This article was published in Arab News on June 03, 2023 at the following link
The serious implications of the unprecedented incidents of violence and arson which happened in various cities and cantonments of Pakistan on May 9 have probably not been fully comprehended yet. When someone described these occurrences as Pakistan’s 9/11, many considered it an exaggeration, but as the days have gone by and more details of the extent of the damage have come to the surface, the reverberations of the incidents have been felt far and wide.
Violent protests had erupted soon after news of the arrest of Imran Khan, a popular political leader, former Prime Minister and Chairman Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), splashed on TV screens and across social media. What might have incensed his followers in particular was the manner in which he was arrested by the Rangers, a federal paramilitary security force reporting to the Interior Minister, by smashing the glass walls of a cabin within the Islamabad High Court premises where Khan was present to complete a legal procedure required by the court and almost dragging him to the waiting vehicle. The video clips of his arrest were played almost live on television channels and went viral on social media afterwards.
Political workers have routinely protested, at times quite violently, in Pakistan in the past. Clashes between protesters and security forces do sometimes turn violent, with loss of lives reported when police uses force. Enraged street protesters damage vehicles, state buildings and sometime put them on fire to express their anger. In the recent past, police on such occasions were ordered not to carry arms to avoid civilian casualties. There were, therefore, cases of policemen and officers tortured and even killed by civilian protesters in some agitations.
The vulnerability of sensitive places like the military headquarters of a nuclear weapon state is not something which can be easily brushed aside
– Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
But despite an almost 70-year long history of occasional street protests, there has hardly ever been an attack on military property or even a demonstration in front of a military building in Pakistan. The only exception are the events following the 1970 General Election in what was then known as East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh.
What was highly surprising on May 9 was that protesters chose to gather in front of military properties including high profile and normally heavily-guarded places like Army’s Headquarters, formally known as General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi, Corps Commander’s residences in Lahore, Peshawar, Quetta, and Pakistan Air Force base in Mianwali. The demonstrators tried to enter these properties but were repulsed in most locations. They were able to damage the front gate of the GHQ, an old fighter Aircraft erected as a monument at the entrance of Mianwali Air Base and some old forts being used as Frontier Corps bases in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province.
The most colossal damage was inflicted in Lahore where the Corps Commander’s House was completely ransacked and torched while the commander and his family were still inside. Hugely disturbing video footage shows a hapless commander in casual clothes standing besides his wife trying to negotiate with the protesters who had entered his family quarters. The protesters were not deterred by the fact that ‘Jinnah House’ was named after the founding father of the nation, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, with a plaque carrying his name still at the entrance in recognition of the fact that the property was once owned by him.
Neither did Jinnah’s pictures, affixed on the entire exterior of the boundary wall, stop protesters. Even more heart-wrenching were the scenes in which pictures and monuments of the nation’s highly decorated martyrs were desecrated.
All in all, according to a preliminary estimate, more than two dozen military properties were damaged in 15 locations across the country. An equal number of civilian state properties were also destroyed including the historic Radio Pakistan building in Peshawar which was completely gutted along with its valuable audio archives.
While investigations and criminal proceedings are underway, some serious questions have risen about the vulnerabilities of the Pakistani security apparatus to defend attacks from within the country. It is, after all, not a simple coincidence that groups of people, highly motivated and charged, targeted military installations and properties in cities, towns and cantonments across the country at the same time, in stark contrast to the past pattern of protests that never came close to a military target.
The vulnerability of sensitive places like the military headquarters of a nuclear weapon state is not something which can be easily brushed aside. The government of Pakistan and its security apparatus will need to take a range of serious steps in the near future to restore trust that military installations have fool-proof security.