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December 18, 2016

Plenty of blame


December 18, 2016

Inquiry reports in Pakistan tend to take one of two forms. They are either suppressed – think Hamood-ur-Rehman or Osama bin Laden – or a whitewash – Saleem Shahzad and Benazir Bhutto comes to mind. The commission report into the Quetta killing of lawyer Bilal Kasi and the subsequent suicide bomb at the hospital where mourners had gathered has the potential to be the rare exception. The inquiry, carried out by venerable Supreme Court Justice Qazi Faez Isa, is a thorough, forensic investigation       of our bloated security apparatus.

If Isa’s report is taken seriously, it  should lead to immediate accountability of Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. The inquiry blasts him for ignoring the recommendations of the National Counter Terrorism Authority, meeting with the head of a militant group, failing to outlaw known militant groups and says he “displayed little sense of ministerial responsibility.” Nisar is a fan of inquiries when he feels national security has been compromised. Cyril Almeida was placed on the Exit Control List and accused of harming the country’s interests when he wrote a story about a meeting between the civilian and military leadership. But nothing is as damaging to our security as a militant attack and Nisar has now been accused of, at best, being incompetent at his job.

There is plenty of blame to go around. It seems as if militant attacks have become so routine the state doesn’t even bother investigating them. The police investigation into the attacks was scandalously lax. Investigators did not bother securing the crime scene where Kasi was murdered, did not try to identify fingerprints on bullet casings or forensically examine either of the two crime scenes. Remarkably, it took the intervention of the inquiry itself to get the police to do its job and finally identify the suicide bomber.

The chain of amateurishness did not end there. Two militant groups – the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al-Almi – claimed responsibility for the attack.     Neither had been banned at the time of the attacks.          A week later, the Balochistan government wrote to the federal government asking it to outlaw both groups. The Ministry of Interior did not bother acknowledging either request. Eventually, Nacta wrote to the ISI asking it to confirm that both groups were in fact militant in nature – their own admissions of being involved in the attack not being sufficient proof for our government. They never heard back from the ISI either.

The testimony provided by the interior secretary to the inquiry is a textbook example of excuse-making. He tried to make the case that the ISI and Nacta should have acted even though it is the interior ministry which is ultimately responsible for making a decision.

It was beyond the ambit of the inquiry to speculate on the motives behind the interior ministry’s supposed lethargy although it hinted at a possible reason by pointing out that the interior minister met with Maulana Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, the head of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, Millat-e-Islamia and ASWJ. The nexus between the state and militant groups is an old one. Since the 1980s, militant groups have been patronised by the state because of their “strategic” value.         That they also operated at home, primarily against the Shia community, hardly seemed to matter.

To this day, militant groups that have their base of support in Punjab are treated differently to groups like the TTP. Local political leaders draw their own power from that same base and so treat such groups with kid gloves. The Supreme Court inquiry has shown that this attitude goes all the way up to the ministerial level.

That the state didn’t feel the need to properly investigate the attacks shouldn’t be surprising; the government had already announced who was responsible mere hours after the attacks took place. The culprits, we were told, are India and Afghanistan. The capture of Indian spy Kulbhushan Yadav in Balochistan had presented the government with the opportunity to blame every attack in the province on an external foe. Add in our conviction that the whole region was out to get us and undermine the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and we now had a ready-made excuse to blame all our problems on our nefarious neighbours.

As the report makes clear, shifting responsibility to a foreign conspiracy allows us to ignore our own, very real, militancy problem. The TTP and the militant groups that preceded it like the LeJ are an entire home-grown phenomenon. The only difference is that in the past militants had the active support of the state and only went after marginalised groups. Now that they have declared war on the entire country, we act like they are agents of foreign powers. To the extent there is any examination of the identity and ideology of those who carry out attacks, it is only to absolve ourselves of any blame for the monster that we – and we alone – have created.

If there is any fault to be picked with the Supreme Court inquiry, it is that it looked at the technical shortcomings of the investigation into the Quetta attacks without considering how attacks in Balochistan receive less attention than those elsewhere. The citizens of Balochistan have always been viewed with suspicion, as possible traitors in our midst. The Hazara community in the province has often been accused of being a proxy for Iran. Nationalists have been denounced as Indian agents. People are killed and dumped them because they are seen as a threat.

Militant groups in Balochistan act as an extension of the widely-held view that the Baloch are somehow less Pakistani than the rest of the country. These militant groups have primarily originated from Punjab and so receive softer treatment than those from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. To take the militancy problem in Balochistan seriously would require confronting our own culpability. We do not seem to have the appetite for doing that yet.

The PML-N government sees its Balochistan policy as being entirely benevolent. It sees the CPEC and the attendant development of the Gwadar Port as proof of its good intentions. The problem, as it so often is with the pro-business PML-N, is that it assumes the only grievance the Baloch have is economic. But the alienation of the Baloch people goes far beyond that. They believe, with justification, that the rest of the country treats them with barely-veiled suspicion, as enemies of the country who have allied themselves to our foreign rivals. They have seen their people being ‘disappeared’, they have gone through decades of militant attacks without anyone seeming to care.

Getting a small share of the potential profits from port operations and mineral exploitation is not going to change that. To address the problem, even a probe as comprehensive as the Supreme Court inquiry will not be enough. We need to change our entire approach to Balochistan and treat it as an equal partner in the federation.

The writer is a journalist based in Karachi. Email: [email protected]

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