Commission Fails to Pin Responsibility in Journalist Murder Case

Karachi, Jan 14: That the judicial commission’s report on Saleem Shahzad’s murder is inconclusive should not be surprising, experts say. Its shortcoming lies in its very foundation – the formation of a ‘judicial panel’ to investigate a murder.

The judicial commission’s failure to point out the murderers of journalist Saleem Shahzad was expected, said Coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Asia Programme Bob Dietz.

“I know a lot of journalists had pressed for the judicial panel, but the report now clearly shows that it hasn’t been able to serve its purpose of pointing out the murderers,” Dietz said while speaking to The Express Tribune via phone.

The judicial panel shouldn’t have been tasked with uncovering the murderers of Saleem, simply because this required expertise that they didn’t possess to begin with, Dietz said.

“This is basically the job of the police who are trained to investigate murder cases. In fact it is only because of the inability of the police and the government to uncover the truth that the panel was entrusted with this job,” he said.

Dietz suggested the case should have been investigated by a panel similar to the one that had been formed in the aftermath of Daniel Pearl’s murder in Karachi. “In Daniel’s case, real police work was done by experts in their fields. This led to the arrest of several suspects and eventually some of them were sentenced and sent to jails.”

When asked what was the way forward if the police investigators were vary of probing into a case that allegedly involved senior intelligence agency officials, Dietz proposed that then the media itself would have to do the job of exposing the murderers.

Senior Analyst Mazhar Abbas said he found the report “interesting” and recommended all journalists to go through it “from an academic point of view.”

Abbas pointed out a number of missing links in the commission’s report. For example, he says, the IGP Islamabad’s testimony has not been included in the report to clarify the important point about how Saleem’s vehicle was able to move out of Islamabad all the way to Jhelum without anyone in the police taking notice: “When Saleem was reported kidnapped, did the police pass on a message on their wireless control system about the disappearance?”

Also, he said, that while the commission leaves the door open about the motive and people involved in the incident, it is clear that normally militant groups claim responsibility for their attacks.

“If even for the sake of argument we assume that the Ilyas Kashmiri group was behind the murder [as stated as one of possibilities in the report], then what was stopping them from claiming the attack on Saleem,” he asked.

Pulitzer prize winning author Dexter Filkins, who had written an article in The New Yorker about Shahzad’s death titled “The Journalist and the Spies”, stood by the revelations he had made in his article.

In his piece, Filkins not only connected the dots between Shehzad’s death and militant commander Ilyas Kashmiri’s killing in a drone attack, but also spoke of senior American officials, who alleged that the orders to kill Shahzad came directly from the top army brass.

When asked to comment on the commission’s report, Dexter said in an email: “I’m going to let my article speak for itself.”

ISI’s Brigadier Zahid Mehmood Khan, in his written testimony to the commission mentioned in the report, had lambasted Filkins for his piece.

Published in The Express Tribune with the International Herald Tribune, January 14th, 2012.

Remembering Saleem Shahzad – Tribute to a slain colleague


It was Saleem Shahzad’s dedication to investigative reporting and his fascination for the crime-beat that foremost stands out in my memory. Come evening and the slender young man, then working for the affiliate Star newspaper, would enter the Dawn reporters room to compare notes with the crime reporter. His style was single-minded and purposeful – rechecking facts to supplement hours of news gathering for the next day’s paper.

Some 20 years later I saw him again on television. To my shock and horror, his face was mutilated and eyes punched in. It was a stark message, made even more brutal because of its bold display by the electronic media. Investigative journalists who dared report on the murky links of militant outfits in Pakistan, would meet the same fate. The intrepid journalist was not unaware of the dangers. Human rights groups told that for the two days he went missing last May, he had informed them of threats received from the state agencies.

It was a time of flared tempers in Pakistan. On May 1, US Navy Seals had secretly descended in Abbotabad to pick up Al Qaeda’s number one, Osama Bin Laden – found living near a military academy. Unruffled by the international embarrassment caused to Pakistan by that incident, Saleem went on to report on the attack carried out on Mehran Naval base in Karachi – naming ex naval officials for their alleged links to the militants.

His professional development had taken him from being a crime reporter to an international expert on proliferating militant outfits in the region. He had inside information on how Uzbek war lord Tahir Yuldeshev had grown influential within Pakistan – acting on behalf of Al Qaeda to cement the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. It was material that Saleem gathered for his book `Inside Al Qaeda and the Taliban,’ – which would provide encyclopedic knowledge on the post 9/11 scenario in the region.

Being an insider, Saleem hobnobbed with militants in a manner that invited real dangers. In 2006, he was kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan and almost killed on charges of being a spy. When he returned and told me why he had been incommunicado, I called out to him to be careful. He laughed and said, “nothing will happen.”

Saleem’s murder would have a palpable effect on colleagues. As news came in that his tortured body had washed up on the banks of Mandi Bahauddin (some 80 miles from Islamabad) my colleagues told me in hushed tones about an incident that had clearly hurt close to home.

Then, Pakistan’s vibrant media went into action, mobilizing a Tsunami of support to demand that Saleem’s killers be exposed. They held a sit-down strike in Islamabad – dispersing only until the government promised to set up a commission to get to the bottom of who kiled Saleem Shahzad

Eight months later the commission, led by a Supreme Court judge has delivered its verdict. But, despite 41 witnesses, hundreds of e-mail and phone messages, the 146 page report says it was unable to identify the perpetrators of the crime. Instead, it has called on the Islamabad and Punjab police to continue searching for those responsible.

While the similarities between slain US journalist Daniel Pearl and Saleem Shahzad are unmistakable, the differences have grown even more stark. While Pearl’s killers were exposed and some brought to trial, in Saleem’s case no one has even been identified – let alone punished.

Indeed, no sooner had the commission failed to pinpoint to the accused, when a reporter working for US media – Mukarram Khan Atif – was shot and killed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It gave ammunition to journalist bodies to criticize the commission for its failure to name names in Saleem’s murder.

Bottom line. The commission’s recommendation that there should be “greater oversight of secret service agencies,” is as current as the clash between military and civilian institutions being played out today… and as age-old as the problems that have plagued Pakistan from its inception.

US Senior Officials Confirm, Taliban Deny Secret Talks

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates (Photo Credit:

“In my opinion, any future Defense Secretary who advises the President to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.”– US Defense Secretary Robert Gates (US Military Academy, West Point, New York, Feb. 25, 2011).

Reuters, Dec 19: After 10 months of secret dialogue with Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgents, senior US officials say the talks have reached a critical juncture and they will soon know whether a breakthrough is possible, leading to peace talks whose ultimate goal is to end the Afghan war.

As part of the accelerating, high-stakes diplomacy, Reuters has learned, the United States is considering the transfer of an unspecified number of Taliban prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay military prison into Afghan government custody.

It has asked representatives of the Taliban to match that confidence-building measure with some of their own. Those could include a denunciation of international terrorism and a public willingness to enter formal political talks with the government headed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The officials acknowledged that the Afghanistan diplomacy, which has reached a delicate stage in recent weeks, remains a long shot. Among the complications: US troops are drawing down and will be mostly gone by the end of 2014, potentially reducing the incentive for the Taliban to negotiate.

Still, the senior officials, all of whom insisted on anonymity to share new details of the mostly secret effort, suggested it has been a much larger piece of President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan policy than is publicly known.

US officials have held about half a dozen meetings with their insurgent contacts, mostly in Germany and Doha with representatives of Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban’s Quetta Shura, the officials said.

The stakes in the diplomatic effort could not be higher. Failure would likely condemn Afghanistan to continued conflict, perhaps even civil war, after Nato troops finish turning security over to Karzai’s weak government by the end of 2014.

Success would mean a political end to the war and the possibility that parts of the Taliban — some hardliners seem likely to reject the talks — could be reconciled.

The effort is now at a pivotal point.

“We imagine that we’re on the edge of passing into the next phase. Which is actually deciding that we’ve got a viable channel and being in a position to deliver” on mutual confidence-building measures, said a senior US official.

While some US-Taliban contacts have been previously reported, the extent of the underlying diplomacy and the possible prisoner transfer have not been made public until now.

The reconciliation effort, which has already faced setbacks including a supposed Taliban envoy who turned out to be an imposter, faces hurdles on multiple fronts, the US officials acknowledged.

They include splits within the Taliban; suspicion from Karzai and his advisers; and Pakistan’s insistence on playing a major, even dominating, role in Afghanistan’s future.

Obama will likely face criticism, including from Republican presidential candidates, for dealing with an insurgent group that has killed US soldiers and advocates a strict Islamic form of government.

But US officials say that the Afghan war, like others before it, will ultimately end in a negotiated settlement.

“The challenges are enormous,” a second senior US official acknowledged. “But if you’re where we are…you can’t not try. You have to find out what’s out there.”

Next steps?

If the effort advances, one of the next steps would be more public, unequivocal US support for establishing a Taliban office outside of Afghanistan.

US officials said they have told the Taliban they must not use that office for fundraising, propaganda or constructing a shadow government, but only to facilitate future negotiations that could eventually set the stage for the Taliban to re-enter Afghan governance.

On Sunday, a senior member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council said the Taliban had indicated it was willing to open an office in an Islamic country.

But underscoring the fragile nature of the multi-sided diplomacy, Karzai on Wednesday announced he was recalling Afghanistan’s ambassador to Qatar, after reports that nation was readying the opening of the Taliban office. Afghan officials complained they were left out of the loop.

On a possible transfer of Taliban prisoners long held at Guantanamo, US officials stressed the move would be a ‘national decision’ made in consultation with the US Congress. Obama is expected to soon sign into law the 2011 defence authorisation bill that contains new provisions on detainee policy.

There are slightly fewer that 20 Afghan citizens at Guantanamo, according to various accountings. It is not known which ones might be transferred, nor what assurances the White House has that the Karzai government would keep them in its custody.

Guantanamo detainees have been released to foreign governments — and sometimes set free by them — before. But the transfer as part of a diplomatic negotiation appears unprecedented.

Ten years after the repressive Taliban government was toppled by its Afghan opponents and their Western backers, a hoped-for political settlement has become a centrepiece of the US strategy to end a war that has killed nearly 3,000 foreign troops and cost the Pentagon alone $330 billion.

While Obama’s decision to deploy an extra 30,000 troops in 2009-10 helped push the Taliban out of much of its southern heartland, the war is far from over. Militants are said to remain able to slip in and out of parts of Pakistan, where the Taliban’s senior leadership is allegedly located.

Bold attacks from the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network have undermined the narrative of improving security and raised questions about how well an inexperienced Afghan military will be able to cope when foreign troops go home.

In that uncertain context, officials say that initial contacts with insurgent representatives since US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly embraced a diplomatic strategy in a February 18, 2011 speech have centred on establishing whether the Taliban was open to reconciliation, despite its pledge to continue its ‘sacred jihad’ against Nato and US soldiers.

“The question has been to the Taliban, ‘You have got a choice to make. Life’s moving on,” the second US official said. “There’s a substantial military campaign out there that will continue to do you substantial damage…are you prepared to go forward with some kind of reconciliation process?”

US officials have met with Tayeb Agha, who was a secretary to Mullah Omar, and they have held one meeting arranged by Pakistan with Ibrahim Haqqani, a brother of the Haqqani network’s founder. They have not shut the door to further meetings with the Haqqani group, which is blamed for a brazen attack this fall on the US embassy in Kabul and which senior US officials link closely to Pakistan’s intelligence agency.

US officials say they have kept Karzai informed of the process and have met with him before and after each encounter, but they declined to confirm whether representatives of his government are present at those meetings.

Evolving Taliban position?

Officials now see themselves on the verge of reaching a second phase in the reconciliation process that, if successful, would clinch the confidence-building measures and allow them to move to a third stage in which the Afghan government and the Taliban would sit down together in talks facilitated by the United States.

“That’s why it’s especially delicate — because if we don’t deliver the second phase, we don’t get to the pay-dirt,” the first senior US official said.

Senior administration officials say that confidence-building measures must be implemented, not merely agreed to, before full-fledged political talks can begin. The sequence of such measures has not been determined, and they will ultimately be announced by Afghans, they say.

Underlying the intensive efforts of US negotiators are fundamental questions about whether — and why — the Taliban would want to strike a peace deal with the Western-backed Karzai government.

US officials stress that the ‘end conditions’ they want the Taliban to embrace — renouncing violence, breaking with al Qaeda, and respecting the Afghan constitution — are not preconditions to starting talks.

Encouraging trends on the Afghan battlefield — declining militant attacks, a thinning of the Taliban’s mid-level leadership, the emergence of insurgent-on-insurgent violence — is one reason why US officials believe the Taliban may be more likely to engage in substantive talks than in the past.

They also cite what they see as an overlooked, subtle shift in the Taliban’s position on reconciliation over the past year, based in part by statements from Mullah Omar marking Muslim holidays this year.

In July, the Taliban reiterated its long-standing position of rejecting any peace talks as long as foreign troops remain in Afghanistan. In October, a senior Haqqani commander said the United States was insincere about peace in Afghanistan.

But US officials say the Taliban no longer want to be the global pariah it was in the 1990s. Some elements have suggested flexibility on issues of priority for the West, such as protecting rights for women and girls.

“That’s one of the reasons why we think this is serious,” a third senior US official said.

Risky strategy

Yet as the process moves ahead, the idea of seeking a peace deal with an extremist movement is fraught with challenge.

At least one purported insurgent representative has turned out to be a fraud, highlighting the difficulty of vetting potential brokers in the shadowy world of the militants.

And the initiative was dealt a major blow in September when former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who headed peace efforts for Karzai, was assassinated in an attack Afghanistan said originated in neighbouring Pakistan.

Since then, Karzai has been more ambivalent about talks. He ruled out an early resumption in negotiations and said Afghanistan would talk only to Pakistan ‘until we have an address for the Taliban.’

The dust-up over the unofficial Taliban office in Qatar, with a spokesman for Karzai stressing that Afghanistan must lead peace negotiations to end the war, suggests tensions in the US and Afghan approaches to the peace process.

Speaking in an interview with CNN aired on Sunday, Karzai counselled caution in making sure that Taliban interlocutors are authentic — and authentically seeking peace. The Rabbani killing, he said, was a demonstration of such difficulties and “brought us in a shock to the recognition that we were actually talking to nobody.”

Critics of Obama’s peace initiative are deeply skeptical of the Taliban’s willingness to negotiate given that the West’s intent to pull out most troops after 2014 would give insurgents a chance to reclaim lost territory or nudge the weak Kabul government toward collapse.

While the United States is expected to keep a modest military presence in Afghanistan beyond then, all of Obama’s ‘surge’ troops will be home by next fall and the administration — looking to refocus on domestic priorities — is already exploring further reductions.

Another reason to be circumspect is the potential spoiler role of Pakistan, which has so far resisted US pressure to crack down on militants fuelling violence in Afghanistan and to cooperate more closely with the US military and diplomatic campaign there.

Such considerations make reconciliation a divisive initiative even within the Obama administration. Few officials describe themselves as optimists about the peace initiative; at the State Department, which is formally leading the talks, senior officials see the odds of brokering a successful agreement at only around 30 per cent.

“There’s a very real likelihood that these guys aren’t serious…which is why are continuing to prosecute all of the lines of effort here,” the third senior US official said.

While Nato commanders promise they will keep up pressure on militants as the troop force shrinks, they are facing a tenacious insurgency in eastern Afghanistan that may prove even more challenging than the south.

Still, with Obama committed to withdrawing from Afghanistan, as the United States did last week from Iraq, the administration has few alternatives but to pursue what may well prove to be a quixotic quest for a deal.

“Wars end, and the ends of wars have political consequences,” the second official said. “You can either try to shape those, or someone does it to you.”

Wilson Center Recommends Sweeping Changes in Troubled Pakistan Aid Program

WASHINGTON: The Wilson Center today released a major new report on the controversial U.S. civilian assistance program to Pakistan, known as Kerry-Lugar-Berman (KLB). The report warns that substantial mid-course changes are necessary if KLB is to fulfill its goals for both the United States and Pakistan, and provides nearly 30 recommendations for guiding KLB forward.

“We have to get Pakistan right,” said Jane Harman, president and CEO of the Wilson Center. “This report represents an important step in that direction.”

Aiding Without Abetting: Making U.S. Civilian Assistance to Pakistan Work for Both Sides concludes that a robust program of U.S. civilian assistance to Pakistan serves important American interests. It urges Congress not to confuse security aid to the Pakistani military with economic assistance designed to shore up civilian government, address food, health, and energy shortfalls in Pakistan, and lay the groundwork for a successful Pakistan and a long-term U.S.-Pakistani partnership.

“Writing Pakistan out of the American foreign policy script is simply not an option,” President Harman said. “We should not penalize Pakistan’s civilian sector because of our serious differences with its military and should live up to our pledge to provide Pakistan with economic assistance through 2014. ”

“U.S. assistance is not a Pakistani entitlement, however. American aid should augment, not replace, Pakistani funding. We must reenergize and reform the manner in which we deliver civilian aid to Pakistan, with each U.S. aid project including a roadmap and timetable for becoming self-sustaining.”

For more information or for copies of this report, call (202) 691-4020, or email Click here to read the full report online, in pdf format.

Clash Between NATO and Pakistani Troops Defused

KABUL, Afghanistan, Nov. 30 — A cross-border incident involving NATO and Pakistani forces was quickly defused early on Wednesday with no loss of life, according to Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, the spokesman for the American-led international coalition here.

Few details of the incident were immediately available but it apparently involved heavy artillery fire across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in Afghanistan’s Paktika province.

The firing broke out at a time of Pakistani anger over the killing of 24 of its soldiers in a United States air strike on Saturday. Pakistan closed its border to NATO supply convoys and pulled out of an international conference on Afghanistan next week in Bonn in protest at the killings.

Separately, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed regret at Pakistan’s decision to stay away from the Bonn conference.

“Frankly, it is regrettable that Pakistan has decided not to attend the conference in Bonn, because this conference has been long in the planning,” Mrs. Clinton said in Busan, South Korea before flying to Myanmar on Wednesday.

“Pakistan, like the United States, has a profound interest in a secure, stable, increasingly democratic Afghanistan. Our gathering in Bonn this coming Monday is intended to further that goal.”

In the latest border incident, General Jacobson said it was reassuring that normal channels of cooperation and communication had been opened to resolve the issue.

“We haven’t got the details yet but the most important thing is the normal methods of cooperation worked and there were no casualties, no damage despite heavy firing,” he said.

Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting from Nay Pyi Daw, Myanmar.

Fight Hard, Talk Hard

Paramilitary Troops Patrol Bajaur in Pakistan's tribal belt - Photo Courtesy: Dawn

It is an axiom that Americans work hard and play hard.

What is less known, and at times baffling, are US moves that entail crushing the enemy on the battle field while engaging with its high profile leaders in private.

This fight hard, talk hard strategy – designed to do whatever it takes to succeed, is the hall-mark of a nation moving forward with super power strides. In this scenario, the US finger points to Pakistan’s spy agencies ties with the Haqqani network, even while enlisting its help to negotiate with the Taliban militants.

The Obama war strategy has come full circle as the battle for Kabul enters a decisive stage. With the withdrawal of US surge troops from Afghanistan set in near stone for 2012 – the region has gone into a wait for the Americans to leave type of mode.

With winter fast approaching the fighting season for conventional NATO warfare has shrunk, even while the Taliban keep up their suicide attacks. In examples of guerrilla warfare, they are able to put down a rifle and pick up a plow… to return to fight another day.

Amid this seemingly unending war, the US is zeroing in on Pakistan to dissuade it from supporting Taliban militants who allegedly use the neighboring federally administered tribal areas to attack NATO troops in Afghanistan and return to their safe havens.

The murder of Afghan peace council chief, Burhanuddin Rabbani in September – for which Afghanistan blamed Pakistan – has shifted the strategy all round from talk hard to fight hard.

In her recent visit to Pakistan, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton let out the frustration that America has been feeling in its inability to rein in Pakistan:
“You can’t keep snakes in your back yard and expect it to only bite neighbors.”

The reference was to Pakistan’s policy of strategic depth, where the US claims that Pakistan backs Taliban militants like the Haqqani network in order to guarantee a friendly Afghanistan vis-à-vis its arch rival, India.

Clinton also played to the naiveté displayed by a member of the audience which met her on the occasion. The woman told the visiting Secretary of State that the US was like a “mother-in-law” that was never satisfied with what her “daughter in law” i.e. Pakistan did.

Laughter is of course the best remedy for tensions, even diplomatic ones – though it has little to do with the underlying causes.

Indeed, there have been major setbacks to US forces lately – topped last week by the deaths of 13 Americans hit by a suicide bomb attack in Kabul. These have occurred as NATO intensifies its assault on Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan that border Pakistan.

Bolstered by the US, the Karzai government has recently done a diplomatic dance with “brotherly Pakistan” – that involves signing a defense deal with India while assuring Pakistan of continuing neighborliness.

The Nov. 2 Istanbul conference on Afghanistan brought President Karzai to appeal to all nations to rein in militants, without singling any one of them.

Pakistan has still not recovered from the shock waves it suffered in May, when the US picked up Osama Bin Laden from under its nose in Abbotabad. Since then, the state has loosened the pressure valve on anti-Americanism. That has enabled politicians to hold rallies of the type held by Islamic parties under former president Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf.

At the same time, Pakistan sanctions US drone attacks in its tribal areas. In recent weeks, the US has intensified and diversified drone attacks here – from North Waziristan to chasing Haqqani fighters in the south of this belt.

For now, it is the interplay of military intelligence and diplomacy that swirls around the longest and most complex war of our times.

Tenth Anniversary of US Invasion of Afghanistan

As the US marks the tenth anniversary of its invasion of Afghanistan, pro Taliban terror networks – driven out of Kabul in October 2001 – have reinvented themselves inside Pakistan.

They are enabled by an inept foreign policy and absence of governance that allows the most brutal ideologues to consolidate themselves within failing states.

The militants have found the most fertile ground in Balochistan, where the PPP government – operating on a single principle of obeying the most powerful – teeters between toeing a foreign policy that breeds international isolationism, even as it has become a punching bag for political parties vying to return to power.

For the Hazara Shias in Balochistan – protesting against the failure of the provincial government for failing to protect them – the bigger news is the PPP government in Balochistan is unable to protect itself from terrorism.

This week, Pakistan’s chief opposition party, Pakistan Muslim League (N) spearheaded a rally of political groups outside the parliament in Islamabad to protest issues like the absence of governance that has led to the massacres of Shia Hazaras, and “load-shedding” – a euphemism for massive power outages – that people suffer on account of mismanagement and corruption.

It was an event that brought “strange bed-fellows,” like Nawaz Sharif to ally with the Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman – the ideologue cum politician who allied with Sharif’s nemesis, Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf.

But these are shifting alliances that have the March Senate elections in mind, and will be likely disbanded thereafter.

Similarly, the politics that have brought the ethnic MQM back into accepting ministerial positions with the PPP is an alliance built in sand. Indeed, the calm in Karachi can quickly turn into a storm, once criminal elements patronized by every political party returns to action.

Ten years on, the politicking goes on at the expense of real developmental progress …a situation that has grown worse as target assassinations grow from the fall out in Afghanistan.

Balochistan new hub of sectarian killings

October 06-11: “They ordered the passengers off the bus,” said Hassan, a 16-year-old construction worker who survived the September 19 sectarian attack on Hazaras, a minority Shia group in Pakistan’s southwest Balouchistan province. Carrying around forty passengers, mostly pilgrims going to Iran, the bus was stopped in the Mastung area, just an hour drive outside the provincial capital Quetta, and only half a kilometre from a Paksitani police checkpost.

“Everybody got off, but I hid under one of the seats. The gunmen did not come up to check the bus. They just ordered everyone off.”

The Hazaras were separated from the four or five Balouch passengers, who stood watching. They were lined up for an execution-style massacre.

“After that, I heard no words. They said nothing to them and just opened fire.” The gunmen sped away in two pick up trucks. When Hassan came out of hiding and stepped out of the bus, he saw bodies and blood. Twenty six were killed and six injured, according to media reports. But Hasan remembers only seeing three injured, among them 19-year-old Mohamed Ayaz, a carpet weaver from a family with nine siblings. On his first pilgrimage to Iran, Ayaz was shot in the leg, but what saved him was two other bodies that collapsed on top of him absorbing the subsequent bullets.

“It is on my mind every day,” Ayaz told Al Jazeera, “because even within Quetta city, they can kill.” The recent spate of violence targeting the minority Hazaras, Shia by sect, has left the community of about 500,000 people fearing for their safety. According to local leaders, at least 90 Hazaras have been gunned down in and around Quetta since July 30. In the most recent incidents, on October 4, at least thirteen people were killed when gunmen stormed a bus and opened fire indiscriminately.

Lashkar-e-Jangvi, an extremist group with links to al-Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for the October 4 assault as well as several other targeted attacks on Shias – particularly Hazara Shias – in Balochistan. ”We hundred per cent believe that it is Lashkar e Jangvi (LEJ) because they always take responsibility,” says Ahmed Kohzad, General Secretary of Hazara Democratic Party.

Formed during the military regime of General Zia ul haq, LEJ was banned after the government of Parviz Musharraf annouced that Pakistan was joining the US alliance in the “war against terror”. But it has continued to operate in many parts of Pakistan, particularly in Punjab, and has been linked to the attack on Islamabad’s Marriot hotel in 2008, as well as the assault on visiting Sir Lankan cricket team in 2009. Also in 2009, LEJ members reportedly played a role in the siege on the army headquarters in Islamabad.

Imprisoned since 1997 for over 50 cases ranging from murder to terrorism, LEJ’s leader, Malik Ishaq, was freed on July 15 from jail for a lack of evidence. In his speaking tours since his release, he has continued to incite violence against Shias, as on September 19, he was welcomed into Alipur by a “party of 800 men on motorcycles chanting anti-Shia slogans,” the Pakistani paperThe Tribune reported. Reacting to his release, the Imamia Students Association, a shia group, warned that his release would mean more violence against Shias.

“The planned release of terror kingpin Malik Ishaq who is also the co-founder of banned organisation Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, with the blessing of Punjab government’s weak prosecution and the court’s blind decision is likely to fuel the ruthless killings of Shias across the country,” they said. Reza Nasim Jan, Pakistan team lead at the American Enterprise Institute, says although there is no direct evidence tying Ishaq to the rapid increase in violence, his anti-Shia rhetoric, on display during speaking tours and rallies focused in Sindh and Punjab, has not changed since his release.

“While there is no smoking gun linking Ishaq’s release with the spike in violence in Balochistan, based on the reporting of rallies and Ishaq’s speaking tour, his rhetoric remains pretty virulently anti-Shia,” he said. ”Ishaq and another Lashkar-e-Jhangvi leader, Ghulam Rasool Shah, were arrested after the Mustang attack, indicating that the police, at least, were drawing connections between Ishaq’s activities and the rise in killings.” ”When you release a man accused of 70 murders, a man whose followers actively attack the state, it sends a message that you are not willing to take these guys on. And it will likely encourage further such activity,” said Jan.

Failing to provide security
“People live in strange environment of fear,” said a 26-year-old doctor who cannot be named for his own safety. A recent graduate, the doctor had worked in one of Quetta’s largest hospitals for the past year, but was forced to quit for safety reasons. ”My mother and sister would cry every day as I left for work, afraid that I might not return.”

After protests against government inaction on October 4, Pakistan’s police announced that they have launched a crackdown and rounded up nearly 100 people in a raid for the latest attack. The provincial government has also formed an investigation committeethat is expected to submit a report within 15 days. Additionally, the government has promised increased security measures and police presence, but locals say such measures could not assure their safety. ”There are only about 1,100 policemen across Quetta for all purposes including regular policing, providing security for VIPs and other things,” Jan says. “Given how stretched authorities are, and with an active separatist insurgency in Balochistan among other issues, I doubt providing security for Hazaras is a top priority for the law enforcement.”Despite repeated attempts, Al Jazeera could not reach a spokesman in the provincial government for comment.

‘Erosion of respect for rights’
A persecuted ethnic minority in Afghanistan, the Hazaras first migrated to current-day Pakistan in 1890′s, fleeing the wrath of Abdul Rahman Khan, the Emir of Afghanistan. They took up residence around Quetta, then a British Garrison town. ”We struggled for Pakistan’s independence, we fought wars for this country,” says Ahmed Kohzad, General Secretary of the Hazara Democratic Party.

In 1965, when Pakistan went to war with India over Kashmir, Hazara commanders were given titles for their bravery. At least two commanders, he said, were given the title of “Lion of Kashmir.” ”But since 1999, at least 550 members of our community have been killed,” he said
Hazaras mostly live in two neighbourhoods of Quetta, Mari Abad, near an army base in the eastern part of the city, and Hazara Town, in the west. Since July, the doctor said, the residents have minimised going back and forth between the two neighbourhoods. ”People are scared to even go to the other town for funerals,” he said. “And when they go out, they make sure it’s not a Hazara bus they travel in. They recite their prayers, not knowing whether they will make it.”

According to Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director, the Pakistani government has failed to address the collapse of law and order in Balochistan. Kill-and-dump operations have gone unanswered by authorities. ”The Pakistani government has clearly not taken enough steps as the attacks are increasing,” Zarifi told Al Jazeera. ”It’s very worrying that groups like Lashkar-e-Jangvi explicitly say they want to target minorities, and the government is yet to take concrete action against them. Some of their members have been detained, but without a proper trial to ensure justice.”

In July 2008, two members of Lashkar-e-Jangvi, one of them on death row, escaped from a high-security prison in Quetta. Usman Saifullah and Shafiq ur Rehman were convicted for, among other things, the raid on Shia mosque in Quetta in 2003 that killed 53 people. ”In the past ten years, we have seen a general erosion of the respect for the rights of minorities,” says Amnesty’s Zarifi. “The Human rights community in Pakistan has been crying out against this phenomenon for years: that by not doing anything in the face of those who call for violence against minorities, by not doing enough to show that Pakistani society has a history of inclusivity, it gives signals to the culture at large that this violence is ok. ”When the government does nothing against the people who call for violence on things very trivial, it clearly sends a wrong message about the value of human life.”

Hazaras have launched country wide protests, hoping the government will take more take steps to ensure their safety. Their notice has been heard at the Balochistan high court, and they hope to take their appeal to the country’s supreme court in Islamabad. ”We want the government to go after Lashkar e Jangvi,” says Kohzad. ” It’s a network of possibly 20 to 30 men, and they have wreaked fear in this city. They only thing that can bring us security is a targeted operation against them.”

Human Rights body Condemns Mastung Massacre

September 21: The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has slammed the killing of at least 29 Shia pilgrims in Tuesday’s attack on their bus near Mastung, calling the absence of security for them outrageous and adding that the killers had been emboldened by a persistent lack of action against sectarian militant groups.

A statement by the Commission said on Wednesday: “HRCP is appalled by the gruesome killing of Shia pilgrims near Mastung and finds the utter lack of protection for them outrageous, particularly when pilgrims travelling in the area had been attacked previously and were known to be at risk. HRCP is equally shocked by the official line that the authorities were not given prior intimation about the pilgrims’ bus. How convenient that instead of finding those who failed to perform their duty, the victims have been blamed. This just adds insult to injury. What good are the checkpoints set up everywhere if they cannot even find out if a vehicle using the road needs additional security?

Tuesday’s attack is a failure on many levels and exposes once again the diminishing writ of the state. HRCP believes that continued sectarian bloodshed across the country, particularly in Balochistan, is a direct consequence of the authorities’ perpetual failure to take note of sectarian killings in Quetta which have been going on for many years. It is difficult to comprehend why no action has been taken against the banned militant group that has claimed responsibility for this ghastly attack and for numerous sectarian killings earlier. How do they still manage to roam free with their weapons and vehicles?

The official condemnations that have followed the attack give little comfort to the bereaved families and no one buys the oft-repeated vows of action which never materialise. There is a complete breakdown of writ of the state with the citizens finding themselves increasingly on their own. We fear that the utter lack of competence and inability to adequately respond to the security situation is bound to contribute to further bloodshed. The government must move beyond rhetoric and its current casual and reactive approach to law and order challenges and start functioning as a responsible authority.”

Zohra Yusuf

Proxy Wars Fan Sectarian Massacre in Balochistan

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.