The proxy wars between Saudi and Iran backed militant groups in Pakistan – linked to the US battle against the Al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan – took an ugly turn this week in the lawless province of Balochistan.
On Sept 20, pilgrims traveling on a bus to Iran, were stopped by armed men near Mastung, some 30 km southeast of Quetta. Some 26 pilgrims were forced to disembark… and shot point blank after being identified as Shias. Two family members of the victims who rushed to the scene to help, were chased by gunmen and shot dead.
The Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LEJ) a Sunni Deobandi group affiliated with the Taliban, claimed responsibility. In recent months, Mastung has become a strong hold for the LEJ – whence the sectarian group emerges to inflict lethal attacks on Shias and non Muslims.
The administration’s response was mild. In Balochistan, authorities hunkered down and advised tour buses not to move around without security.
Ten years after the US toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan, today their resurgence has given the LEJ an umbrella to inflict repeated pain on Shias in Pakistan. The Iran backed Tehrik-i-Jafria, sometimes engages against the LEJ, but is no match for the antagonists.
In the last few months, the LEJ and its parent organization – Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (formerly Anjuman Sipah Sahaba Pakistan) have found a soft target in the Hazara community in Balochistan. These Shias, originally from Afghanistan, have been repeatedly killed on sectarian grounds. This week’s massacre brought nationwide protests, including Hazara women to demonstrate against the lack of safety.
Sectarian strife has escalated since LEJ chief Malik Ishaq was released from Kot Lakhpat prison, Punjab in July 2011. Although wanted in the murders of some 70 Shias, the Supreme Court reportedly released him because of the absence of witnesses. Prima facie, this seemed logical in a country where witnesses in heinous crimes have little or no protection.
But the Punjab administration failed to act against the LEJ chief even after he moved around giving hate speeches on sectarian grounds.
Victims families found cold comfort in the fact that Malik Ishaq has been temporarily detained at home after the massacre in Mastung.
Interestingly, in recent months the paradigm of sectarian violence has moved out of the Punjab into Balochistan. That comes on the heels of a blooper by the Punjab chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif… when he apparently spoke his mind in telling militants to “at least leave my province alone.”
Today, lawlessness and poor governance in Balochistan has turned it into ideal ground for sectarian outfits. Despite being declared terrorists, the organizations constantly rename themselves and avail of the type of protection they enjoyed since the days of Gen. Zia ul Haq.
The Shia massacres in Mastung mirror the brutal pattern in which Christians were killed nine years ago in Karachi. In September 2002, as the US invasion of Afghanistan dislodged the Taliban, their LEJ affiliates headed straight to the Institute for Peace and Justice in Karachi. Here, the activists – mostly Christians – were bound and gagged and shot point blank after being identified by their faith.
Today, while US presence in Afghanistan fuels national resistance, it also spawns violent extremists. As experience shows, the attempts to use militants for political gain invites more blow-back. With neighboring countries fighting their proxy wars in Pakistan, the ingredients in the cauldron turn the mix into a matter for global concern.