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 forthcoming elections.
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.