The secret war in Balochistan

The Pakistani province is beset with violence.

On 10 January, two bomb blasts ripped through a snooker hall in Quetta, Balochistan, killing 86 people and injuring 120. Most of the dead were Hazara Shias, an ethnic and religious minority. The militant Sunni group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi claimed responsibility. Earlier that day, an unrelated blast at a security checkpoint in the same city had killed 12; that bomb was planted by the United Baloch Army, a nationalist group.

The two attacks shone a light on the troubled province, which was placed under federal rule soon afterwards. The following week, as a warrant was issued for the prime minister’s arrest and speculation mounted that the forthcoming general election could be delayed, Balochistan was forgotten once again.

The state makes great efforts to keep Balochistan out of the international news: often foreign journalists’ visas are restricted so they cannot visit the capital city, Quetta, and if they do get permission they are closely monitored by security agents.

Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province, making up 44 per cent of the country’s land mass, but it has the smallest population, just half that of Karachi, capital of the neighbouring Sindh. Its vast mineral riches, including gold, copper, oil, gas, platinum and coal, are largely untapped, while its deserts and long borders with Afghanistan and Iran make it an attractive terrain for unsavoury characters. Between Islamist militants, an aggressive separatist movement and a crackdown by the central government, the province is beset with violence.

The separatist movement stretches back to the 1920s, long before Pakistan was created in 1947. It considers anyone not ethnically Baloch to be a “settler”, even though some of the Punjabis, Hazaras and Mohajirs have been in Balochistan for the best part of a century. Nationalists target civilians with shootings and bombs. They also target schools and universities, which are seen as symbols of the state and are mostly run by the so-called settlers. The attacks on schools resulted in a bloody riposte from the military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), a secret war that has brought Balochistan to its knees.

“Nationalists are destroying any prospect for the future of the children of the province,” says Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan director of Human Rights Watch. “But the viciousness with which the military has attacked nationalists has increased the violence.”

I recently spoke with a local official in Quetta. He was reluctant to speak on the phone because his line is tapped by the ISI. Attempts to speak on Skype proved abortive. The rebels had blown up the main pylon near his office, so there was no electricity.

Over the past few years, a grisly series of YouTube videos has shown the mutilated bodies of young men. They are found at the rate of about 15 each month. Their deaths are barely reported on or investigated, but Human Rights Watch claims there is “indisputable” evidence that the ISI and its sister agencies are responsible.

A 2012 Freedom House report on internet freedom found that Baloch nationalist websites were the most systemically censored in Pakistan. Baloch Hal, the first English-language Baloch news service, has been blocked since November 2010.

It remains to be seen what difference the imposition of governor’s rule is having on the province. The devolved government had been widely criticised for failing to control the violence. Yet the local writ in Balochistan has always been limited. The heavy ISI and military presence has corroded provincial authority to the point where it barely exists.

Such lawlessness creates a terrifying environment for minorities. Thousands of Hazaras have already fled to Australia. “This is an ethnic tinderbox,” Hasan tells me.

A girl holds a placard during protests following the bombing in Quetta. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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