Archive for the ‘Himal SouthAsian’ Category


03 August, 2011

By Zia Ur Rehman

The rise in sectarian violence in Balochistan is forcing its Persian-speaking Shia community to flee to safer places in the country. 

After a brief pause, sectarian violence is once again on the rise in Quetta, the capital city of Balochistan province in Pakistan. In the last few months, at least 41 people, all belonging to the Hazara minority which follows the Shia sect of Islam, have been killed in separate targeted attacks.

Photo: Metrix X, flickr

A few days ago, 14 Hazaras were gunned to death in the city in two separate attacks. In mid-July, two Hazara government officials had been shot dead by unknown assailants, while a month before that Director of Pakistan Sports Board, Syed Abrar Hussain Shah, a three-time Olympics representative from Pakistan, had been similarly murdered. The month of June saw two dead and 11 others injured when a group of armed men ambushed a bus carrying Hazara pilgrims to Iran. In May, 14 Hazaras, including a little baby, were killed in two separate attacks, one of which was a well-coordinated rocket attack. An independent news source states that over 200 Shias have been killed in Balochistan in the last three years.

The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a banned sectarian organisation, allegedly linked with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), al-Qaeda and other Afghan Taliban groups, has claimed the responsibility for these killings. After the death of the al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, the LeJ vowed to avenge his killing by targeting not only Pakistan’s government officials and security forces but also its Hazara community. Recently, threatening letters have been widely distributed in Quetta, warning the Hazaras to prepare for more fatal attacks, which the LeJ calls a jihad similar to the one carried out against Hazaras in Afghanistan during the Taliban’s rule.

The Hazaras in Afghanistan, the third-largest ethnic group in the country, were heavily oppressed during the Taliban regime. Massacres in large numbers were carried out in the provinces of Bamiyan, Ghazni and Balkh, as the Taliban suspected that the Hazaras collaborated with the Afghan Northern Alliance, an organisation fighting the Taliban regime at the time. Experts on militancy issues believe that the Taliban had help in the killings from the LeJ and its mother organisation, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP).

Hazaras in Balochistan, however, had been left alone at the time, with the onset of targeted killings seen only after the Taliban were ousted from power. When the Taliban rule collapsed, so did the al-Qaeda-linked Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and other jihadi groups, the blame for which was placed on the Pakistani Hazaras for allegedly colluding with the Americans and aiding in their ultimate downfall. As the city became a major hub for the defeated Taliban groups, it also provided a new vent for the expression of the Taliban hatred towards the Hazaras.

‘Apart from being ideological opposites,’ says Abdul Khaliq, head of the Hazara Democratic Party (HDP), ‘the Taliban have historic bitterness against the Hazaras, killing, according to an Amnesty International report, some 12,000 Hazaras in central Afghanistan.’ This bitterness, coupled with mere conjectures on the Hazaras’ collusion with the American and NATO forces, he adds, is now leading the Pakistani militants groups, especially the LeJ, to murder the Hazaras in Quetta.

Poor government response 
The LeJ is regarded as Pakistan’s fiercest Sunni extremist outfit and is accused of killing hundreds of Shias since its emergence in 1996. Usman Saifullah Kurd and Dawood Badini are believed to be heading the LeJ network in Quetta. Both of them had been apprehended by the Karachi police (Kurd in 2002 and Badini in 2004) and subsequently handed over to the Balochistan police. However, in 2008, they managed to escape from the Anti-Terrorist Forces headquarters at the Quetta cantonment. Apart from their involvement in suicide attacks on Shia religious processions, mosques and on Shia imams, the two are accused of killing dozens of professionals, police cadets and political activists, a majority of whom belonged to the Hazara community.

‘The Hazaras have been at the receiving end of violence for almost a decade now,’ says Amjad Hussain, a senior journalist, ‘but, not surprisingly, their plight remains largely unknown. And the culprits remain at large, and are encouraged by either the state’s participation or its indifference.’Abdul Khaliq agrees, saying that the increase in militancy in Balochistan is not solely the result of social unrest but also a clear indication of bad governance. ‘The LeJ claims the killings of Hazaras, and the government claims to have arrested the suspects, but the alleged attackers are never brought before the public or any court of law,’ he says. In 2009, HDP’s then-chairman Hussain Ali Yousafi was assassinated and the killers are yet to be identified.

The government’s failure at tackling the militants involved in sectarian violence has forced the Hazara community members to leave Quetta city for safer places like Karachi and Islamabad. Apart from threatening letters issued by the LeJ, which order them to leave Quetta city by 2012, the Hazaras have been the subject ofvitriolic speeches against Shias by religious clerics belonging to banned militants’ outfits. The intelligence agencies are believed to be aware about the whereabouts of all militant outfits including the LeJ, and yet the banned outfits publicly operate under new names. It is also believed that members of the Afghan Taliban leadership council are based in Quetta and/or in the neighbouring areas, but the Pakistani government continues to deny such reports.

Despite a long history of sectarian killings in Balochistan, especially in Quetta, the government has failed to bring the perpetrators to justice. Whatever the ultimate motive is, and whatever the politics involved, fanning such sectarian violence in Balochistan is destroying the centuries-long ethnic harmony. The recent killings only further widened the gulf between the Sunnis and Shias, pitting the Shia Hazaras against the local Pashtuns and other Baloch ethnic communities. While the government and its law enforcement agencies might not condone such attacks, their inefficacy in prosecuting the guilty displays a sense of lack of urgency in defeating the terrorist outfits. And this only serves these organisations’ objective of converting progressive and liberal Balochistan into a religious and Talibanised province.

~ Zia Ur Rehman is a freelance journalist and researcher based in Karachi.


The border areas of Dir and Bajaur have emerged as a new hub of militancy in Pakistan, and stand to threaten peace efforts.

Himal SouthAsian, Web Exclusive

28 June 2011

By Zia Ur Rehman

In the past two months, Pakistan’s Bajaur Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), along with Dir district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, saw three cross-border incursions, allegedly carried out by Pakistani militants with help from Afghan allies. These attacks, which took place despite several army operations in Pakistan and the NATO presence across the border in Afghanistan, demonstrated the continued strength of militants along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area. The situation also prompted discussion on cross-border militant movement during the recent meeting of the high-level Afghanistan-Pakistan joint commission in Islamabad.




The most recent cross-border attack occurred on 16 June, when more than 200 militants crossed the border and raided the houses of local anti-Taliban militia in the Mamond area of Bajaur, killing around nine civilians. Casualties rose to 15 militants and 12 security personnel during subsequent clashes between the Pakistani security forces and the militants. Earlier, on 1 June, a three-day clash resulted in the deaths of dozens of people in Barawal, in Upper Dir, after hundreds of heavily armed militants targeted a poorly defended security post in Shaltalu. Likewise, on 22 April, a border security post in Lower Dir came under attack by militants, resulting in the death of more than 16 security personnel. Residents of Barawal are now requesting the government not to install additional security posts in their areas, for fear of inciting new attacks.
While the Pakistan government blames the Afghan Taliban for this violence, local tribal elders and security experts believe otherwise.
According to the latter, these attacks have probably been carried out by Pakistani militants, especially accomplices of Maulana Fazlullah, head of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Swat, with help from Afghan militants. Reportedly, following the 2009 military operation in Swat, Fazlullah and his commanders fled to nearby provinces in Afghanistan, and some believe that these exiled forces have now been returning and targeting their rivals, including the security forces. The TTP claimed responsibility for the 1 June attacks in Dir, thus seeming corroborate this assertion. Omar Hassan Ahrabi, a spokesperson for the TTP in Malakand Division, said that the group had carried out the attacks together ‘with [its] Afghan allies’, adding that the attackers had managed to seize Pakistani anti-aircraft weapons before returning safely to hideouts in Afghanistan.
Apart from the possibility of Pakistani militants regrouping in Malakand and Bajaur, many security observers suggest that these groups are adopting a new strategy of large-scale attacks against government and security forces. Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, a TTP leader in Bajaur previously thought dead, recently stated that the TTP, in collaboration with al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, plans to target state and security agencies. While the reappearance of Faqir Muhammad is already a major blow to ongoing peace efforts in insurgency-affected areas, such large-scale attacks will make the attempt at debilitating the group even harder.
In the aftermath of the Osama bin Laden operation in Abbottabad, the group has stepped up suicide bombings, attacks on paramilitary cadets, a naval base and a US consulate convoy. This has challenged government assertions that army operations against the militants have succeeded. Indeed, instead of weakening the militants, the army operations seem to have merely translocated the hub of militancy from tribal areas to provincial areas such as Dir. Local people in Upper Dir claim that the militants have begun roaming on their hills. And while nine schools in the area have been reportedly destroyed by the militants, others have remained closed after receiving threatening letters from the TTP. Beginning this year, the TTP militants have also started targeting ‘pro-government’ elders and police personnel – sending not only shockwaves among locals of Dir, but also belying the military’s claims of clearing the area of the militants.
The latest attacks on civilians seem to be the militants’ way of deterring the locals from forming an armed anti-Taliban militia, as they have done in the past. In mid-June 2009, such an armed militia had killed two militant commanders in Dogh Daara, Dir. After the recent militant attack on Dir, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has announced stronger support for such village militias. Nonetheless, past experience looms large; previous experimentation with militias has had catastrophic outcomes, as the militants struck back with suicide bombings, killing villagers and tribesmen indiscriminately. In June 2010, for instance, a suicide attack at a local mosque in Dogh Daara killed 30 tribesmen. In addition to indiscriminate suicide bombings, the militants have also tended to kidnap militia personnel and take them to bordering provinces in Afghanistan.
The security and government officials say that the TTP militants will not be able to regain control of the Dir region. Instead, it will likely restrict their fighting to hit-and-run tactics, an ideal guerrilla-warfare approach in the rugged terrain of Dir. More worryingly threat posed by these cross-border attacks has already had a significant impact on neighbouring districts and tribal areas. Because Dir borders Bajaur, districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa such as Swat and Chitral, and Afghanistan, it will not only provide a strategic base for attacks in these areas, but will also act as a sanctuary for militants fleeing military operations in neighbouring regions. Afghanistan has already accused the Pakistani militants for attacks on its soil, in particular in Kunar and Nuristan provinces bordering Pakistan. It is therefore imperative that the governments of Islamabad and Kabul collectively tackle the issue of cross-border militant incursions – before the attacks become as ‘large-scale’ as the militants seem to be threatening.
Zia Ur Rehman is a freelance journalist and researcher based in Karachi.