Last week in a daring move calculated to capture the world's attention, terrorists targeted a Sri Lankan cricket team in the Pakistani city of Lahore. Eight Pakistanis died while six Sri Lankans and one British national were injured. A few months ago, in another horrific move also designed for a global audience, terrorists targeted civilians in several locations across the Indian city of Mumbai, killing nearly two hundred people including six Americans. In the first incident, Pakistani authorities have identified four terrorists. Press reports cite official sources zeroing in on Islamist militant groups like the Lashkar e Taiba, Lashkar e Jhangvi and Jaish e Mohamed, all of which are based in Pakistan and linked with the al Qaeda. In the second incident, and in several more this decade that have killed hundreds of Indians but have passed unnoticed by the world, the needle of investigation points directly at the Lashkar e Taiba.
Terrorism is not new to the South Asian subcontinent. Both India and Pakistan have accused each other of waging proxy wars across their disputed borders, using home-grown terrorist groups to keep the opponent country continuously engaged in low-intensity warfare. Accusations have been rife, proof has been scant. And in the instances where evidence of terrorist training camps in Pakistan was demonstrated, there was little effective action by the international community. For the most part, American interests in Afghanistan and its consequent reliance on Pakistan pre-empted any move to dismantle the terror apparatus that has been flourishing within the lawless north western regions of Pakistan. Casualties in the subcontinent have evoked little interest until the recent terror strikes that targeted foreigners and grabbed global attention. For India, the heat on Pakistan to crack down on Islamist terrorists is ironic, given a decade of suspicion that past Pakistani governments had sheltered such groups through patronage or lack of concern. These groups, currently banned by the Pakistani government, have been seen as tools of political convenience in earlier times - vehicles for cross border warfare in the name of religion.
If this has been the case, then the terrorists, like chickens, are indeed coming home to roost. And South Asia is entering a new era of terrorism. Pakistan based Islamist terrorist groups are now seeking their place in the sun with operational strikes that are far more strategic - bigger, grander targets with greater shock value and guaranteed international recognition. They are also far more professional in their equipment and training. And they are increasingly turning inward, targeting former political patrons who may no longer share the same ideological rigor, who may now be hindrances in their operations or who can no longer guarantee their protection.
While terrorist casualties have remained largely unchanged in India in the past few years, those in Pakistan have risen remarkably. Since the beginning of this year, more than a thousand people have been killed in Pakistan because of terrorism. Perhaps Pakistani authorities may observe that a good proportion of these casualties are terrorists themselves. But the elimination of these cadres in the past has scarcely deterred a committed terror apparatus that operates in one of the poorest parts of the world. Depleted human stock is easily replaced with the offer of money or a ticket to heaven. Tradeoffs will remain positive for terrorists as the continued American presence in the region and increasing radicalization of Afghani and Pakistani society make the Pakistani government seem too liberal for religious militants. And tradeoffs will remain positive since every dead terrorist takes down at least two other civilians or security persons with him, perpetuating a culture of fear and repression.
Pakistan's casualty graph of the past five years exposes the horrific story of all this bloodshed in the name of religion. In 2003 annual casualties of terrorist violence were less than two hundred. By 2008, annual casualties had multiplied several times over with six thousand seven hundred people losing their lives. Events are quickly spinning out of control. And today more than ever before, there is need for an effective political process that will bring hope and genuine democracy to the people of Pakistan, and greater stability for South Asia.