The August 8 suicide attack in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s impoverished but strategically important Balochistan province, once again brought the role of the country’s intelligence services under question both inside parliament and outside in the media.
The terrorist act killed 73 people, mostly lawyers, who had gathered at a hospital to collect the body of a colleague assassinated by the proverbial “unidentified” gunmen hours before.
Though only a few show the courage, some parliamentarians have raised accusing fingers at the country’s security establishment, which means Pakistan’s powerful army and its prime intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI.
“It is a 100 percent flaw of the intelligence agencies,” nationalist lawmaker from Balochistan province Mahmood Khan Achakzai told the lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, on August 9, a day after the attack in Quetta.
Questioning the role of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, Achakzai asked how it was possible for perpetrators of terrorist attacks to complete their missions by killing hundreds of innocent civilians despite the fact the “our [intelligence] agencies [have the reputation] of finding a needle in muddy water.”
Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani, another lawmaker from Balochistan province, also questioned Pakistan’s anti-terror policy and the role of its intelligence agencies. He said that the people must be informed whether “Pakistan is for the establishment or the establishment is for Pakistan.”
Speaking to reporters outside the parliament building, chief of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party and lawmaker from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province Maulana Fazlur Rehman said that “we get ourselves absolutely free from all burden of responsibility after shifting blame to the [secret agencies] of neighboring countries.”
This is not the first time that parliamentarians have raised questions over the role of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies and the country’s commitment to dealing with all militants evenhandedly. For years, members of the global anti-terror alliance, where Pakistan is considered a key partner, have been raising objections to the country’s policy of targeting some militant groups while sparing others.
A country of 200 million people with diverse cultures and ethnicities, Pakistan has been in the business of fighting proxy wars since the early 1980s, both on its eastern and western borders. Although the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in late ’80s ended Pakistan’s justification for supporting the Afghan “jihad,” it created a fresh opportunity for some ambitious Pakistani generals and spymasters to develop Afghanistan into a stronghold and strategic space against Islamabad’s much larger rival, India.
The years that followed witnessed the birth of Taliban. The ragtag militia, depending on madrasa (religious schools) students, swept over the war-battered country within a few years of their emergence.
Although Pakistan used to be accused of supporting the Taliban with military means by the Taliban’s rivals (mostly the erstwhile Northern Alliance) Pakistan’s foes and friends alike started pointing accusing fingers toward Pakistan after 9/11, when the leadership of the deposed Taliban regime settled in Quetta city and launched their anti-U.S. and anti-NATO jihad in Afghanistan.
While the presence of anti-Soviet “mujahideen” on Pakistani soil caused the spread of illegal arms, religious extremism, the mushrooming of religious seminaries supported with funds from oil-rich Gulf countries, and thye strengthening of religious groups, Pakistan’s sheltering of the Taliban helped promote anarchism, weakened state authority, and pushed the society toward militarization.
Impressed with the Afghan Taliban, illiterate and jobless tribal youth, some of whom studied in the old-fashioned religious schools imparting knowledge only about Islamic theology, formed their own groups to “fight the battle of Islam” in Afghanistan, and also in India-controlled Kashmir.
For a while, all was going well — as long those children of jihad were targeting the U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan and fighting the Indian forces in Kashmir. But a sense of realization started prevailing among the Pakistani policymakers when they noticed the emergence of splinters, and then splinters of the splinters — including those who began targeting Pakistan itself.
The cost of this realization has been around 50,000 innocent lives, huge losses to Pakistan’s infrastructure and economy, downgrading of public morale, a shock to people’s trust in the state and its institutions, and almost irreparable damage to the Pakistan’s image abroad.
Very few people were inclined to believe when Sartaj Aziz, advisor to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on foreign affairs, said a year ago that Pakistan is no longer pursuing the policy of “good” and “bad” Taliban. In Islamabad’s thinking, the “good” are believed to be the ones fighting in Afghanistan and Indian-controlled Kashmir, while the “bad” are those carrying out attacks and bomb blasts inside Pakistan.
Again, very few people, even among the so-called pro-establishment politicians, nodded their agreement when the chief minister of Balochistan province, Sanaullah Zehri, jumped the gun by accusing the Indian intelligence agency RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) for its involvement less than an hour after the August 8 terrorist attack in Quetta.
“There is no RAW in Balochistan. They [the attackers] are the people we nurtured,” said Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani, who belongs to the so-called pro-Taliban and pro-establishment Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party.
“There is an armed Frontier Corps (FC) presence and intelligence operatives on every street; Quetta is a city of 12 streets, but thousands of people have been killed… what is the problem?” asked Mahmood Khan Achakzai, another lawmaker from Balochistan.
Similar concerns were shown and voices raised when a Taliban faction attacked a military-run school in Pakistan’s northwestern town of Peshawar in December 2014. As many as 150 people, mostly schoolchildren, were killed.
The high degree of anger and shock brought the civilian and military leadership together to devise a 20-point National Action Plan (NAP) which, apart from focusing on other key issues, asked for an across the board action against all militant groups.
Since then, the Pakistani security forces have targeted hundreds of suspected Taliban positions in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and claim to have killed thousands of militants. But none of those killed was a prominent leader of the Afghan Taliban or the Haqqani Network — not a single one.
And yet the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mansour was targeted by a U.S. drone inside Pakistani territory with a Pakistani passport and the appointment of Mansour’s successor Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, reportedly took place inside Pakistan. Further, the head of the dreaded Haqqani Network, Sirajuddin Haqqani, whose group was once termed as the “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s ISI by the then-U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, is now deputy to the new Afghan Taliban leader.
The chief of the banned Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD), Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, who once headed the proscribed Lashkar-e-Tayeba and who carries a bounty on his head from the United States, is freely holding rallies in Islamabad and other cities along with other religious groups.
From the assassination of the country’s two-time prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, in December 2007, to the March 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team, the shooting of children’s education activist Malala Yousufzai, the attack on army-run school in Peshawar, the killing of children in a Lahore park, and now the Quetta carnage, each time Pakistan undergoes a bloodbath, the people ask for a decisive action. The civilian and military authorities make huge promises. However, normalcy returns each time the dust settles down.
Will the Quetta attack leave any lasting imprint on Pakistan’s approach to dealing with militants? Sadly, any change is likely to last only a matter of weeks.
Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFERL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul.