February Issue 2014

By | News & Politics | Published 10 years ago

One cannot help but be amazed at the presence of the Taliban in such large numbers in the Pashtun-dominated areas of Quetta. Areas that once served as camps for refugees have now become epicentres of Taliban activity. The biggest menace this province has faced over the last decade is the growing number of extremists and radicals — rabid Taliban elements — who have moved from the tribal areas in and around Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to Balochistan. A close look at the map reveals that the province’s porous border with Afghanistan and its proximity to the troubled tribal areas makes this province a desirable base for these elements.

Radicalisation is speeding up in both the Pashtun and Baloch parts of the province. The Pashtun areas in the northern part of the province bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan’s FATA are  now dominated by the Taliban and hardline mullahs.

The crisis can be traced back to the Afghan war of 1979, in which Pakistan played the role of a frontline state to push the Soviets out of Afghanistan. The unbridled influx of refugees who settled in the Pashtun region of Balochistan impacted its liberal culture and territorial dynamics. Within no time, these refugees were given Pakistani citizenship — allegedly with the help of the all-powerful ISI. These refugees-turned-locals started injecting religious extremism into the province’s body politic in order to counter Pashtun nationalism, which calls for equal provincial status and a peaceful Afghanistan. This agenda was furthered when the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazlur Rehman (JUI-F) was given the mandate to represent the Pashtuns in the provincial assembly. Their tenure proved to be an incubator for the breeding of jihadis and sectarian parties. More and more madrassas flourished, providing fertile ground for Talibanisation. Formal education was given short shrift in the province, leaving young and vulnerable minds in the firm grip of the madrassa.

In the current scenario, although the PKMAP has won the elections, the ubiquitous presence of the Taliban in  Balochistan is difficult for them to counter, and their task is made  all the more difficult by the fact that a segment of the establishment continues to back the extremists.

The scenario is somewhat different in the Baloch areas that mainly border Iran and comprise 19 districts. These areas suffer from both nationalist insurgency and the fast-growing  spectre of sectarianism. However, it appears that the invisible hand has played a role in amalgamating the two radicalisms in order to sabotage the Baloch nationalist movement. In the process, the secular instinct of the people is fading away. The Deobandi and Salafi militant outfits that are allowed to operate in these areas are widening the socio-political cleavage between the Brahvis and  Baloch. A large number of Brahvis have joined sectarian groups. These elements are then used against the Hazara Shias and the Baloch nationalist movement.

Basically, there are two districts that have become a safe haven for sectarianism: Lasbela and Mastung. Lasbela district is a base camp for sectarian madrassas, as Wahabi funds can easily be transferred to sectarian leaders in Lasbela, in the guise of expenses incurred for royal hunting trips. Mastung district, on the other hand, is a good point for targeting convoys of Shia pilgrims passing through Mastung to go to Iran. Muddying the waters are certain groups with no affiliation to any particular party who are allied with the establishment. They target Baloch nationalist groups, claiming that they are against Islam and Pakistan.

The problem with the Shias of Balochistan is altogether different. The geographical location and multi-ethnic nature of the province makes the issue more complex. The Hazaras appear to have become a target due to the politics of the end game in Afghanistan as well as  the opposition of the US and Arab states to Iran’s quest for energy outlets via Balochistan. The Iran-Saudi proxy war is one of the major destabilising factors promoting radicalism in the area. The Arab states are thought to provide financial support to the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). Matters are worsened by the Pakistan military’s suspicion of the Persian-speaking Shia Hazara community, that is both anti-Afghan Taliban and pro-Iran. Shia Hazaras are targeted because of their inclination towards Iran and their ethno-centric approach towards other local tribes. There is a popular saying in Quetta that a Hazara is born in Afghanistan, grows up in Pakistan and is buried in Iran. Given these trends, Balochistan is fast becoming the epicenter of radicalism and sectarianism.

Unfortunately, instead of rectifying the situation, certain state institutions are encouraging radical elements. In the last few years, even the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) has been encouraged to set up shop in the province, especially in the Baloch areas. This is changing the political scenario in Balochistan, where we now see even nationalist parties like the BNP (Mengal group) strike an alliance with LeJ/ASWJ. The Pashtun nationalist party, the PKMAP, on the other hand, opted for seat adjustments with the Jamiat Nazariyati (pro-jihadi) in the local elections last December. Although the PKMAP move is basically driven by Mehmood Khan Achakzai’s need to counter the JUI-F, political deals of this nature can only add to radical influence, not reduce it. It is this reliance on religious parties by the state and political actors that is likely to impose a huge toll on Balochistan. At this juncture, radicalism is a growing trend, with no alternative force exhibiting the will to reverse it.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s February 2014 issue as part of the cover story.