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Bloodletting Continues in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province

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Bloodletting Continues in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province

Many of the attacks over the past decade were by religious extremist groups, a major shift for the province.

Bloodletting Continues in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province

Local residents stand at the site of a suicide bombing in Mastung near Quetta, Pakistan, Sept. 29, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Arshad Butt

On September 29, a suicide bomber attacked a religious procession marking the birthday of Prophet Muhammad near a mosque in Mastung district of Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province. Over 60 people were killed and many more were severely injured in the attack.

A month on, no militant group has claimed responsibility for the attack.

This has intensified speculation about several active militant groups in the region. Such speculation has not spared Afghan refugees.

“Out of 24 suicide bombings this year, a staggering 14 were carried out by Afghan nationals,’’ Pakistan’s caretaker Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti claimed, although there is little evidence to support his allegations.

Soon after, the Pakistani government announced a crackdown on undocumented immigrants in the country starting from November 2023, especially against Afghan refugees.

Despite the finger-pointing toward Afghan refugees, many believe it is the history of flawed policies of successive Pakistani governments toward Balochistan that is responsible for turmoil in the province.

Over the past decade, there have been just a few brief periods of relative peace. Terrorist attacks have become the norm in the beleaguered province.

According to data from the South Asia Terrorist Portal, since 2013, Balochistan has witnessed over 2,700 terrorism-related incidents, claiming the lives of over 5,000 people and leaving thousands more injured.

On June 15, 2013, a female suicide bomber blew herself up in the parking lot of Sardar Bahadur Khan University in the Balochistan capital of Quetta, killing over 20 people, most of them students. Soon after the injured were shifted to the hospital, a second blast shook the hospital. A gun battle between militants and security forces followed. The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) claimed credit for the attacks.

Then on August 8, 2016, a suicide bomber attacked the emergency ward of a hospital in Quetta, where lawyers had gathered to mourn the murder of a colleague, Bilal Anwar Kasi. Kasi was the former president of the Balochistan Bar Association. He was on his way to work when he was attacked. As the lawyers gathered at the emergency ward, a blast killed at least 70 people, mostly lawyers. Many times that number were injured in the attack.

The blast reportedly set back Balochistan’s judicial system by decades, as dozens of lawyers with decades of experience were killed. Both a Pakistani Taliban faction and the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack.

Heavily armed militants donning suicide vests stormed a police academy in Quetta on October 26, 2016, to carry out one of the deadliest attacks on a security installation in Pakistan. About 200 trainees were at the facility at the time of the attack. More than 61 people were killed and over a hundred wounded, most of them young trainees. The siege of the facility extended for around five hours. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi claimed responsibility for the attack.

In April 2018, there were several targeted attacks on the Hazara community, a minority Shia Muslim group that has been in the crosshairs of armed sectarian groups for decades. In response to these attacks, the Hazara community in Quetta began a sit-in strike and demanded a meeting with Pakistan’s army chief. The week-long protest remains alive in the memory of people for the iconic hunger strike led by a young Hazara lawyer, Jalila Haidar, to raise awareness of the plight of her community.

Three months later, in the lead-up to elections, hundreds of tribesmen and students from religious seminaries gathered for an election campaign rally in Mastung district.  A suicide attack resulted in the death of at least 129 people.  The main target is believed to have been Siraj Raisani, a politician from the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), who was contesting elections for the provincial assembly from Mastung. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.

Then in May 2019, several gunmen stormed the Pearl Continental Hotel in the port town of Gwadar. The hotel is popular with top government officials and foreign visitors. In an operation that extended over several hours, at least five people were killed and several injured. The separatist Balochistan Liberation Army claimed responsibility for the attack. Gwadar is the gateway to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and the attack on a hotel that frequently hosts Chinese officials affected the image of the project for several months.

Most of the major attacks of the past decade were carried out by religious extremist groups. This trend is noteworthy since Balochistan has previously been considered a secular province without any attacks by religious extremist groups before the 2000s.

But with the resurgence of the separatist movement in the province in the early 2000s, religious extremism mushroomed and extremist groups with ties with multiple jihadist groups crept in.

Many believe these groups were initially backed by the state to undermine and counter the Baloch separatist movement, which was fueled by economic disparities and a desire for greater autonomy especially over the province’s resources. The state may have believed that supporting these groups would weaken the nationalist movement in the province.

But now the extremist groups seem out of control and even hostile to the state, as they are targeting security installations like the police academy in Quetta in 2016 and politicians like Siraj Raisani of the state-backed BAP in 2018.

Balochistan has a heavy presence of security forces, yet these groups remain active and continue to attack the armed forces as well as unarmed civilians.

Over the years, the province has witnessed dozens of citizen-led protests and sit-in strikes against violence. Yet, peace remains elusive.

The continuing violence has laid bare the dismal state of law and order in Balochistan and proved how flawed strategies can invite unconstrained chaos. Together these have tarnished Pakistan’s regional standing.

The poor security situation has slowed CPEC’s progress. Beyond economic repercussions, the daily lives of people are deeply affected as a constant threat of violence looms, with fear over what the next target might be.