By Malik Siraj Akbar
July 19, 2018
On Friday, several hundred tribesmen and
students from religious seminaries gathered at a public meeting in Mastung, a
town in Pakistan’s south-western Balochistan province, to hear Siraj Raisani, a
55-year-old politician from the Balochistan Awami Party.
As he appeared on stage wearing dark
sunglasses, the crowd cheered, whistled and raised their hands, in a gesture
affirming their loyalty to him. “O! Brave people of Balochistan!” said Mr.
Raisani, who was known and feared for his strong ties to the Pakistani
military. Before he could utter a second sentence, a suicide bomber blew
himself up near the stage. The explosion killed Mr. Raisani and 149 of his
supporters, and injured 186 others.
Abdul Khaliq, a resident, told the BBC Urdu
that three of his sons had gone to the rally. “All three of them were killed,”
he said. Another person lost 15 relatives. In some homes, there were no men
left to lead the funerals.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility
for the attack, citing Mr. Raisani’s relationship with the military. The group
has been terrorizing Pakistan’s border regions such as Balochistan by attacking
unarmed civilians. The suicide bombing was the first time the group targeted a
prominent political asset of the military.
The carnage in Balochistan can be
understood by considering the long history of separatism in the province, the
resentment against the federal authorities for denying its people their proper
share of resources and opportunities, and the failed strategy of the Pakistani
military to use repression and to encourage and use Islamist groups and
militants to crush Baloch nationalist rebels and politicians.
Balochistan, which is home to about 12
million of Pakistan’s 208 million people, is the country’s largest province,
stretching from the Arabian Sea coast through a vast desert and mountainous
landscape to Iran in the west and Afghanistan in the north. The gas, gold and
copper reserves of Balochistan are among the largest in Asia and account for
half of Pakistan’s gas production. The province’s resources generate about a
billion dollars every year for the federal government, but its people barely
receive their share of state investment and opportunities.
Mr. Raisani, who came from a prominent
pro-Pakistan family in a province with a long history of separatism — his
father was the governor, his brother was the chief minister, another brother
was a senator — was contesting his first election. His party, which was formed
in March, is widely believed to be an initiative of the military to unite the
pro-Pakistan tribal chiefs to help them defeat Baloch nationalist politicians —
who seek an end to the military’s control over the state’s resources — in the
Before he started his election campaign,
Mr. Raisani was mostly known for working with the military to fight the Baloch
separatists. In a video posted on social media, Mr. Raisani is administering an
oath of loyalty on the Quran to his band of counterinsurgents. The video was
uploaded with the soundtrack of an immensely popular Taliban battle song.
The most recent insurgency in Balochistan
against the Pakistan government and the military — dominated by ethnic Punjabis
— started in 2004. Five separatist militant groups with about 500 men have been
fighting the military.
The Pakistani Army has few Baloch soldiers
and officers, so it relies heavily on native proxies such as Mr. Raisani for
counterinsurgency operations. Mr. Raisani seemed more likely to be attacked by
Baloch militants, who killed his teenage son in 2011. In a rare move, Lt. Gen.
Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Army chief of Pakistan, traveled to Balochistan and
attended Mr. Raisani’s funeral.
The conflict became more complex after the
Sept. 11 attacks, as the United States got embroiled in the war on terror;
Arab, Central Asian and Taliban militants spilled out of Afghanistan finding
sanctuary; and the Chinese started building the massive Gwadar port on
Balochistan’s Arabian Sea shore.
Gwadar port is the flagship project in the
$50 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is a part of China’s Belt
and Road initiative. But the Chinese presence and investment have not improved
the economic conditions of the Baloch people, who have come to see the Chinese
as the new colonizers. Baloch militants have attacked Chinese engineers, and
about 10 people have been killed.
After Sept. 11, Pakistan utilized the
resources Washington had provided it to fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban to crush
Baloch separatists. Since 2004, Pakistan has disappeared, tortured and
assassinated thousands of young Baloch students, activists and rebels, as the
Americans weren’t concerned about Baloch aspirations and needed the military.
The separatist sentiment intensified after
the military killed Nawab Akbar Bugti, a prominent Baloch leader. Pakistan’s
security establishment responded by using Islamist militant groups such as the
Taliban, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Lashkar-e-Taiba to promote radical Islam
in the region to balance and isolate the Baloch separatists. But the strategy
of using radical Islamist groups and militants boomeranged as the Islamist
militants began attacking the Pakistani state after gaining some strength.
In recent years, Pakistani authorities
retaliated by killing some leaders of the extremist groups, which has only
given rise to a more militant cadre of jihadists. Mr. Raisani’s assassination
by the Islamic State seems to be a part of the ongoing battle between the
military and jihadists loyal to the Islamic State.
Islamabad blames India and Afghanistan for
supporting Baloch separatists while continuing to allow Taliban leaders to find
sanctuary in the province and form new alliances with various jihadist groups.
The new Jihadis seek to undermine the
Pakistani state while the generals still seem to be deluded that they can use
and control these groups. Islamabad needs to dismantle these networks and deal
with the legitimate demands of the residents of Balochistan for control of
their resources, reduce the coercive military presence, stop the rights
violations, and move toward equal citizenship for the people of Balochistan.
Malik Siraj Akbar is a journalist from Balochistan based in Washington.