There is an overwhelming perception, backed by intelligence-based statements of the government functionaries, that target killing of members of different sects, especially the Shiite, is part of the game to divide the Pakistani society. To keep Balochistan on boiling point is also in the interest of international players who are against the Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline project and handing over of the management of Gwadar Port to the Chinese firm.

The prudent manner in which the leaders of the Hazara community, as well as the Shiite leadership, managed the crises arising out of two recent major attacks against the Hazaras, is commendable. The Shiite community throughout the country expressed its anger through peaceful protests and sit-ins. Their farsightedness has, indeed, frustrated the designs of the enemy. A national salute is due to the Hazara leadership for their maturity, perseverance and national spirit.

It is also heartening to see that the entire nation closed ranks and expressed its heartfelt condolence on the tragic loss of precious lives and destruction of property. The people of Pakistan have unanimously denounced these barbaric acts of terrorism and condemned the design of the perpetrators. Instead of Shia or Hazara tragedies, both the events propelled into a national tragedy.

Ethnically, the Hazaras of Quetta are the Mongols, who migrated from Central Asia to the Banyan District in Afghanistan. They belong to the Shia faction of Islam and Persian is their main language. Demographically, they live in three countries: Afghanistan (7-8 million); Iran (1.2 million) and Pakistan (0.7 million).  In addition, a diaspora of approximately 400,000 to 500,000 is spread around in a number of Western countries.

The Hazaras have a long history of persecution at the hands of the Afghans, which dates back to the 16th century. During the era of Amir Abdul Rahman (1880-1901), who is regarded as founder of modern Afghanistan, thousands of Hazaras were killed, expelled and enslaved. Almost half of the Hazara population migrated to neighbouring Balochistan of British India and the Khorasan province in Iran.

The Hazaras shifted to Quetta from Afghanistan in 1840; and to avenge the Afghan atrocities, they joined the British Army in flocks. In 1904, the British raised an infantry unit, the “106th Hazara Pioneers”, comprising Hazara refugees in Quetta. They fought for the British during Anglo-Afghan wars. Hence, they carry a historic baggage; whereby the Afghans do not tolerate their presence in Pashtun areas.

Therefore, by default, it has become a fault line that can be easily triggered. And once ignited, it soon becomes self-sustaining through its own momentum and tempo. So far, the Hazaras have been on the receiving end; they have refrained from taking up organised armed struggle against the rival groups.

During this year, the Hazaras of Quetta have been targeted mercilessly as if their lives are of no consequence. Earlier also, they were hunted down as a matter of routine. Previously, the incidents were of forced off-loading from public transport and killing them indiscriminately.

The January 10 massacre has set a new tempo and tenor; the incident resulted in the death of over 100 innocent people after which the provincial government was dismissed. However, the members of Provincial Assembly blatantly maintained that the action was uncalled for and even protested for its restoration.  They found a sizable number of supporters in the federal government too.

Unfortunately, the Governor’s Rule did not accompany the required strategy and measures to stem violence in the province.  As a consequence, the governor’s Waterloo was also not far away. On February 16, another bomb explosion wreaked havoc, this time the casualties were a combination of Hazaras and Pathans.

The intelligence agencies, as well as watch and ward personnel, were proverbially caught with their pants down, as a would-be suicide bomber drove a water tanker laden with more than one ton of explosives in the midst of a crowded market in Quetta that killed 85 persons.

On both these occasions, the Balochistan government displayed callousness and apathy towards the families of the victims. Even the federal government took inordinate time to respond. The victims’ families weathered rain and sub-zero temperatures, refusing to bury the dead till punitive action was taken. It was only when the issue started drawing international attention that the federal government sprang into action.

Having attracted more than due share of criticism over previous military operations in Balochistan, the army has no love lost for another venture.  From the army’s perspective, undoing of the turmoil in Balochistan would necessitate a Herculean effort and it already has its platter full.

Indeed, the army is overstretched and deeply embroiled. The federal and provincial governments are also averse to calling in the army out of the fear that once started, the scope of military action would virulently spread to other trouble areas. Hence, creating a raison d’être for postponing the elections indefinitely.

Amidst widespread speculation that the security establishment may be attempting to delay the upcoming polls, the army has declared its support for the continuity of democratic setup and holding of free and fair elections. “We have been supporting the current democratic setup during the past five years and we will support elections to take place on time…….Army will have no benefit if the elections are delayed,” said Director General Inter-Services Public Relations.

When asked about the Hazara demand for the army to be deployed in Quetta, the Director General said: “It had no qualms about taking over the security of Quetta, but the government had decided against such a move.” He further added: “The decision to impose Governor’s Rule in Balochistan was purely ‘political’, and the army had nothing to do with it.”

Systematic targeting of the Hazara community has many facets: local rivalries, sectarian sentiment, regional dynamics and fissures created by the great game. The recent increase in the massacre-like events have come against the backdrop of weakening of our law enforcement agencies (LEAs) through a concerted campaign of smear propaganda. This campaign was particularly focused against the Frontier Corps (FC) Balochistan. Saner voices have all along been cautioning that exclusion of “B” areas from the jurisdiction of LAEs and handing them over to Levies and Khasadars would eventually result in the handing over lambs to the wolves.

The demand for the FC’s withdrawal from Balochistan is aimed at driving the chaos to unmanageable heights in both the urban and areas. Though the FC has its structural and functional limitations, warranting corrective action, its outright condemnation has done no good. It has certainly lowered the morale of the troops.

Nevertheless, it has set up 19 additional posts in Kalat and Quetta divisions to further strengthen the security situation in the province, and a targeted operation led by the FC and supported by the police and intelligence agencies is underway in the province. The ISI has carried out 130 intelligence operations in Balochistan and prevented several terrorist attacks in the past four months.

A prudent and professional handling of the threat to the Hazara people can bring an early end to their hardship; blame game would only prolong their suffering.

The writer is a retired air commodore and former assistant chief of air staff of the Pakistan Air Force. At present, he is a member of the visiting faculty at the PAF Air War College, Naval War College and Quaid-i-Azam University. Email: khalid3408@gmail.com