Balochistan’s capital city bleeds again after 9 people were killed and more than 50 were injured in an attack on Quetta’s Bethel Memorial Methodist Church on Sunday, leaving many questions swirling in the minds of the people as Pakistan once again blames foreign infiltration and neighboring countries for supporting and harboring terrorists.
Responding to the terrorist attack on the church even before an investigation was conducted, Minister of Home and Tribal Affairs Sarfraz Bugti tweeted:
Credit for the attack has been claimed by the Islamic State. But one wonders how ISIS would get support from Afghanistan when the Islamic militant group is currently in a war with the country. Wasn’t the immediate response and blame coming from the minister the same diversionary tactic we’ve come to expect from the establishment?
In response to Bugti’s tweet, Mariam Ispahani (an entrepreneur and writer, as noted on her profile) replied:
While a number of extremist militant groups are active in Balochistan, Pakistani authorities have repeatedly failed to crack down on them, and instead blame attacks on foreign meddling.
Since 2016, ISIS has been very active in Pakistan, and specifically in Balochistan. There have been five major attacks in Balochistan claimed by ISIS, including the latest one on the church. The other four involved Shah Noorani, the Quetta Police Academy, the Civil Hospital, and the Pir Rakhel Shah Shrine in Jhal Magsi, in which almost 220 were killed and some 450 were wounded. Despite the fact the Islamic militant organization has been taking responsibility for the attacks, Pakistani authorities have rejected the strong presence of ISIS in the country. Just this past September, the local police removed an ISIS flag in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, after a citizen reported it to the police.
When ISIS claimed responsibility for the August 8, 2016 attack on the Civil Hospital in Quetta which killed 100 people, including 64 lawyers, and injured more than 160, the top civil-military leadership rushed to the city. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif then declared, “No one will be allowed to disturb the peace in the province that has been restored thanks to the countless sacrifices by the security forces.” Pakistani leadership blamed RAW, India’s intelligence agency, for that attack. A similar response came after the attack on the Quetta Police Academy – the prime minister and army chief strongly condemned the attack, then convened a high-level meeting to discuss matters related to counterterrorism. One year later, what transpired during those high-level meetings has still not been made public.
This blaming of hostile countries is not new. Hours after the attack on the Police Academy, the top official of the Frontier Corps of Balochistan put the blame on “terrorists who belonged to Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ) militant group… communicating with their handlers in Afghanistan.” It is possible that other countries might be involved in sponsoring terrorism in Pakistan, but the question that arises here is this: If the Frontier Corps official was aware of this communication, why were the terrorists not prevented from attacking? If he was unaware of it before the incident, how could the investigation be completed in just two or three hours?
Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa, a senior Pakistani defense analyst, lamented the remarks by Balochistan government spokesman Anwar Kakar during a BBC Urdu debate last year when the spokesman blamed the Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies. When contacted, Siddiqa responded, “I still stand by what I said. However, Sarfraz Bugti’s context is a bit different. Bugti wants to use the argument to label the entire Baloch nationalism as a case of violent extremism which then can be targeted by the state.”
Pakistan often claims support of Baloch nationalists comes from its neighbors in the region, not extremist groups like Islamic State.
“Didn’t you guys just say that the Indians and Afghans were supporting the Baloch nationalists?” Siddiqa asked, referring to the Pakistani authorities. “How come supporters of the Baloch nationalists now become supporters of the Islamic State?
There has always been a tendency in Pakistan to shift the blame onto RAW or Afghan intelligence to placate the public and divert their attention from questioning the security establishment. However, to date, no investigation has come to a logical conclusion.
Ms. Siddiqa believes extremist forces have infiltrated the Baloch nationalists since insurgents seem to always seek help from other groups.
One reason for the unrest and terrorist activities in Balochistan is that most decisions related to the province have always been made by the federal government and the establishment, whether it involves security, politics, or the economy. There has really been no power sharing despite the fact that 18th Constitutional Amendment ensures the devolution of power to the federating units from the Pakistani central authority. This amendment has not been implemented in letter nor in spirit. Last year the Balochistan government urged the federal government to share power with the province to keep terrorist activities in the province in check under the pre-1958 powers given by the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR).
Speaking to the Senate’s Functional Committee on Human Rights last year soon after the attack on Police Academy in Quetta, Balochistan Home Secretary Mohammad Akbar said: “The provincial administration has no legal power in Balochistan, which has become a war zone.” Akbar further added, “Balochistan has become a cocktail of insurgencies, religious extremism, and other criminal activities. We cannot hide that the system has failed in Balochistan.”
The Balochistan chief minister’s secretariat, surrounded by many checkpoints, is not more than one kilometer away from the church where the blast on Sunday occurred. Somehow the terrorists made it through the high-security zone.
Pakistan needs all its major political parties to sit down together and devise a plan for defeating terrorism, and then put forth that plan on the table of the security establishment.
But rather than working together to defeat the menace of terrorism and questioning the security establishment over security lapses, most of the Pakistani political parties have been maligning one another. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), targeted the prime minister of Pakistan in his recent tweet:
“Outraged, frustrated and saddened by the terrorist attack in #Quetta. Cowards attack the weak, innocent and vulnerable. Adding insult to injury this attack comes a day after our PM declared his government had defeated terrorism. The apathy of the state sickens me.”
Terror is a double-edged sword. It cuts both ways. The war against religious extremism cannot be won by shifting the blame to others and covering one’s own blunders. The convening of high-level security meetings will not achieve peace until the state stops making distinctions between good and bad terrorists. It is high time the state takes responsibility for its ill-conceived policies and starts fresh by eliminating all safe sanctuaries of terrorists, like the Taliban’s Quetta Shura, and refrains from using extremists to counter Baloch nationalists or any other forces.
For sustainable peace under a so-called democracy, there must be power sharing between the provinces and the Federal Government as stipulated by the 18th Amendment, especially on issues involving provincial security, politics, and the economy. Unless and until these rights are enforced, peace will only be a distant dream for a province plagued by poverty and insurgency.
Lastly, but equally important, I have two questions.
To all political parties in Pakistan:
Is it not your obligation to unceasingly demand answers for the lapses in security which enable the ongoing deadly attacks against Pakistani citizens? Unless, of course, you are a member of a party that condones such attacks or offers assistance to the attackers.
To the Pakistani law-enforcement agencies:
Rather than afterwards blaming “foreign conspiracies,” shouldn’t you be reporting your successes in thwarting attacks, and the arrests of those plotting those attacks? Effective security agencies in other countries do not target those who publicly protest injustices; rather, they are using their highly trained operatives to actually prevent attacks against their country’s citizens.
Shah Meer Baloch is a former Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg, a fellow of the Swedish Institute and the Institute for Foreign and Cultural Relations (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen/IFA), and a freelance writer. His research focus is on Asia-Pacific politics, Balochistan issues, extremism and human rights. He is from Pasni, District Gwadar.
*This article has been updated with a disputed quote removed.