Could An Islamist-Separatist Alliance Be Brewing In Balochistan?

12/08/2016 3:59 PM IST | Updated 13/08/2016 10:08 AM IST
Naseer Ahmed / Reuters
Friends and relatives of victims grieve at the scene of a bomb blast outside a hospital in Quetta.

Another day, another senseless massacre. This time on 8 August in Quetta, provincial capital of Pakistan's sparsely populated and restive Balochistan province, where a suicide bombing at a local hospital claimed over 70 civilian lives, mostly lawyers. Three days later, the security detail of a local judge miraculously escaped a roadside bomb without fatalities.

Someone close to the victims may have been sympathetic to both Baloch nationalism and the Sharia-imposition tirades of these monsters.

Government and military spokespersons have insisted all year that incidents of terrorism countrywide are down by 80%, and the insurgents -- mainly Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) affiliates --are scrabbling to evade the army's comprehensive counter-terror sweep: Operation Zarb-e-Azb (Urdu for "Decisive Strike").

Desperate and cornered, hence, the insurgents are hitting "soft targets," such as in the Easter suicide bombing in Lahore in March that felled 75, to shake the resolve of ordinary Pakistanis who unanimously back Operation Zarb-e-Azb despite the collateral damage. Or so goes the incumbent national narrative jointly crafted by Islamabad and General Headquarters.

While this is likely to be true, the sheer scale of attacks the insurgents are still capable of is alarming. And in the Quetta attack, the Taliban (or ISIS, since both claim it) have shown a remarkable capacity to evolve from opportunistic detonations in the middle of a crowd to planned, guerrilla-style ambush. Like the Viet Cong. This must worry Pakistan's top brass seeing how America's military might eventually withered before Ho Chi Minh's war strategy.

The 8th of August began with the drive-by shooting of Bilal Kasi, president of the Balochistan Bar Association, by unknown assassins. His murder was the latest in a streak of targeted killings involving lawyers. Since June, at least two other members of his fraternity (a college law professor and a high court advocate) had been gunned down in similar circumstances.

After Kasi's killing, his colleagues thronged the Civil Hospital in Quetta to mourn him and announce the now customary province-wide boycott of legal proceedings. What awaited them instead was a suicide bomber laden with 8kg of explosives. Whoever plotted the attack had clearly scouted the area beforehand and knew how the lawyers would react.

The congregation was purportedly targeted because lawyers "support democracy and make laws," according to a militant with ISIS ties interviewed by the Wall Street Journal. Since parliament is the sole institution in Pakistan empowered to draft and enact legislation, perhaps he meant they were targeted for being symbols of the state?

Following the carnage, the usual contagion of blame-mongering took hold. Various government functionaries blamed India for "destabilizing" Balochistan to frustrate Pakistan's marquee development blueprint: the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Others railed against Afghanistan, or more pertinently its spy apparatus NDS, for strategically providing a haven to TTP insurgents and abetting their attacks inside Pakistan. Essentially, a mirror of Kabul's accusations.

A few political mavericks even dared criticize Pakistan's feared security agencies for the massive "intelligence failure." Balochistan, of course, has been wracked by a low-grade insurgency since 2006 when Gen. Pervez Musharraf ordered the army to take out the popular, Oxford-educated chieftain Akbar Bugti on charges of conspiracy against the state.

Baloch dissidents, many of whom live abroad in self-imposed exile, have long accused the army of extrajudicial murders and kidnappings that have exacerbated the insurgency and stoked anti-Pakistan sentiments in a new generation of Balochis.

The forces of ideology and race do not often mix, but in this case they have a common enemy in the Pakistan army.

Unsurprisingly, in the rush to finger-wag at Pakistan's neighbours, law enforcement as well as politicians have leapt past standard investigation protocols. For starters, the police need to rigorously probe Kasi's current case files and those of the previously slain lawyers to itemize who they were defending or prosecuting. Chances of his murder and the suicide bombing being unrelated are slim, but not zero, especially with the competing claims from Taliban and ISIS.

Additionally, considering the clockwork-like timing of the explosion to cause maximum casualties, it is also possible the plotters had inside help. Someone close to the victims may have been sympathetic to both Baloch nationalism and the Sharia-imposition tirades of these monsters.

Pakistan formalized its landmark National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism with broad political consensus following the Army Public School massacre in December 2015. Though there have been steady gains, Islamabad must be wary of an unholy alliance between the remnants of the Taliban and Baloch separatists. The forces of ideology and race do not often mix, but in this case they have a common enemy in the Pakistan army.

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