Twin suicide bombings in Pakistan point to deep security problems

The Pakistani flag flies at half-mast in honour of the victims of the bomb attack on the police training centre. AAP/Jamal Taraqai

The continuing prevalence of violence in Pakistan has been reinforced recently with the mass murder of at least 62 police trainees and wounding of nearly 100 others in Quetta in the troubled province of Baluchistan.

In August this year, the target was the legal fraternity at a hospital in Quetta, where many had gathered to mourn the murder of the president of the Baluchistan Bar Association. The bomb attack left 70 people dead and many more wounded.

The list of violent attacks in Quetta goes on. In September, a court house in the city of Mardan was bombed, killing 12 people and injuring 50 more. The assailants have reportedly been identified as members of divergent offshoots of the Taliban. The Police Barracks attack has been attributed to the group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, while the hospital attack has been attributed to Jamaat-ul-Ahrar. A faction of the Taliban based in the Mohmand Tribal region, Jamaat-ul-Ahrer has also been implicated in other large scale attacks such as the Easter attack in Lahore earlier this year that killed 70 people.

The situation in Baluchistan is further complicated by the presence of a long running insurgency conducted by ethnic Baluchis against the writ of the Pakistan government. The Pakistan government has been especially shy about responding to charges of actively undertaking or at least being complicit in assassinations, mass murders and arbitrary detention. It has also been accused of securing the assistance of silent partners, who some allege includes the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

This “silent” war has long antecedents. Following the East Pakistan War of 1971, when the Pakistani army sought to suppress Baluch nationalism, General Tikka Khan earned the sobriquet the “Butcher of Baluchistan”.

The security situation in Pakistan then is complex, with both overt and shadowy alliances between government and militant groups. These conflicted relationships are one of the many reasons it has been so difficult for any Pakistani government to effectively extinguish militant groups there.

Added to this equation is the prickly issue of alleged Pakistani support for militant groups involved in such recent events as the September 2016 attack of an Indian Army base about 100 kilometres from the State Capital of Srinagar. The attack killed 17 Indian soldiers, the worst of its kind for two decades.

The attack also dangerously set the sabres rattling between the two nuclear weapons capable states, worsening their already deteriorating relationship. Both subsequently accused each other of human rights abuses in Baluchistan and Kashmir.

What is clear is that Pakistan can ill afford to allow this cycle of egregious violence to continue. This is recognised within Pakistan, but remains an issue infused with competing agendas between the government and the most powerful institution in the country – the army.

Pakistanti commentators have to be brave to voice an opinion on internal security and international relations. Sometimes it is to their detriment, as demonstrated by the most recent case of the journalist Cyril Almeida.

Earlier this month, Almeida earned the ire of the army by reporting on conflicts between the army and the government on the handling of “home-grown” militancy. Almeida was prevented from leaving Pakistan, even though the veracity of his story was confirmed.

Nevertheless, Almeida’s apparent revelations on the differences of opinion between the government and the army were met with a firestorm of back-tracking from government figures anxious not to upset the army.

Pakistan remains infected with a host of militant groups who are sometimes co-opted by the government and operate with impunity. Others attack the apparatus of the state, including the military and the police as demonstrated by this latest attack.

Pakistan’s militancy woes do not end there. Sectarian militants prey on their perceived enemies within the nation, with anti-Sunni, anti-Shia, anti-Christian, and anti-Hindu groups, among others, determined to prevent expressions of diversity through violence.

If it can be done, Pakistan needs to be teased off this pathway, with continued censure of unacceptable practices by the US, Australia and other members of the international community who would like it to become a truly democratic country. At the same time, there needs to be continued “soft power” engagement to wean the army off stymieing its perceived enemies. In 2008, noted security scholar Bruce Riedel wrote:

Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world today. All of the nightmares of the 21st century come together in Pakistan: nuclear proliferation, drug smuggling, military dictatorship and above all international terrorism…“

It would seem that Riedel’s 2008 description remains as valid today. It will continue to do so unless there is a commitment in Pakistan to unravel its Gordian Knot of militancy.