Many Pakistanis believe their country’s generals are largely to blame for both of Balochistan’s conflicts.
IN HIS first weeks in office Pakistan’s newly reinstalled prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, might have hoped for a breathing space to concentrate on tackling the country’s failing economy. His country’s violent extremists have other ideas. On June 15th sectarian murderers and separatist rebels in Balochistan mounted horrifying attacks in which 26 people died.
Terrorism is a nationwide scourge in Pakistan. Three days later a bombing at a funeral in Sher Garh in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province killed 28 people. But the incidents in Balochistan were an especially grim reminder to Mr Sharif, who was sworn into office on June 5th, of his government’s predicament in the sparsely populated south-western province. It is home to misery as plentiful as its mineral riches and to two separate, bitter conflicts.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), an al-Qaeda-linked group, gleefully claimed responsibility for mass murder in Quetta, the provincial capital. Made up of Sunni fanatics, LeJ hopes to purge Pakistan of its Shia minority. Many of the victims were young women sitting on their university bus when a female suicide-bomber blew herself up. Bodies were so badly burned that some families received the wrong remains. LeJ then attacked the hospital where survivors were taken. Normally the bus would have been carrying mostly girls from the Hazara ethnic minority, who are mostly Shia. But it had changed routes a few days earlier. Its young passengers were a more mixed group. It was the wrong target.
Less lethal but almost as shocking to many Pakistanis was the attack by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) in the early hours of June 15th on a century-old building in Ziarat, a hill station a couple of hours’ drive from Quetta. Attackers made short work of the wood-and-brick building, also killing a policeman. Few Pakistanis have visited it, but its handsome wooden verandas are a familiar sight from the country’s 100-rupee note. It is part of Pakistan’s rickety national mythology, which sits heavily on the narrow shoulders of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the country’s founder. In the summer of 1948 he retreated to the cool air and juniper forests of Ziarat to ease the symptoms of the tuberculosis that killed him months later.
For the BLA, a militant faction of Baloch nationalists, it was an emblem of a state they have no desire to be part of. They say Pakistan’s Punjabi elite gobbles up their copper and gas wealth and leaves Balochistan impoverished.
Many Pakistanis believe their country’s generals are largely to blame for both of Balochistan’s conflicts. They are accused of turning a blind eye to LeJ and other sectarian groups. And the Baloch separatist rebellion is fuelled by the army’s brutal counter-insurgency campaign. People “disappear” into unknown prisons; bullet-riddled bodies are dumped at the roadside.
The latest attacks prompted some unusually harsh public criticism of the army in the National Assembly. Chaudhry Nisar, the new interior minister, pointedly wondered how the bombers could mount back-to-back suicide attacks in a heavily militarised city. Mr Sharif had raised tentative hopes of restoring peace in Balochistan by nominating a leader of a nationalist party, Abdul Malik Baloch, as the province’s chief minister, even though Mr Sharif’s own party won the most seats in the provincial assembly last month.
Just a day before the attacks Mr Baloch visited demonstrators protesting about missing persons. He promised an independent commission into the killing in 2006, by Pakistan’s army of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, a Baloch leader. It is not clear, however, how much influence the chief minister has over militant separatists.
In 2008, when a new civilian government tried to extend an olive branch to Baloch nationalists, it evoked similar hopes for peace. As a victim of a military coup that brought his government to a premature end in 1999, Mr Sharif is keen to wrest back control over foreign and security policy from the army. He is to be his own foreign and defence minister. But the army remains powerful and wedded to its own theories of how to hold together a country that suffered the traumatic loss of East Pakistan in 1971. And the rising tide of religious militancy, which successive governments have had no appetite to confront, will continue to lap at Mr Sharif’s feet.
From the print edition: Asia