What's Happening in Pakistan's 'Most Complicated' Region?

Last week a suicide bomb killed 70 people in Balochistan, the scene of decades of unrest involving separatist rebels, the military, and jihadi groups.

A Pakistani security official stands near a burning vehicle after it was attacked in the Balochistan region.

A suicide bomber in Pakistan killed 70 people last week, many of them lawyers, who had come to a hospital to mourn the death of a colleague. ISIS and a local Taliban faction both claimed credit for the attack in Quetta, the capital of  Balochistan province, the scene of a longtime separatist rebellion.

The roots of conflict in the province date back to 1947, when British India gave way to two countries, Pakistan and India. For decades the separatist movements have been crushed by the Pakistani military, which blames India for fomenting the unrest. In one five-year period in the 1970s, more than 8,000 people were killed in a fight to separate from Pakistan . Today, bodies turn up on the side of roads, mysterious mass graves are uncovered, security forces kill Baloch leaders, and human-rights groups say nearly 10,000 people have vanished in the past decade.

There is little journalism in the area, because, as one Pakistani paper put it, not being dead is itself a victory for reporters. Balochistan’s lawyers filled this void, campaigning for human rights amid the fight between the military and separatist rebels. This is why the loss of so many attorneys this week is so devastating. Barkhurdar Khan, a local lawyer in Quetta, said nearly every colleague who had mentored him, or even anyone who had given him a lift home after work, was now dead. The bombing killed an entire generation of legal minds.

To understand the gravity of such loss, and what it means for the region, I spoke with Hussain Haqqani, a former ambassador of Pakistan to the United States, and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. What follows is some of our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.

J. Weston Phippen: Can you tell me a little about the history of violence with militant extremists, the military, and the separatists in the region?

Hussain Haqqani: The Baloch have been mounting an insurgency against the Pakistani state for several decades. It has always been a low-level insurgency, and Pakistan has occasionally accused Afghanistan and India of supporting the Baloch, although it has not been able to prove that allegation.

Balochistan was also the staging ground for the war against the Soviets during the 1980s. But it became even more important during the rise of the Taliban, and for many years the U.S. government and the international community have accused Pakistan of providing safe haven to the Taliban in Bolochistan. There have been suggestions that the Pakistani intelligence service uses the area—especially in Quetta—for activities it wants hidden form the view of the international community.

Phippen: How would you explain the political situation today?

Haqqani: Significant parts of Balochistan  are not necessarily controlled by Pakistan’s central government. The ethnic Baloch areas have a greater sympathy for nationalists who would like to see either an independent or autonomous Balochistan. The army tries to suppress them, sometimes with the help of religious extremists.
Also, the elected government in the province did not get significant mandates because the Baloch parties boycotted the last election and many people were elected with the low turnout of 10, 12, in some places 15 percent. So these political leaders are seen by the majority of Baloch as the puppets of Islamabad. 
Phippen: Why do they want to separate from Pakistan?
Haqqani: This goes back to the country’s creation, when the Muslim majority part of India left and became Pakistan. Some Baloch leaders say Balochistan’s integration into Pakistan was done forcefully. But more important than that is the neglect. This is a resource-rich province, and instead of the people benefitting from those resources, they end up in other parts of Pakistan.
Phippen: Lawyers have played an important role in criticizing the corruption in the area, which there is a lot of. … Can you tell me how lawyers play a role in seeking justice?
Haqqani: Yes, lawyers have spoken out against corruption, but more importantly, they have criticized the Pakistani army and its conduct. In Balochistan, you must remember, the Pakistani army has been accused of killing and dumping the bodies of Baloch nationalists. It has been accused of having hundreds of people abducted without trial. With all those allegations around, the role of those lawyers becomes important because they are the voice against such excess.
Phippen: So how do terrorists factor into this?
Haqqani: The jihadi groups in the border are competing for recruitment. Most of them are local groups, and each one is trying to prove they are stronger in their advocacy of Islamic rule than the other. Some have engaged in attacks in Quetta as a means of trying to build credibility as the principal insurgent group, and I think the attacks on lawyers are part of this trajectory. … The lawyers represent a more secular, modern outlook. That does not sit well with the jihadi’s Sharia-based approach to law.

Phippen: What does this loss mean in terms of legal knowledge and skill?

Haqqani: Balochistan is sparsely populated, and the ethnic Baloch are a relatively small minority. They are no more than 5 million in a country of 200 million. They have a very small number of lawyers, so any loss is big in terms of not being able to represent the people of this ethnic group.
So for example, say there are a small number of black lawyers in a southern town in the U.S. and all of them are eliminated. The black community no longer has lawyers to represent it. Something similar has now happened in Balochistan.
Phippen: Both ISIS and a local group affiliated with the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, what do you make of that? Are they just trying get the notoriety, or is there collusion?
Haqqani: It could be both. A lot of jihadi groups work together, and in some cases their membership overlaps. ISIS in Afghanistan and Iraq is still taking shape.
Phippen: What can Pakistan do to prevent these attacks in the region?
Haqqani: The Pakistani military has to have a clear definition of who it considers the enemy.  Instead of cultivating one group of jihadi and fighting others, it needs to go after all jihadi and extremist groups. It also needs to start a process of reconciliation with the Baloch nationalists. These are citizens of Pakistan who feel they have been neglected, and therefore are feeling restive and unhappy. Putting in more troops is only going to escalate the violence. Not end it.
Phippen: Well, thank you for your time.
Haqqani: Let me add one thing.
Balochistan is Pakistan’s most complicated region, and unfortunately people try to simplify the problems there.  It is not all about the mistakes of the Pakistani military, or the corruption of civilians in power, or the nationalists, or the presence of the Taliban. It is all those things.