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Looking Behind the Political Violence in Baluchistan

Following attacks in Quetta, the question is whether Pakistan can implement a security policy that makes a break with its past policies.

On April 24, militants targeted Pakistani security forces in twin attacks in the troubled province of Baluchistan. The suicide bombings cast a light on a sustained and violent campaign against police and paramilitary units, as well as Shia and Christian minorities.

The attacks — some by groups that have had links to Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence apparatus as well as Saudi Arabia — highlight the inability of the state to implement a coherent security policy that makes a clean break with the use of militants as proxies. They also raise questions about security in a part of Pakistan that is core to the development of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). A Beijing-funded, $50-billion-plus infrastructure and energy program, CPEC constitutes a crown jewel in China’s Belt and Road initiative.

The attacks in which Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) — an outlawed, supremacist, anti-Shia group — figures prominently also raise the specter of Pakistani militants playing a role in potential attempts to destabilize Iran by stirring unrest among its ethnic minorities. These include the Baloch in the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan, which borders Pakistani Baluchistan.

The Attacks

Six policemen and paramilitary soldiers were killed and 15 others wounded in the attacks this week in the Baluchistan capital of Quetta, which saw three suicide bombers execute the assault. Earlier this month, militants in Baluchistan killed six members of Pakistan’s tiny Christian community (four of them from the same family) and two people from its Shia Muslim minority. In December 2017, two suicide bombers stormed a packed church, killing at least 10 people and wounding up to 56.

No one has claimed responsibility for this week’s attacks, which are the latest in a wave of assaults on security forces. Since 2012, such attacks have included tit-for-tat killings of scores of policemen and operatives of LeJ, which in recent years has forged ties with the Islamic State and Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan — groups that have been targeted by the Pakistani military.

Nevertheless, doubts remain about the severity of the crackdown on LeJ, which is an offshoot of Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP). SSP is an anti-Shia group with a history of Pakistani and Saudi backing that, like LeJ, has been banned but continues to operate under different names.

In interviews, SSP leaders said that Pakistani military and intelligence had advised them in 2016 to tone down their inflammatory, anti-Shia language but maintain their basic policy. The group’s leader, Ahmad Ludhyvani — a meticulously dressed Muslim scholar whose bank accounts have been blocked by Pakistani authorities — told reporters in 2016 that SSP and Saudi Arabia opposed Shia Muslim proselytization. The reporters were summoned to his headquarters in the city of Jhang, which was protected by Pakistani security forces.

“Some things are natural. It’s like when two Pakistanis meet abroad or someone from Jhang meets another person from Jhang in Karachi. It’s natural to be closest to the people with whom we have similarities … We are the biggest anti-Shia movement in Pakistan. We don’t see Saudi Arabia interfering in Pakistan,” Ludhyvani said to this author over lunch in 2016.

Tariq Khosa, the former Baluchistan police chief and ex-head of Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency, blames the violence in the province on Pakistan’s use of religious militants as proxies in efforts to crush nationalist insurgents. “The decision to use Shafiq as a proxy against certain Baloch separatist organisations allowed proscribed sectarian organisations to regroup in and around Quetta,” Khosa said, referring to Shafiq Mengal, an LeJ leader.

Maulana Ramzan Mengal — an Islamic scholar, a fellow tribesman of Shafiq Mengal and leader of SSP-associated groups in Baluchistan — has, according to sources close to the militants, been the funnel for large sums of Saudi money flowing into ultra-conservative madrassas in the province over the past two years.

Khosa said the government’s policy was abetted by divvying up responsibility for security in Baluchistan between the police and the Baluchistan Levies, a force recruited from local tribesmen in each district. The two forces, as well as the military’s Frontier Corps, maintain separate lines of command and have no mechanism to share intelligence. Unlike the police, who are bound by Pakistani law, the Levies operate according to tribal laws and practices that protect militants from arrest and/or prosecution.

Security of Chinese Nationals

The ambiguity of government policy and security arrangements in Baluchistan complicates the task of a 15,000-men-strong Pakistani military force that is deployed to protect thousands of Chinese nationals working on energy and infrastructure projects in the province and elsewhere in the country. In February, unidentified gunmen shot and killed a Chinese shipping company executive in the violence-plagued financial hub of Karachi. Just a month earlier, a Chinese engineer working on an energy project in Rawalpindi vanished and is believed to have been kidnapped, while in 2017 a Chinese couple, both teachers, were abducted in Quetta and killed.

The Chinese embassy in Islamabad warned its nationals in December 2017 of the threat of imminent attacks on Chinese targets. The embassy advised “Chinese-invested organizations and Chinese citizens to increase security awareness, strengthen internal precautions, reduce trips outside as much as possible, and avoid crowded public spaces.”

While Pakistan has made progress in its selective crackdown on militancy, a restoration of the kind of security that will give confidence to foreign investors and squash creeping doubts in China is likely to depend on political reforms that put an end to the country’s perceived distinction between “good and bad terrorists.”

“Nobody will come and invest in this climate of fear,” quipped Muhammad Zafar Paracha, director at the Pakistani partner of MoneyGram International during a recent visit to the heavily fortified Baloch port city of Gwadar. “Without courageous political reform, Pakistani leaders are incentivizing the internationalization of Balochistan and sowing the seeds for a dangerous harvest,” added Pakistan expert Emily Whalen.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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