Pakistan’s Links With Terror Groups Remind Us of the Nuclear Threat

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People rally to condemn a bombing in Quetta that killed dozens of people, in Lahore, Pakistan, Monday, Aug. 8, 2016.
People rally to condemn a bombing in Quetta that killed dozens of people, in Lahore, Pakistan, Monday, Aug. 8, 2016.Credit: K.M. Chaudary, AP

A writer made it clear in the Pakistani opposition paper The Nation. As a Pakistani citizen, he wrote, he has the right to know why, despite assurances that the government and army have “broken the backbone of terrorism,” these attacks continue. The story appeared the day after a shooting and bombing attack in Quetta, Balochistan, killed 93 people, most of them lawyers, with dozens more wounded.

This was a two-pronged attack. First, the head of the Balochistan Bar Association, Bilal Anwar Kasi, was assassinated. When his friends and colleagues came to the hospital to collect his body for the funeral procession, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the crowd. Two groups took responsibility, the Pakistani branch of the Islamic State and the Taliban.

Despite this, the authorities are blaming the usual suspects, with the interior minister rushing to blame the Indian intelligence services. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, as usual, promised to bring the attackers to justice. He convened an urgent meeting, pledging another anti-terror plan. These declarations didn’t impress the terrorists; another device has exploded in Quetta, wounding 15 people.

Pakistani journalists and civil society activists place candles during a vigil to pay tribute to victims of August 8 suicide bombing at the Civil Hospital in Quetta on August 10, 2016.Credit: Banaras Khan, AFP

Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province, can be misleading. It was once called Little Paris because of its beauty and famous fruit orchards. A million and a quarter people live there, stemming from half a dozen ethnic backgrounds and speaking many dialects. There’s even a McDonald’s there.

But Quetta is also home to radical Islamist groups. It has become the home of many Afghani exiles who came there after the September 11 attacks, when the United States invaded Afghanistan. The city now crawls with Islamic State militants who contend for power with the Taliban.

Balochistan blues

Balochistan is the largest of Pakistan’s four provinces but the most sparsely populated and poorest one. The state budget is drawn up based on population size, so Balochistan receives the smallest sum, leaving little for development, even though the province holds the country’s natural gas fields that see to most of Pakistan’s energy needs.

In recent years China has been investing billions of dollars in developing the port of Gwadar, an international hub and a major transit point for oil and other goods between the Middle East and China. These investments, which create many jobs, enrich mainly tycoons and landowners. Many of these are Punjabis who came over to invest and make hefty profits. Balochis do the manual labor, having been displaced from their land that was sold for a pittance.

Like every Pakistani province, Balochistan is run by a provincial government that in theory is subject to parliamentary oversight. The province has its own police and security forces. The main power rests with large, well-rooted families that belong to tribal groups.

Despite the presence of courts, tribal justice is preferred; it’s considered much more efficient and less corrupt than the official system, where bribery tips the scales. A good example of the ways things are run was provided by journalist Anatol Lieven in his book “Pakistan: A Hard Country.” The British author describes a meeting with the sports and culture minister.

Outside the minister’s office were four members of his team drinking tea, talking and reading newspapers. They weren’t doing very much. It’s not that they could. Neither they nor the minister had a computer or even a typewriter.

The minister complained to Lieven about the low number of employees the federal government allows him. He believed he was entitled to a staff commensurate with the size of the province, namely half of Pakistan’s civil service.

This isn’t the main concern of Balochistani leaders. They enjoy immense incomes, live in spacious villas and drive luxury cars. The previous provincial prime minister’s wealth came from the security company he owned.

A demonstrator holds a poster of Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan at a rally in Lahore, Pakistan, January 2003. Credit: AP

The Iranian angle

In this system, it’s best to build local power centers and “persuade” the local government head who should receive benefits, contracts and employment. This system applies to the whole of Pakistan.

The power centers are united by their wish to obtain independence. This wish often erupts into violence, with people protesting the presence of federal troops who come from other provinces, mainly Punjab. This desert province isn’t only a thorn in the side of the Pakistani government but threatens Iran as well, since Balochi tribes live on both sides of the border.

Iran blames Pakistan for not preventing cross-border movement, thus supporting Sunni terror by Balochis against Iran. Iran is worried that the Islamic State will start moving in through these areas, using Balochis to attack it.

Iran also worries that Saudi Arabia, which employs millions of Pakistanis, will turn Pakistan into its puppet, thus supporting terrorists. Iran reportedly decided to collaborate with Taliban groups in order to block the Islamic State. As in Syria and Iraq, U.S. interests converge with Iranian ones more than with local governments in fighting ISIS.

In recent days, the U.S. Congress decided not to release $300 million in military aid to Pakistan, based on claims by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter that Pakistan had not done enough to fight the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, which operates against U.S. targets in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Carter’s approval is required to release the last portion of the $1 billion that Washington promised Pakistan this year.

This is the first time the administration has unhesitatingly accused Pakistan of directly assisting an Islamist terror group. Interestingly, the Haqqani network helped the United States in the fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s links with terror groups aren’t new and have often served American interests. The latent threat, however, lies in the nuclear weapons held by India and Pakistan. Terror attacks could inadvertently provoke a crisis and rekindle the threat of a nuclear confrontation between the two Asian powers.

Herein lies the U.S. dilemma regarding aiding Pakistan. Freezing aid will strengthen the hands of those opposing cooperation, whereas granting it provides money for the regime instead of for combating terror. So far Washington is ignoring the terrorist attacks, as long as they target Pakistanis.

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