Too many disagreements in Pakistan are fatal
ON DECEMBER 29TH Syed Baqir Shah, a police surgeon, was gunned down in Quetta, the capital of the province of Balochistan. A few days later the police said that some 50 suspects had been arrested but there had been no “major breakthrough”. Few were surprised. Among the prime suspects were the police themselves and the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary outfit that in theory reports to the provincial government but takes orders from the army.
Dr Shah was just one of more than 300 people in the province believed to have fallen victim to the security forces’ “kill and dump” policies last year. He had testified to an inquiry looking into the death of five unarmed foreigners from Russia and Tajikistan earlier last year. Contradicting the official account, he said they had been killed by the security forces. Shortly after that he was beaten up, but did not change his professional opinion.
Of all the sordid little wars under way in Pakistan, the conflicts in Balochistan, Pakistan’s biggest but sparsely populated province, are among the dirtiest. A long-running secessionist campaign intensified after the killing of a Baloch nationalist leader, Nawab Akbar Bugti, in August 2006. As usual, Pakistan’s government blames the troubles on India. Some Western intelligence sources believe it is meddling, but the prime cause of the unrest is Pakistan’s own handling of the province.
Nor is secessionism the only cause of violence. Last October a bus outside Quetta was held up by gunmen on motorcycles and 13 of the passengers shot dead. The previous month 26 people had been killed when travelling on a bus to Shia holy sites in Iran. They were ethnic-Hazara Shias, of whom, according to Human Rights Watch, a research and lobby group, over 300 have been killed by Sunni extremist groups since 2008.
Baloch-nationalist extremists have introduced a further poison: a form of selective ethnic cleansing, killing migrants from Punjab and Sindh. Schoolteachers have proved particularly vulnerable, leading to the closure for much of the year of schools in parts of rural Balochistan. Fuelling the conflict is Balochistan’s natural wealth—oil, gas and especially copper. The province complains that the federal government does not give it enough money, though it now receives 9% of federal funds, with only about 5% of the total population.
A nation at war with itself
Balochistan is an extreme example of a national phenomenon. Pakistan, a tolerant, hospitable and friendly country, has become a very violent place. Over 30,000 Pakistanis have lost their lives in terrorist-related violence in the past four years. Even in the comparative lull in suicide-bombings in late 2011, the newspapers carried a litany of horror stories: terrorist attacks; “honour killings”; ethnic violence in Karachi; assassinations. Not all the carnage can be blamed on “the American war”. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, at least 675 women and girls were murdered in the first nine months of 2011, mostly for having “illicit relations”. Some were raped or gang-raped before being killed. Of course this is illegal, but the state is too weak and too unwilling to enforce the law consistently. Very few of the culprits will be brought to justice.
Violence also permeates politics, from top to bottom. One former president and prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged in 1979; a serving president, Muhammad Zia ul Haq, was assassinated in an aeroplane explosion in 1988; Benazir Bhutto was killed in a bomb attack in Rawalpindi in 2007. At the grassroots, landowner-politicians rely on muscle-power as well as patronage. In the cities, too, politicians have their guns and goons as well as gold. Nowhere is this truer than in Karachi, a city of 18m people, plastered everywhere with the flags and posters of political parties and prey to appalling levels of violence. In the past four years 7,000 people have been killed, including 1,891 last year. The prime minister has, again, hinted at the involvement of “foreign hands”. A more credible explanation is the fusion in Karachi of gangland, political and ethnic battle lines. Since the late 1980s the city’s administration has been dominated by a party now called the Muttahida Qaumi Mahaz, or MQM. Its ethnic base is among the mohajirs, the Urdu-speaking descendants of immigrants from India at the time of partition.
Its rivals are the PPP, whose base is among Sindhi-speakers (Karachi is in Sindh), and the Awami National Party, or ANP, with Pushtun supporters. In recent years the ethnic and commercial balance has shifted as large numbers of Pushtuns have moved to Karachi from the Afghan frontier, making it the largest Pushtun city anywhere. The Pushtuns have gained clout thanks to their dominance of the transport business: Karachi is the port where supplies for ISAF in Afghanistan arrive. The three parties and their gangster allies are engaged in a vicious turf war.
The endemic violence makes Pakistan the deadliest country in the world for the press, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an NGO. Eleven journalists died last year going about their jobs, of whom seven were murdered. In May last year the body of Saleem Shahzad was found, showing signs of torture. He had been writing for Asia Times, an online newspaper, about al-Qaeda’s alleged infiltration of the Pakistani navy. This was the reason, he claimed, for a 17-hour siege of a naval base in Karachi that month. Coming on the heels of the discovery of bin Laden, this was highly embarrassing to the army. Mr Shahzad had told colleagues that he had been receiving threats from the ISI.
Others have received threats, too. In December two senior journalists, Hamid Mir and Najam Sethi, a longstanding contributor to The Economist, made public that they had received death threats from extremist groups and “state actors”. They gambled that publicity might afford them some protection—not least from the organs of the state whose job it is to provide security.