“AM I next?” asked the placard carried by a little Hazara girl in the aftermath of the most recent atrocity against her community in Quetta.
It speaks volumes for our collective impotence that not a single person in Pakistan from the president downwards can reassure her about her safety. So sadly, until she can move to a less violent and more tolerant country, she will have to live under the constant shadow of a terrorist attack.
The international community seems to be more aware of the danger the Hazaras are in than we are. Days after the most recent massacre, the Australian government has generously offered to take 2,500 families. And thousands of Hazaras have already fled abroad, legally or illegally, seeking asylum in safe, normal societies.
After days of peaceful protests that paralysed parts of several cities, things are back to normal, and the Hazaras have buried their dead. But apart from the routine, well-practised drill — suo motu proceedings, cabinet committees, transfer of the police chief, etc — little has changed.
Immediately following the Feb 16 slaughter, a spokesman for the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi called the media to claim responsibility and threaten more attacks, boasting that his organisation had 20 similar vehicles ready to kill yet more Hazaras. And given the incompetence of our security services, who can doubt the LJ’s ability to carry out their threat?
In a bid to distance themselves from any responsibility, both the ISI and Interior Minister Rehman Malik claimed that they had warned the provincial authorities about an impending attack on the Hazaras. But as hundreds of tankers daily bring water into a parched Quetta, this vague warning was like telling the cops to look for a needle in a haystack. What they have failed to explain is how the LJ was able to buy nearly a ton of explosive material in Lahore and transport it across hundreds of miles without let or hindrance.
I’m glad Imran Khan has finally climbed off the fence and condemned the LJ for this attack. But he needs to take the next rational and moral step, and realise that you cannot cherry-pick between these groups of killers. When he calls for negotiations with the Taliban, he should know that the LJ is not only the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s ideological clone, but is believed to often coordinate attacks with them.
Indeed, the presence of Ejaz Chaudhry, the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf’s senior vice president, at rallies organised by the establishment-supported Difa-i-Pakistan Council last year, raised many questions. On the stage with him was Malik Mohammed Ishaq, a key LJ leader. Despite the ban on the LJ, leaders from this group have hardly bothered to conceal their presence in public.
This should not surprise us, given the fact that Ishaq was freed on bail by the Supreme Court in 2011, despite being accused of over 100 sectarian murders. Understandably, the Hazaras see a link between his release and the increase in the attacks targeting their community. In 2008, two LJ leaders mysteriously escaped from a high-security jail in Quetta’s army cantonment.
Rehman Malik has tried to pass the buck to the provincial authorities. But he needs to remember that after the Jan 10 attack that left over 100 Hazaras dead, Balochistan was placed under governor’s rule, thereby making the federal government responsible for security. Indeed, why he hasn’t had the decency to resign long ago is beyond me.
Some in government have tried to spin the recent attack as a foreign reaction to the decision to hand over Gwadar port to a Chinese firm for operational purposes. But this is clearly a red herring as no such decision had been finalised when the January attack took place. Indeed, Shias have been relentlessly targeted for years. A Shia doctor and his young son were gunned down in Lahore only days ago.
The desperate Hazaras have demanded that Quetta be handed over to the army to ensure security. But the truth is that the army is part of the problem as it has been the real power in the province for years. In an effort to quell the insurgency there, it has allegedly used extremist groups like the LJ to kill and kidnap Baloch nationalists. This is one reason the LJ feels it has carte blanche to go after the Hazaras.
The harsh reality is that over the years, Balochistan has become a cauldron of armed and dangerous gangs and militias of all kinds, pushing a wide range of religious, political and sectarian agendas. From the Afghan Taliban to the Baloch National Army to Jundullah, the province encompasses a witch’s brew of violent forces that are tearing it apart.
None of this provides any solace to the unfortunate Hazaras. Clearly, they cannot continue living in Balochistan with any degree of security. Even with the most efficient police and army — something we can hardly claim to have — there is little that can be done to stop determined suicide bombers.
As long as the poisonous Takfiri ideology justifying the murder of other Muslims is freely propagated in mosques and madressahs, deranged killers will continue to wreak havoc. And as long as our civilian and military security agencies can’t get their act together, innocent men, women and children will continue to be slaughtered.
No country in the world has suffered as much as Pakistan from religious violence, and no other country facing this threat has done so little to counter it. One would have thought that after two decades and over 40,000 dead, we would have figured out a way to tackle the terrorists. Other states have enacted robust laws, and put in place highly trained and well-armed anti-terrorist forces. Intelligence-sharing between agencies is routine.
In Pakistan, despite years of mayhem, our intelligence agencies keep information close to their chests, and federal and provincial governments seldom coordinate operations. And there is still no consensus among political parties about the existential danger extremism poses to Pakistan.
Tensions between the civilian government and the military leadership means that they are working at cross-purposes in what should be a united struggle against extremist forces.
Despite the outrage after the latest atrocity, I don’t expect things to change. The state has always relied on our short attention span: as soon as there is another attack, our focus will be diverted from the Quetta carnage. Soon, it will be business as usual for everybody except the Hazaras.
The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.