Moving on

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Quetta’s blast at the Civil Hospital this week took down over 60 lawyers of Balochistan who had gathered at the hospital to mourn the death of bar president Bilal Anwar Kasi who had been gunned down.

It was a well planned attack, conceived at some length, almost in the same league as the APS attack and the Charsadda and Lahore attacks. In each case the TTP’s Jamaat-al-Ahrar claimed responsibility.

The attack was aimed at maiming Balochistan’s legal system and inhibiting the delivery of justice and the legal process. In a province where the educated are few and far between, the massacre took out a significant part of the intellectual capital of Balochistan. Earlier, academics, intellectuals and mediapersons had been on the target list to significantly diminish Balochistan’s brain trust.

This is like hacking the head off, figuratively, to abuse the remaining parts of the body to insidious ends. And there isn’t one as insidious as manipulating and exploiting the sense of deprivation in an alienated province that has lagged behind in social and economic progress over the decades.

Balochistan has always been Pakistan’s soft underbelly. It now has assumed even greater criticality in Pakistan’s security paradigm. The CPEC is meant to begin at Gwadar in the province and weave its way up-country into China. Clearly an investment as large as $46 billion by China is too huge to be risked at the altar of an uncertain investment climate. China may ride through such challenges since the institution of the CPEC initiative is fundamental to its own security interests in but such attacks can only begin to instil doubts about this project’s success. It is possible that this was an intended consequence of the Quetta attack.

While Baloch nationalism has remained subdued in recent times and is only a part of the strife in the province, any newer instability can kick in the redux to latent sensibilities. A consistent wave of attacks in Balochistan, especially of the nature of this week’s blast, attains even greater importance thus. A more stringent and visible security presence as a consequence of the attack could well be meant to trigger a reaction from the nationalists and rejuvenate what has remained quiet for a reasonable length of time. If that materialises, those who may be at the back of this terror may gain even more focal objective.

Balochistan’s population lends itself to physical spaces where the writ of the state can only be sporadic. This gives reasonable opportunity to the mischievous to use the space for their ends. It is only recently that an Indian spy, Kulbhushan Yadav, was captured in Balochistan. The Afghan Taliban’s Quetta Shura has long been propounded to exist in or around Quetta, though they may have relocated along the Afghan border stretch with the launch of the Operation Zarb-e-Azb.

A significant part of the Afghan border enclosing its south-eastern cities, especially Kandahar, runs contiguous to Balochistan – enabling easy porosity to those who may be based in Afghanistan but carry out their terror activities in the province. It has been loudly proclaimed for quite some time now that both India’s RAW and Afghanistan’s NDS play their proxy games of terror using outfits now mostly located in Afghanistan. Despite the physical relocation of most of the terror groups out of Pakistan there are still sleeper cells and existing structures that are called into action for either direct attacks or in support of elements that infiltrate from Afghanistan. Many of Pakistan’s own indigenous groups like the LeJ, hounded out of Punjab, have found residence in and amongst the terror nexus in Balochistan. Lulled by the relative quiet, Pakistan’s security agencies have been concomitantly neglectful of this conglomeration of terror groups and their sympathisers in Balochistan.

Balochistan is also a sensitive province because of its sectarian mix. Any targeting of the Shias by the largely Salafi-oriented groups also irks Iran’s sensibilities. This was given eminence in a recent proclamation from the prime minister that ‘all groups and all minorities will be given protection’. That this emerged from a meeting meant to debrief a recent visit by the NSA to Iran was easy to link to Iran’s concerns.

If most of Pakistan’s neighbours tend to invoke Pakistan’s influence to secure their interests in the region – and these are especially dastardly matters of life and death – such perception should remain of absolute concern for Pakistan. Its image continues to be sullied.

If what happens in Pakistan or Afghanistan must be laid at the doors of Pakistan – add to it India’s globally effective voice in lynching Pakistan for its own ulterior motives – you have a three-pronged pincer of straitjacketing Pakistan into a framed bogey in the region. Clearly this needs prudent disaggregation. Otherwise, responding to these provocations can also be a reflex resort. Were we to reciprocate to any of these provocations we would be walking straight into the trap.

Any response in Afghanistan will only mean that this cycle of proxy destruction will continue. Afghanistan is already rubble; we should avoid becoming one. Similarly, India too awaits a knee-jerk reflex with an expectant glee. This will give it cause to reinforce its verbal onslaught with a manifest action on ground easily labelling Pakistan to be behind all troubles including Kashmir.

An indigenous struggle for freedom will then be hijacked and labelled for being Pakistan sponsored. Pakistan must thus stay away from Kashmir in all its manifestations and not touch it by a barge pole, except in political, diplomatic and moral terms.

What is good is Pakistan’s belated but renewed interest in healing with Iran. It may have been defensively oriented as a reaction to how regional politics was shaping, but will need aggressive diplomacy to bring Iran in, along with China, to develop a parallel regional consensus to deal with terror-based destruction replacing it instead with trade-based progress. We need more frequent visits into Iran by all who matter.

The Quetta blast was meant to assault Pakistan along many facets, inciting ill-thought, reflexive responses meant to further suck Pakistan into a debilitating cesspool. Mere mountain dwellers may not accrue such deep returns save their immediate interests.

That is why the game is long and deep. Every step must be fully investigated for implications before undertaking it. In the meanwhile, Pakistan must go all out against all shades and hues of terror to cleanse itself off the defacing image.