The Attack on Sri Lanka’s Cricket Team in Pakistan

Murali bowls for the Sri Lankan side

A few thoughts on today’s ambush, a story given barely any coverage in the U.S., but dominating the news across South Asia. It’s only the biggest story in the world for about one quarter of human race right now. (If you read this post in the next 24 hours, chances are this live feed from an Indian headline news service will still be all about the attacks.)

First, a personal note: I’ve been a fan since the first time I saw Muttiah Muralitharan (pictured, right) bamboozling my beloved Aussies in one of the first matches I ever saw. I’ve watched them in person several times, most recently in Grenada at the 2007 World Cup (where I took this photo and many others). I’ve even got a jersey I wear sometimes. The shooting freaked me out, and I spent half the night watching Indian TV on the dish trying to find out what happened.

I understand if it’s hard for Americans to care about a bunch of guys with strange-to-us names like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. But I hope you’ll understand that they’re every bit as cool and talented as your favorites on the Lakers, Steelers, Cubs, or whomever you follow.

And they’re actually much bigger stars. Cricket is the sport in South Asia, maybe as big to sports fans there as all American sports combined are here. And since the population of South Asia is nearly five times larger than the United States, it’s fair to guess that India’s Sachin Tendulkar may be an order of magnitude more famous in absolute terms than, say, Derek Jeter.

How big of a story, then, would it be if the bus carrying Team USA at the World Baseball Classic were suddenly attacked by a dozen men with machine guns, grenades, and even rocket launchers?

What just happened in Lahore is arguably bigger. And here’s the thing: very probably, it wasn’t even an attack on the Sri Lankans, really, but more of an attack on the ideas of peace and elected government.

Cricket is one of the few things that all sides in South Asia’s various conflicts have in common. It’s a powerful symbol. Ten years ago, when Pakistan’s team toured India for the first time in years, it was a massive source of peaceful gestures and hope between nations. Five years later, after another period of renewed tension, India toured Pakistan, again raising the hopes of hundreds of millions of people for peace.

The Indian team was scheduled to tour Pakistan again this year — right now, as a matter of fact — but the attacks on Mumbai changed all that. India are currently touring New Zealand instead. Sri Lanka agreed to visit Pakistan in their place, basically returning a favor from years earlier, when Pakistan toured Sri Lanka despite security concerns stemming from Sri Lanka’s own civil war. The Sri Lankans were only in Pakistan, ultimately, as a gesture of international cooperation, faith in Pakistan’s future, and friendship. The Pakistan government absolutely guaranteed the Sri Lankans’ safety.

And now this.

There’s nothing inherently political about the Sri Lankan team, nothing that would ordinarly provoke this sort of violence. Yes, Sri Lanka’s government is engaged in a brutal crackdown against Tamil rebels, but that fight is a world removed from the major issues of Lahore and Punjab, and besides, there are Hindu Tamils and Buddhist Sinhalese on the team, so it’s not a potent symbol of the government anyway.

Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that this attack was a plan originally meant for the Indian team, and carried out against the Sri Lankans despite the change.

This makes particular sense if the true political target was much larger than any mere cricket team.

Consider the most immediate, most predictable fallout of the attacks: many observers are now forced to conclude that Pakistan’s government can’t really guarantee anyone’s safety. Not exactly something that strengthens a country.

Meanwhile, hardline voices within Pakistan will probably begin blaming India for the attacks (as they even did in the wake of Mumbai), further escalating tensions.

In addition, international sides will probably stop touring Pakistan entirely, and Pakistan’s own team will even have trouble scheduling tours abroad, since prospective hosts will fear the possibility of violence on their own soil. This weakens one of the few reliable civilian bridges to peace.

If your goal is weakening a civilian government that wants peace, yeah, you’d still carry out the plan, sure, whether it’s a busload of Sri Lankans or Kiwis or anyone.

With no arrests yet, it’s impossible to state with certainty just who is responsible for the attacks, but the results are so clear and inevitable that it’s hard not to conclude that the attacks were at least sponsored by one of the many factions opposed to the elected government — major Taliban and Al Qaeda-connected Islamist groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba (the folks who brought us Mumbai), their military and ex-military allies, and/or an alphabet soup of smaller, allied factions with more parochial interests.

Making the picture even fuzzier, few such incidents in Pakistan result in actual punishment. So unless someone claims responsibility or there’s a major series of arrests, we may never find out who the gunmen were.

That said, the Asian media is leaping to conclusions as badly as U.S. media usually does. Dozens of reports are repeating several claims which are questionable on their face: the attacks were well coordinated, executed by men who had clearly been trained, and nearly identical to the attacks on Mumbai. And therefore, the blame must lie with the same people.

Um… no.

These attackers chose to ambush in a traffic circle, a location that not only doesn’t trap the vehicle, it doesn’t even require it to stop moving. (Which, thank all gods and a driver who borrowed their balls, is precisely why everyone on the team bus survived.) The videos make clear that attackers were firing from vulnerable, open positions. The attackers apparently did not pursue the target bus when it wasn’t stopped by the first engagement. And when confronted with armed response, the attackers eventually fled.

Contrast this with Mumbai, where coordinated teams with high-tech doodads trapped their victims, secured their positions, pursued multi-phase plans, continued their assault for days and to the death, and fully expected to die as part of the plan.

Other than involving bagloads of weapons and bad guys, the attacks were in some ways significantly different.

Not that pointing this out in a damn blog post is gonna make the tiniest difference. Just venting.

I’ve just been sad and pissed and sick to my stomach and wanted to vent. I mean, they friggin’ wounded this kid, the most exciting young bowler in years.

Meanwhile, the U.S. media won’t even bother to describe a major event in a country at the fulcrum of the key foreign policy and security issue of our lifetimes.