Threat to secular Balochistan? How real is the issue of Talibanisation in Quetta?

Threat to secular Balochistan?
By Malik Siraj Akbar
Monday, 09 Mar, 2009

NOTHING embarrasses and irks Pakistani spymasters more than the issue of Talibanisation in Quetta. Over the years, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly protested against the alleged protection provided by Islamabad to Mullah Omar, the one-eyed spiritual cleric and reclusive leader of the Afghan Taliban.

As Pakistan’s internationally acclaimed journalist, Ahmed Rashid, laments in his book Descent into Chaos, “Today, seven years after 9/11, Mullah Omar and the original Afghan Taliban Shura still live in Balochistan province.”

A Baloch nationalist leader, Sanaullah Baloch, also bemoans the presence of Taliban supporters who have captured land worth Rs2bn along the eastern and western bypass of Quetta. These quarters are now virtual no-go areas. Islamabad, nonetheless, has been in a state of constant denial.
The Taliban have now vociferously asserted their existence in Balochistan. Engineer Asad, a self-proclaimed spokesman of the newly formed Tehrik-i-Taliban Balochistan (TTB), was recently quoted in a newspaper as saying that their struggle was “against non-Muslims and western forces that had attacked and occupied Islamic countries … the TTB was committed to fighting the enemies of Islam”. The TTB, as reported, disassociates itself from Baitullah Mehsud’s Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), bills suicide bombing as un-Islamic and rules out any vendetta with the Sherani faction of the JUI.

After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the ISI-CIA-nexus enthusiastically exported this jihad from Quetta to Afghanistan. During the Taliban regime, Islamabad went overboard in its support for their rule in Kabul by setting up a telephone network, which became a part of the Pakistan telephone grid. Hence one could dial Kandahar from anywhere in Pakistan as a domestic call, with the same code as Quetta.

For Islamabad, the post-Taliban era coincided with the rise of the nationalistic insurgency in Balochistan. The Islamists were given protection in Quetta so that they could serve Islamabad’s interest against progressive and secular Baloch forces. The centre is confident that a bribed mullah is certain to serve as a reliable collaborator against the mounting Baloch nationalist movement.

In fact, over the past many years Quetta has been used as a training ground by the Taliban as they have been blowing up Internet cafes, music and CD shops in the city for long. There is growing fear that the Taliban can surface with a Swat-like showdown any time in the near future.

The Taliban presence is substantiated by the fact that not a single incident of suicide bombing has ever been reported by Baloch insurgents who have confronted the centre five times since the controversial accession of Balochistan to Pakistan in 1948. Suicide bombing is purely a Taliban-related phenomenon in this region and in the recent past, Quetta city has been the hub of continuous suicide bombings.

For instance, on Feb 17, 2007, 13 people, including a senior judge, were killed and several others injured in a suicide bomb attack in a district court. On Dec 13, 2007, seven people were killed in another suicide bombing incident. Last year, on Sept 24, two persons, including a teenaged girl, were killed and 22 people were injured in a suicide bomb explosion. An earlier suicide bomb attack on Sept 9 took place at a religious school in the outskirts of Quetta; it left five dead and 12 students were injured. The latest suicide attack on March 2 in Pishin also took six lives.

Ironically, Islamabad eliminated Baloch leaders Nawab Bugti and Balaach Marri on the pretext that they had challenged the ‘writ of the state’. But to date, not a single bullet has been fired at Islamists who are training suicide bombers and murdering innocent civilians in the name of religion.

The discourse on moderate and extremist Taliban is ridiculous. A Talib will always remain a narrow-minded, conservative barbarian, bent upon killing until people subscribe to his bizarre and irrational interpretation of Islam. Today, the Taliban are operating in Balochistan with a better strategy. No longer are they willing to put all their eggs in one basket. The proponents of the Taliban, often described as ‘moderate religious forces’, are fast penetrating the secular Baloch province by getting elected to the provincial legislature with overwhelming financial assistance from intelligence agencies, according to some reports.

In the 2002 general elections, the pro-Taliban JUI-F secured16 seats in the Balochistan Assembly. In the incumbent Balochistan Assembly, the JUI-F has 10 seats — a political front for the clandestine backing provided to the Taliban.

Secondly, the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, another brainchild of the establishment, is out to crush democratic and secular forces in the conflict-ridden province. On Jan 26, the outlawed group killed the chairman of the Hazara Democratic Party (HDP) Hussain Ali Yousafi. Such attacks are likely to transform Quetta into an intol

erant place where one would eventually have to be a practisng Sunni Muslim to clinch a ‘residential permit’ from the ‘custodians of Islam’.

The Talibanisation of Balochistan, a province which shares borders with Iran and Afghanistan, is going to be catastrophic. The policymakers in Islamabad should recognise that if the secular Baloch province falls into the hands of fanatics, it will not only jeopardise the integrity of the federation, but also cause unrest in the entire region.

Al Qaeda would surely use this area as a hub for further terrorist attacks on Nato and American forces and pro-US Gulf countries. Undoubtedly, when carrying out political transactions in Balochistan, both Islamabad and the international community must give preference to the democratic and secular Baloch over obscurantist Taliban forces. (Dawn, 9 March 2009)

The writer is a journalist based in Quetta.