Pakistan’s top military spokesman Director General (DG) Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Major General Asim Salim Bajwa on Thursday spoke with the media and rejected the impression that any banned organisation was being supported, saying that the armed forces were not in contact with any militant organisation including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). The government arrested LeJ’s leader Malik Ishaq Friday 22 February for the second time in the last six months in an apparent bid to calm growing public anger at its inaction after more than 100 people died in a bomb blast in Quetta in Balochistan province on last Saturday. He may be out soon!
The LeJ has claimed responsibility for two bomb blasts in Quetta so far in 2013 targeting Shia Hazaras that killed over 210 men, women, and children. In 2012, at least 325 members of the Shia Muslim population were killed in targeted attacks that took place across Pakistan. In Balochistan province, over 100 were killed, most of them from the Hazara community.
During the last decade, over 2000 Shia Hazara community children have been killed or wounded in attacks perpetrated by terrorists in southwestern town of Quetta of Pakistan’s turbulent Balochistan province. Many hundreds of Shia Muslims have been killed in northern areas of Pakistan such as Gilgit, Baltistan, Parachinar and Chelas. The attacks on Shia Muslims since the year 2000 have not been limited to Balochistan or the northern areas and major cities like Karachi and Lahore have also seen target killings of Shias. Historically since the 1980s, Pakistan’s biggest province Punjab had been at the centre of Shia-Sunni sectarian tensions but while there it is now mostly peaceful in Punjab – the power base of the LeJ- Balochistan has been hit hard by a wave of Shia killings in the last few years that can hardly be described as sectarian conflict. It is genocidal.
During the last few days Pakistan’s intelligence services have come under fire for their failure to stop the killings, at the very least, and for complicity at worst. Khwaja Mohammad Asif, a senior lawmaker from the opposition, demanded that “all institutions responsible for security” — including secret agencies, the paramilitary Frontier Corps operating in Balochistan and police — should be called “so the representatives of 180 million people (of Pakistan) ask them why the nation is so unsafe”. Hamid Mir, one of Pakistan’s leading journalists and TV anchors, said the Pakistan’s intelligence services had ignored a tide of sectarian bloodshed after deliberately creating “private death squads” to fight a war against separatists in the country’s troubled Baluchistan province.
Many analysts accuse the military intelligence of complicity and protecting Malik Ishaq – the leader of LeJ. He was released on bail by Pakistan’s Supreme Court in July 2011 after spending 12 years in jail. On his release, he was received outside the prison by leaders of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), banned in 2001 as a terrorist organization but now renamed to Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat (ASWJ). The ASWJ leader heading the welcome party was Maulana Muhammad Ahmad Ludhianvi who came in handy when the current Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, called on Ishaq to talk to the terrorists who had attacked Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi in October 2009. The Army chief’s personal plane had carried Ishaq to Rawalpindi, while another plane belonging to the ISI chief, Gen. Shuja Pasha, carried Ludhianvi, according to the reports published in Newsweek Pakistan, and daily newspapers, the Express Tribune and the News International.
After his release, Ishaq has been participating in political activities and even appeared at public rallies at least one of which was attended by Pakistan’s former ISI Chief Lt. General Hamid Gul. Ishaq was briefly detained for making a ’provocative’ speech in August 2012 from Lahore airport on his return from Saudi Arabia where he had gone for a “short visit”. He was quickly released on ‘bail’ by a lower court. According to the British daily Guardian, Saudi Arabia was described as the world’s largest source of funds for Islamist militant groups in a secret December 2009 paper signed by Hilary Clinton.
Most noticeable and significant development has been the dramatic rise in attacks on Shias since Ishaq’s apparent rehabilitation which started in October 2009, finally leading to his release in July 2011. On 28 December 2009, as many as 40 Shias were killed in an apparent suicide bombing on a Shia procession in Karachi. Another attack took place on 1 September 2010 in Lahore where at least 35 Shia were killed and 160 people sustained injuries during a Shia procession. Another occurred on 3 September 2010 in the city of Quetta which killed around 56 people during another Shia procession.
During 2011, most of the attacks on Shias took place in Balochistan marking the shift in focus from other parts of Pakistan. Over 70 Shias died in Balochistan, mainly in or near the provincial capital Quetta, in at least eight major incidents that involved use of rocket launchers, bomb blasts, and open massacre such as shooting Shia pilgrims travelling to Iran by road.
In 2012, at least 325 members of the Shia Muslim population were killed in targeted attacks that took place across Pakistan, about one-third of them in Balochistan province, which is the smallest in terms of population and accounts for just around 4% of Pakistan’s total population of 190 million.
According to the New York Times, the murders in Quetta (a small city of around 2 million) involve remarkably little mystery. In a report published 3 December 2012, the paper said: “by wide consensus, the gunmen are based in Mastung, a dusty agricultural village 18 miles to the south that is the bustling local hub of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the country’s most notorious sectarian militant group”. Earlier on 20 September 2012 gunmen opened fire on Shia Muslim pilgrims travelling by bus through Mastung, killing 26 people. On 30 December 2012 the terrorists struck again in Mastung as remotely-triggered bomb hit a convoy of three buses carrying Shia pilgrims to Iran and killed 19 people and injured 25.
Abdul Khalique Hazara, a leader of the Hazara Democratic Party, mainly consisting of Shia Muslims, told Al Jazeera TV’s Jane Dutton 18 February 2013, “they are trying intentionally, in Quetta district, to promote religious extremism. So I think they are provoking our community to be involved; they are going to drag us into sectarianism. But our people are very peaceful people”.
The accusations that Pakistan’s military establishment is using Islamic militants and extremists to promote religious extremism are more than just accusations given the long history of Pakistani establishment in using them as both a foreign policy and domestic politics tool. Former military dictator Pervez Musharraf helped a coalition of religious parties win provincial elections in 2002 in the northwest frontier province (now renamed Kyhber Pukhtoonkhwa). The coalition was led by Jamiat Ulema-e- Islam (JUI) which ran seminaries that gave birth to the Talibans.
The military establishment has faced tough resistance from secular Baloch nationalist groups for most periods of Pakistan’s history but that resistance turned into a province wide insurgency after a leading Baloch leader Akbar Bugti was killed in a military operation in 2006. Instead of seeking a political solution, Pakistan’s security establishment started a ruthless campaign of crushing the dissidents and insurgents through all possible means. In April 2011, the Army began a limited withdrawal from the cantonments and turned much of the security responsibility to the Frontier Corps (FC), at least nominally. But FC is also headed by a serving Major General. The province is now in the middle of its fourth major episode of insurgency, following major outbreaks in 1948, 1963–69, and 1973–78.
President of the Balochistan High Court Bar Association, the province’s lawyer’s body, Hadi Shakeel told Pakistan’s Supreme Court in February 2011 that there were more than 5,000 cases of ‘forced disappearances’ in Balochistan. A three-member-bench headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry conducted many hearings on the petition filed on the law and order situation in Balochistan. On 27 September 2012, the chief justice told the province’s top civilian bureaucrat to discuss the issue with the president, Director General (DG) of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and DG Military Intelligence (MI) and to inform the court in writing as to what steps are being taken to improve the situation. This was a clear indication of the active involvement of the military intelligence agencies as well as the recognition of that fact by the country’s highest court.
It is important to note that the Pakistan military including the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard all maintain a presence in Balochistan, while the most significant branch is the Army. The Pakistan Army XII Corps, commanded by a three star general who serves concurrently as the commander of the southern command, is based in Quetta. The Pakistan Air Force operates four bases in Balochistan. The primary base is Samungli in Quetta and is home to the 31st Fighter Wing. The other three smaller bases include Shahbaz, Pasni, and Faisal. The Pakistan Navy operates four naval bases on the Arabian Sea in Balochistan. The primary base is the deep water port of Gwadar in western Balochistan which is the second largest port in Pakistan after Karachi. The port is also home to the 3rd Battalion of the Pakistan Coast Guard. The three smaller naval bases are located in Jiwani, Ormara, and Pasni.
The Pakistan Intelligence community also maintains a significant presence in Balochistan. The Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate (ISI) is responsible for strategic intelligence as well as conducting operations has a large element in Quetta. The ISI’s Joint Signals Intelligence Bureau (JISB) operates signal intelligence collection stations in Saindak which covers the western border and in Gwadar which cover the shipping lanes of the Gulf of Oman. In addition to the ISI each service has military intelligence assets, collectively known as MI, which support tactical requirements. The Intelligence Bureau (IB) is the oldest intelligence entity in Pakistan which traces its heritage back to British India. The IB conducts federal investigations in Balochistan along the lines of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation and also supports the military establishment. Finally, there are the special branches of the provincial and local law enforcement that conduct criminal intelligence.
Given the extensive presence of the security agencies and their operations particularly since 2006, it is absurd to try to portray Balochistan as some place like North Waziristan. Anybody who is anybody in Pakistan knows well who runs Balochistan and the nature of the military operations inside it. But the most damning indictment of the extra-legal activities of the military intelligence agencies came when the chief justice said that the ‘Death squads’ of ISI and MI agencies should be abolished.
In some other country, this would have created a major political and legal crisis and many top heads would have rolled if its chief justice acknowledged that the state operated death squads but not in Pakistan. On the contrary, the alleged proxies of the intelligence agencies have struck with greater force in the last five months after the remarks of the chief justice. Gunmen in Quetta operate with impunity. Sometimes, they don’t even take the trouble of wearing masks to hide their identity, and kill Shias in the city’ streets and markets in broad daylight.
Clearly, Pakistan’s security establishment is unwilling to stop the growing power of dreadful extremists of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi while their own ‘death squads’ have the reputation of pursuing and killing insurgents with great efficiency. It seems that as in the past; like the use of the Talibans in the 1990s, that of local militant groups in Kashmir, and that of sectarian groups like the SSP in the 1980s, the security establishment considers the LeJ as an ally in Balochistan with the apparent aim of controlling the unruly province with the help of religious forces that have little in common with the secular orientation of the Baloch rebels and are controlled by ethnic Punjabis like Malik Ishaq. LeJ and their Pakistani allies are believed to have the sympathies if not the active support of the Saudis although there seems to be little doubt about the funds that generously flow to these groups from the Arabian Gulf. These militants are also hostile to the neighbouring Shia Iran due to their religious beliefs. Hazara Shias, a peaceful community, has thus become a victim and cannon fodder in this high stake and deadly game to promote hatred and extremism in order to keep Balochistan under the grip of the security establishment which has found the challenge of fighting the insurgents rather daunting in the last six years. But Pakistani people and the World must not allow innocent and peaceful Hazara Shias to become a ‘collateral damage’ in this extremely sensitive part of the region and Pakistan because the repercussions could spill over across the region and within Pakistan, with possibly catastrophic consequences.
Yousuf Nazar is a columnist and researcher-can be reached at; firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: Asian Human Rights Commission