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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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.