Soon after the terrorist attack on October 24 on Quetta’s Police Training Centre, which killed 59 young police recruits and injured more than one hundred people, life in Balochistan and the rest of the country returned to normal faster than usual.
Unlike some of the major terrorist strikes in the past, this tragedy orchestrated by three armed men of unknown origins, did not last long in the national debate on security because there was probably no aspect of this attack that was completely new to Quetta.
In Balochistan, the dysfunctional government is increasingly losing its battles against all active and newly emerging ethnic, sectarian, and pan-Islamic insurgent groups operating in the volatile province. Frustrated, demoralised and somewhat embarrassed over its continuous failure to fight violent actors, the government aided by security forces and civil and military intelligence agencies, is left with only one oft-repeated immediate response to every terrorist attack: Blame foreign enemies of Pakistan in a desperate effort to close doors for an actual professional investigation into an attack or accountability for officers whose negligence of duty causes loss of precious human lives.
There is growing public weariness toward this official narrative. The increase in violence highlights flawed areas in the government’s security strategy for Balochistan that needs to be revisited and overhauled in order to make it more effective.
In the aftermath of the attack on the Police Training Centre, a sense of deja vu prevailed. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Chief of the Army Staff General Raheel Sharif immediately rushed to Quetta, condemned the terrorist attack, met with the injured, convened a high-level national security meeting, pledged and ordered toughest action against terrorists responsible for the mass murder. But this was exactly what they had done in the same sequence soon after the killing of the lawyers in August.
General Sharif had announced that ‘combing operations’ would be carried out in Quetta. While the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) confirmed that combing operations had actually been conducted in Quetta and its outskirts three days after the Civil Hospital bombing, details about dozens of ‘militants’ arrested in these operations were never publicised. This generated suspicions about the authenticity and effectiveness of these operations. The Police Training Centre attack reinforced public fears that Balochistan had not been completely cleared from terrorists.
Balochistan is home to extreme violence from at least four different sources. Firstly, five Baloch nationalist armed groups operate in different geographical regions of the province which, from the government’s side, are countered with a similar or possibly a higher number of state-sponsored anti-nationalist underground armed groups locally known as “death squads.”
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Secondly, Sunni extremist group, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, originally from South Punjab, has not only operated with impunity in massacring hundreds of Shia Hazaras in Quetta in the past many years, it has now significantly widened and deepened its recruitment base among the local Baloch population and also established fresh ties with global extremist networks, including the Islamic State.
Attacks on Shia Hazaras turned more horrific last month when gunmen in Quetta singled out and killed four Hazara women by attacking a passenger bus. Balochistan Home Minister, Sarfaraz Bugti, said the involvement of the Indian intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), could not be ruled out in the attack on Hazara women. As most times, he provided no evidence to support his claim.
Thirdly, the Afghan Taliban have frequently manifested their presence and strength in Quetta by frequently carrying out violent attacks, most of which have targeted civilians and security personnel. The federal and provincial governments have both shown so much tolerance toward the Quetta-based Afghan Taliban, also known as the Quetta Shura, that the United States, disillusioned with Pakistan’s lack of action against the Taliban, acted alone in May this year and hunted down the new Taliban chief, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in America’s first drone strike in Balochistan near the Afghan border.
The fourth type of violence that pertains to Balochistan but does not affect it directly is the rise of anti-Shia and anti-Zikri religious forces in the Pakistan-Iran border in the Mekran region. Largely unreported in the national media is the growing anxiety and discomfort Iran feels about these Pakistan-based groups.
Residents of this border region say the Iranians, who are predominantly Shia, often cross the Pakistan border in pursuit of Sunni extremists allegedly hiding inside Pakistan. Firing of rockets and mortars by the Iranian authorities on extremist hideouts in Pakistan has become the new normal.
Pakistan does not protest against Iran’s recurrent violation of the Pakistani sovereignty because Islamabad sees the Baloch nationalists as a bigger threat than the anti-Iran Sunni extremist groups based in Balochistan. Unlike their Pakistani counterparts who see no urgency to act against these outfits, the Iranians seem to be running out of patience.
Tehran, after the 2010 hanging of Abdolmalek Rigi, leader of the Sunni group, Jundullah, believed it had completely quashed the Sunni insurgency in Iran. Those rebels, according to some reports, are regrouping in the Pakistan-Iran border region and seeing a promising future with the dramatic rise of the Islamic State in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
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The fundamental problem with the government’s Balochistan strategy is twofold. First, General Raheel Sharif is trying to sell a new narrative to the nation by saying that attacks in Balochistan have increased either because Pakistan’s enemies are trying to sabotage the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) or due to the success of the Operation Zarb-e-Azb elsewhere in the country. Both these claims are incorrect.
As a matter of fact, extremists in Balochistan have been carrying out these attacks for more than a decade. Thousands of people had already lost their lives years before CPEC was even conceived. Likewise, the American and Afghan governments had been pointing out the presence of the Quetta Shura in Balochistan’s capital years before Operation Zarb-e-Azb was launched.
Secondly, the Pakistani government continues to remain in a state of denial about the presence of the Islamic State inside Pakistan although the organisation itself keeps accepting responsibility for various terrorist attacks, including the two recent strikes in Quetta.
Moreover, violence in Balochistan has existed and accelerated in recent years because of a lack of willingness on the part of the government to go after all militants. A recent Reuters report, which stated that the new leader of the Taliban, Haibatullah Akhundzada, had lived and preached in Quetta’s outskirts for several years, suggests that both Quetta and Islamabad have learned no lessons from their past mistakes.
The government must go after all militant groups in Balochistan without keeping some as favourites or strategic assets to make sure that Quetta or any other part of Pakistan does not bleed again.