Entering the ancient city of Kharan in 1886, as he traversed the great desert trade route through Balochistan to the borders of Afghanistan and Persia, the colonial civil servant George Tate observed two pillars guarding the path: Inside, were two men who had been tied to stakes and entombed alive. “These men had been the owners of a couple of exceedingly fine asses which were coveted by the chieftain of their tribe,” Tate wrote. The men tried to flee with their prize asses—but were caught.
“The chief had been rather lenient with them,” local residents told Tate, “since just before the pillars were completed over their heads each of these misguided men, who had dared to assert their right to their own property, had been stunned by a blow from an axe handle.”
Last week, alleged Islamic State jihadists savagely struck Balochistan’s Mastung district, killing at least 55 people at a procession to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. Although there have been several massacres of the Shi’a minority in Pakistan by jihadists, the Islamic State has become increasingly aggressive in its opposition to folk religious traditions, like the Barelvis participating in the procession.
Even though the growing power of the Islamic State in Balochistan is drawing global attention, the process enabling that sunrise isn’t. The crude state structures built in the colonial period, and reinforced by the Pakistan Army, are disintegrating—enabling jihadists, narcotics traffickers and organised crime cartels to step into the vacuum. Enfeebled by economic implosion and political crisis, the Pakistani state no longer has the resources to push back.
The bombing in Mastung does, of course, have something to do with theology: Taliban chief Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada is a member of the Saifis, a Sufi order with a significant following in Afghanistan. The killing, however, is also part of a broader effort to intimidate ethnic Pashtun communities and leadership across Balochistan.
Earlier this summer, though, the ethnic-Pashtun politician Mohsin Dawar voiced concern about the growing power of jihadist death squads which were targeting the fundamental institutions of society. Local leaders, Dawar said, were being targeted for assassination, while businesses and industries were being extorted: “People are abducted, tortured, and a video of theirs is recorded and posted online.”
The rise of the Islamic State
Everyone watched the birth of the Islamic State in Pakistan, some cheering, some silent. Fifty men with weapons dragged three women out of their homes and paraded them naked through the streets of a village near Lahore in 2009. Human rights investigators reported that the women’s faces were blackened with ink and “children were instructed to degrade them by poking them with sticks.” Once the police arrived, the women were arrested and booked for prostitution.
Led by the local Islamist leader Intezar-ul-Haq, Punjab’s Lashkar-e-Jhangvi had begun to demonstrate that it—not the Pakistani state—ruled the heartland. Local politicians lined up behind the phalanxes of the fundamentalists.
In 1984, a then-obscure cleric, Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, founded the Anjuman-e-Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan in the Punjab town of Jhang. Fired by General Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamising project, the Anjuman was one of several organisations seeking to rebuild Pakistan on theocratic lines. The organisation’s armed wing, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, targeted Shi’a mosques and communities, as well as police.
Following an attempt to assassinate Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1999, authorities clamped down on the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Its leadership took refuge in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan—only to return home after 9/11, when General Pervez Musharraf’s regime provided a homecoming for Pakistani jihadists.
Elements of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, as well as other ethnic Punjabi jihadist groups, later embedded themselves in Taliban-linked movements across Pakistan’s northwest. The scholar Qandeel Siddiqui has recorded that, by 2009, the Pakistani Taliban had taken control of police stations in areas like Matta, Maidan and Kalam, and even ran parallel police forces. Women were jailed for working alongside men, and girls’ schools were blown up.
Finally pushed to confront the Taliban by rising levels of violence against the army, Pakistan went to war in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The Taliban slipped back across the border into Afghanistan, helped by their old Taliban allies. For a time, the Generals in Rawalpindi congratulated themselves, imagining their Taliban clients would keep things quiet.
The economics of the Islamic State
For generations, we know from the account of colonial officials like Tate, bandit raids across the Afghan-Baloch border were a feature of colonial life. Tate’s stories include the tale of two bandits shot dead by border guards in 1899, who were given a rough-and-ready burial in the sand. The sand, though, served to plug the wound on the shoulder of the second bandit. Later recovering, the man climbed out of his grave and was rescued by travellers.
“Every Baloch in camp probably gave him a feed,” Tate recorded, “and for a time he was quite the lion of the place.” “The profession of a freebooter was one in which a man of long and honourable pedigree might engage,” he observed. “Petty theft was regarded as utterly vile.”
This particular bandit, though, decided he’d tested his luck enough, and gave up raiding for a life as a peasant.
Economic historian Tirthankar Roy’s path-breaking work on Afghanistan has shown that this kind of violence was fated by circumstance. As economic power shifted to the great port cities of Asia, the trade routes that ran through the Afghan-Persian borderlands became irrelevant. The new colonial powers saw little reason to invest in regions like the borderlands, which were too resource-poor to justify constructing roads or railway lines linking them to the ports.
Like in the European peripheries documented by the great historian Eric Hobsbawm, banditry flourished, as a means not just of harvesting economic resources, but also resisting central authority and unjust local power-brokers.
The generation of young jihadists who had returned from Afghanistan after 9/11 came from poor backgrounds, scholar Farhat Taj has noted, distinct from the tribal élites who had controlled political life in the Pashtun heartlands of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. Armed with some education, and empowered by the Kalashnikov, they sought to remake the region in their own image.
The ISKP rise
Long before the triumph of the Taliban in Kabul, experts like Paul Lushenko had remarked on the ability of the Islamic State to regenerate itself from apparently crushing defeats. The reasons are not opaque. Elements denied what they considered a fair share of power by regional Taliban commanders, or cut out of lucrative narcotics and illegal mining syndicates, sometimes rebranded themselves as the Islamic State. Even though the links between these groups and the central Islamic State were tenuous.
For its part, journalist Zia ur Rahman notes, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi survived by fluidly allying itself with other jihadist organisations—among them al-Qaeda, the Islamic State’s key rival in the Middle East.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi cadre attacked the Police Training College in Quetta in 2006, killing 61 police cadets. Later, a suicide bomber targeted the shrine of Sufi saint Shah Noorani in Khuzdar district, leaving 52 dead. Later, branding itself as the Islamic State, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi operatives also carried out a bombing at an election rally in 2018, killing at least 128 people, including the prominent politician Siraj Raisani.
The Pakistan Army’s long and bloody operation to evict jihadists from the ethnic-Pashtun belt had, for all practical purposes, ended in nothing. Last month, a video emerged showing Tehreek-e-Taliban chief Noor Wali Mehsud commanding operations against Pakistani forces in Chitral. Large-scale attacks have taken place in Balochistan, too—and almost everywhere, the Pakistan army has proved unable to meaningfully hit back.
Fears are mounting that the rising tide of jihadism could spread to Central Asia—a prospect that is likely provoking some wry smiles in Washington, as regional powers China and Iran both fuelled the Taliban campaign to evict the United States from Afghanistan.
As commentator Farhan Siddiqui has argued, a solution needs not just a military response, but a whole-of-government solution which addresses long-standing fault lines of class, ethnicity and religion which have powered the jihadist movement. The problem is the Pakistani state has neither the resources nor the political will to implement it.