2013 got off to a horrid start in the Pakistani city of Quetta—long-known for being the suspected meeting place for the Afghan Taliban’s central leadership, in exile since the US invasion in 2001. On January and February, however, it was another Islamist group—staunchly anti-Shi’a Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (or LeJ)—that captured the headlines in America, if only for a fleeting moment.
It started January 10, a particularly bloody day that saw three bombings in Quetta (as well as a fourth hundreds of miles to the north in the Swat Valley). 17-year-old LeJ (which The Atlantic somewhat naively calls “The Taliban’s new, more terrifying cousin”) was responsible for two deadly blasts outside a snooker hall in the typically Hazara Shi’a neighborhood. The explosions, one right after another, killed 96 in all.
Worse, one month later, on February 16, it happened again. The same community of Hazaras fell victim to another attack, this time a 2,200-pound bomb in a crowded street market. At least 89 more lives were lost—adding to the list of around 1,300 Hazara murdered by LeJ and other similar anti-Shi’a groups since 1999. (For a map of attacks, see here.)
At this point, Quetta’s Hazaras had had enough. Publically refusing to bury the dead victims, they demanded the Pakistani government take serious action to protect the vulnerable Shi’a population (Hazaras stand out for their lighter skin and more “Asian” look). With public pressure mounting, it was clear that the Pakistani government had to address the crisis in some form.
Here the story diverges, depending on which lens one chooses: optimistic or pessimistic.
Optimism is rare for an outside observer of the Pakistani security situation considering the milieu of violent extremists operating within the state’s borders. Pakistan’s security establishment infamously distinguishes between “good terrorists” and “bad terrorists,” depending on political aim. On one hand, groups aiming to supplant or declare independence from the state—the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) and Balochi Liberation Army (BLA)—prompt the ire of the military. On the other hand, the Pakistani government’s approach toward “good terrorists” (Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Haqqani network, the Afghan Taliban, and a collection of Kashmir-centric groups (HuM, HuJI, JeM) that conduct operations primarily outside Pakistan) ranges from tacit to active support depending on whether it advances state interests. (See the comparison on the “spectrum” below.)
LeJ likely falls somewhere in between: while President Musharraf designated it a terrorist organization in 2001, the Pakistani central government has historically done little to suppress or prosecute the group’s members.
Therefore, when the Pakistani government showed signs of stirring after the February 16 bombing, an optimist would call it a monumental shift. The executive declared governor’s rule over Balochistan, giving President Zardari virtually direct responsibility for security in Quetta and the surrounding area. Security forces quickly arrested more than 200 suspected militants, including the supposed mastermind behind the plot, as well as Malik Ishaq, the top LeJ leader himself. Law enforcement even probed the Balochi provincial assembly, where at least one member was arrested for connections to LeJ.
On paper, this is all good news. President Zardari and General Kayani (probably the most powerful man in Pakistan) seemed to have realized that LeJ, though perhaps not a direct threat to the central government, was damaging by way of eroding the state’s image as guarantor of security. Particularly sensitive after a crisis-ridden January, Zardari’s government was already walking on pins and needles. Inaction had the potential to throw an angry country into a state of upheaval. So this time when public outcry demanded state intervention, finally Islamabad rose to the occasion.
Alas, the good news stops there. Unfortunately, the more plausible narrative is that Pakistani actions formed only a temporary façade to placate a raucous public. Typical of a state pressured by its citizens and international observers to bring perpetrators of an attack to justice (see: Libya after Benghazi, Tunisia after Chokri Belaid’s death), Pakistan cast a wide net in arresting suspects in connection to the anti-Shi’a attacks—with little indication of a wider strategy.
The arrest of LeJ leader Malik Ishaq is significant, but there are two important asterisks of note. First, Ishaq has been arrested before, released each time on “lack of evidence” (despite his own admission of responsibility for several bombings.) Second, the ease with which Pakistani police found Ishaq (in his home, just 6 days after the Feb. 16 attack) suggests security forces knew where he was all along—and let him be. If past is precedent, after national attention turns away from the recent bombings and toward the next crisis (or the next big cricket match), Ishaq may be released again with only a muted public response.
More generally, as reports indicate, Hazaras in Quetta do not feel significantly safer than before Islamabad started paying attention. Police patrols and Frontier Corps (paramilitary) deployments did little to prevent the January and February attacks, so more of them are unlikely to deter future strikes. With the Pakistani military itself unwilling to deploy to Quetta, Hazaras are stuck with little more than the same.
Finally, despite pressure from Interior Minister Rehman Malik, the national government has done little to hit LeJ where it hurts: their financial ties and physical bases in the neighboring province of Punjab. And as another sign that Islamabad is not taking the situation seriously, Zulfikar Magsi, Zardari’s direct representative in Balochistan (remember, local authorities ceded control for security to the central government) has yet to put in a request to transfer Malik Ishaq (arrested in Punjab) back to Balochistan, where he would likely face prosecution for the January and February attacks.
As South Asia watchers know, Pakistan is—and probably always will be—an enigma. The current debate over LeJ and the Hazaras is no exception. But if having to choose between the optimistic and pessimistic narratives above, it seems clear that the gloomy view (despite my good ol’ Kansas optimism) carries the most weight.