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Balochistan cauldron

June 18, 2013

THE latest bloodbath in Quetta is yet another grim reminder of Balochistan’s dangerous slide into anarchy. The gruesome killing of women students and the subsequent siege of the Bolan Medical Complex indicate the growing stridency of the militants and raises serious questions about our counterterrorism efforts.

Beyond any doubt the twin attacks are the work of the same militant nexus responsible for previous massacres of Hazara Shias in Quetta as well as other terrorist violence across the country.

It was a precisely organised and highly coordinated militant attack in the city that has been drenched in blood so often in recent times. The suicide bombings and gunfire inside the hospital were aimed at causing maximum casualties. The target was ostensibly Hazara girls, but an apparent miscalculation led to the militants bombing a bus carrying students belonging to a mix of ethnic groups.

The terrorists had plotted to kill more members of the Hazara community who would have rushed to the hospital to see the victims. Things may not have gone according to plan; nonetheless the bombing and indiscriminate shooting inside the hospital killed many people and a senior government official.

As in the past, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ) lost no time in claiming responsibility for the carnage, flaunting the brazenness of the terrorist network.

It was the first major incident of violence since the newly elected government has taken charge in the province and had raised hopes of normality being restored.

The Quetta carnage happened hours after the destruction of the Quaid residency in Ziarat by the Balochistan Liberation Army. There appears to be no connection between the two terrorist acts. But both served the same purpose of embarrassing the newly installed provincial government led by Dr Abdul Malik Baloch. Both groups seek to destabilise the democratic process.

That underscores the complexity of Balochistan’s situation and the grave challenge faced by the new nationalist government. The attack on the Ziarat residency was much more symbolic and shows the desperation of the separatists who seem to have lost a lot of ground because of the success of the electoral process in the province.

The separatists sought to disrupt the elections, which they believed would damage their cause for independence. The decision by the nationalist groups to return to the democratic process also dealt a huge blow to the insurgents.

Now with a democratically elected nationalist government seeking a political resolution of the Balochistan crisis, it is certainly not a happy situation for the rejectionists. The bombing of the residency was a clear warning to the provincial as well as federal governments.

It was also meant to sabotage the government’s offer for dialogue with the insurgents. Such terrorist actions may create problems for the nationalists and strengthen the elements within the security agencies advocating the use of brute force to crush the insurgents.

Violent sectarian militancy in Balochistan, however, poses a much greater threat to the stability not only of the province but of the country as well. The massive escalation in sectarian-based terrorist actions in recent years highlights the strengthening nexus between the LJ, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and elements of the Afghan Taliban who have a huge sanctuary in the province.

What is most disturbing is the impunity with which the militant network continues to operate and carry out terrorist attacks. The way in which the militants carrying explosives and sophisticated firearms entered the hospital indicates the complete collapse of security at important installations. It was certainly not the first such incident when the militants carried out an attack inside a hospital. Countering sectarian terrorism and improving the security system is going to be a serious challenge for the new provincial administration.

While Balochistan, particularly Quetta, has become the main centre of gravity of Sunni sectarian militancy, the latter is certainly not an isolated provincial phenomenon. The problem is much more deeply rooted and has links with the terrorist networks operating in Punjab and other parts of the country.

There is a definite link between the LJ and TTP. The tendency of political parties and security agencies to draw a distinction between the two is disastrous. By offering to talk to the TTP the government would legitimise militancy, thereby providing more space to the sectarian extremists. The policy of appeasement will only increase the militant threat to the country’s unity and integrity.

The issue of sectarian militancy in Balochistan does not have piecemeal solutions. There is a need for a comprehensive national counterterrorism and counter-radicalisation policy to deal with this growing menace. There is also a need to further strengthen anti-terrorism laws. Under existing laws it is impossible to convict any terrorists.

Foreign funding for radical madressahs and sectarian outfits has contributed hugely in fuelling religious extremism in the province. The security agencies too in the past propped up these extremist groups to counter Baloch nationalists groups, with disastrous consequences. It will take a massive effort now to dismantle those networks. But it has to be done to salvage the situation.

Sectarian militancy is only one aspect of the Balochistan cauldron. To deal with the other dimensions of the long festering crisis in the province, the government needs to address a fundamental problem: grievances of the Baloch people. The trust of the people cannot be restored unless the extrajudicial murders of political activists are stopped and people illegally detained by the security agencies are freed or produced before court if there are any charges against them.

The widespread political discontent and breakdown of law and order gives the militants huge space to operate. That is what has been happening in Balochistan. The new government has the goodwill and political support to deal with the challenges. But is it up to taking the daunting challenges head on?

The writer is an author and journalist.

zhussain100@yahoo.com Twitter: @hidhussain