to be sure, is another reminder that elements within Pakistan are at war within it, with the very idea of what Pakistan is, and what it should have been,” writes Ghazi Salahuddin, a staffer for The News International, Pakistan’s largest English language newspaper.
Hours later, the attack was overshadowed by a breathtakingly ruthless assault some 70 miles away in the provincial capital, Quetta. A group of female students was blown up in a bus in the parking lot of Sardar Bahadar Khan University — Baluchistan’s only university for women. They were waiting to go home after classes. Fourteen of them were killed.
The victims’ university, on its website, describes itself as a “beacon of hope” for women, that produces “educated, moderate and enlightened women who appreciate and respect their culture and society, and are ready to serve the nation within the parameters of Islam.”
The targeting of young women is causing widespread disgust — just as it did when the Pakistani Taliban shot the 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai as a reprisal for publicly defying its attempts to deny education to girls.
The dead and injured from the bus bombing were rushed to a nearby hospital — along with their grief-stricken relatives, rescuers and local officials.
Militants stormed the hospital. Police say that included a suicide bomber who exploded in a corridor leading to the emergency room.
Security forces and commandos raced to the scene, and surrounded the hospital. A siege began in which the militants fought gun battles with soldiers outside. Within, terrified patients and staff were trapped. After about five hours, security forces regained control of the building. By then, four nurses, four soldiers and a senior government official were among the dead. So, reportedly, were six attackers.
It’s not clear who’s responsible for all this. The choice is alarmingly wide.
A low-level war has long been under way in Baluchistan between separatist militants and government forces. It’s produced numerous atrocities; bullet-ridden bodies are regularly found dumped around the region. The Taliban’s also active in the area. The province also has a bloody history of attacks by sectarian Sunni militants on minority Shiite Muslims.
According to the Associated Press, the bus bombing and hospital assault was claimed by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a virulently anti-Shiite Sunni group. As for the attack on Jinnah’s residence, there are reports that a flag from the Baluch Liberation Army was found amid the wreckage.
What is clear, though, is that Nawaz Sharif and his new cabinet have inherited a fractured country that is as threatened as ever by forces committed to its destruction. All eyes will be on how they respond. There are no easy fixes.