The South Asia Channel

The quiet rise of the Quetta Shura

The quiet rise of the Quetta Shura

"If [the] United States claims to be a humanitarian power set out to free the people from tyranny, then why does it refrain [from intervening] in Baluchistan?"

This was a question put forward by a student from Balochistan studying at Quad-e-Azam University, Islamabad, to a senior member of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad whom I had invited to lecture on U.S. foreign policy in my international relations course. The question naturally came as a surprise to the visiting U.S. delegation.

What the student pointed out was the alarming rise of the Quetta Shura, a council of Taliban leaders who took refuge in Quetta, Pakistan after the Taliban regime was toppled over by the United States in 2001, as a major power broker in the area, and the frustration it is causing among the local Balochis who are suffering at the hands of this new class of militancy.

According to the locals, the Quetta Shura has within the span of a decade gotten to the point where it "runs the show." From managing neighborhood security and harassing those who oppose them, to investing in hospitals where militants returning from Afghanistan are treated and in real estate as far as Karachi, the Quetta Shura has not only become the face of insurgency in Afghanistan, but indeed, it has become the face of destabilization in Pakistan.

Several of the locals that I talked to suggested that Quetta Shura is openly collecting funds through its hoax Islamic charity fronts in major cities of Pakistan, and recruiting local Balochis to torch the NATO supply tankers. "They tell us that each truck that we will blow up will get us several ‘hoors’ in paradise. We don’t get fooled, but many do." 

As another local suggested, "[A] few years back, Quetta Shura was passive and was only urging people to wage war against the U.S., but now they are forcing people to wage war, not only on the US, but also on Pakistan."

Daily life has also been severely disturbed, as suggested by a local woman who was frustrated with Quetta Shura’s moral policing in their neighborhoods and restrictions upon women to move freely in the city. As a part of its moral policing, militants working for the Quetta Shura have bombed internet cafes, music and CD shops throughout the city. The police force, I have been told, is ill equipped, powerless, and scared to confront the growing power of the militants who possess automatic and sophisticated weapons and have recently targeted and killed the policemen who opposed their power.

While the media in Pakistan remain obsessed with U.S. involvement in the country’s affairs, the radicalization and breach of sovereignty by the Quetta Shura is going unnoticed, allowing it to grow exponentially.

The people in Balochistan are frustrated over this foreign intrusion into their territory, as depicted in the question asked by my student. Many Balochis will tell you that radicalization started not because of the drones, but the moment the Taliban began reorganizing as Quetta Shura in parts of Balochistan after being pushed into Pakistan by NATO.

Contrary to the polls that suggest around 75% of Pakistanis are anti-American, Balochistan is an area where, surprisingly, people are relatively less anti-American, severely critical of Taliban, and are looking towards the United States for help. Although no official polls have been conducted in Balochistan due to the lack of access in the area, I conducted an unofficial survey of 1,500 people from Balochistan, of which only 38% had a negative stance towards the United States. This is because people in Balochistan have been suffering for decades under the complex sardari (feudal) – Pakistan Military alliance, and recently under the suffocating presence of the Quetta Shura. Because Balochis are the direct victims of the Quetta Shura’s militancy, they have a better understanding of the threat posed by the terrorists, and are more amenable to the U.S. campaign against terrorism, unlike the urban centers of Punjab where the anti-American sentiment runs high for political reasons.  

Most of the Balochis with whom I have spoken about the matter expressed their acceptance the United States as a possible third party, which could alter the status quo in their area by not only flushing out the Quetta Shura, but also weakening the control of the Pakistan Army in the province.

While the official stance of the Pakistan Army is to reject any notions that Quetta Shura exists, the research I have conducted suggests quite the contrary. The Army is indeed aware of the presence of the Quetta Shura and the significant role it is playing in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, the hands of the Pakistan Army are tied because of the large Pashtun population within the Pakistan Army, domestic instability in the province, a lack of means and resources, and particularly by their reluctance to open another war front. Matt Waldman wrote in a 2010 report that the continued presence and growth of the Quetta Shura in Balochistan is a clear sign that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) supports the militant group.

But there is a difference between all out support and an effort to influence militant organizations, something that has been confused in many policy circles in Washington, DC. The Pakistan Army — or for that matter any military — does not have the ability to fully control militias. However, in warfare militaries do try to maintain communication channels with these groups in order to influence them through either direct or indirect means. The efforts of the Pakistan Army to influence the groups are at times taken out of context, and amplified in the media as direct sponsoring and support of terrorism – which doesn’t quite compute, especially keeping in mind the fact that the Pakistan Army has been the major target of violence by these militant groups.

Rather, in an already troubled province, where the Pakistani Army has been engaged in a war and is not well liked, it is left with little or no resources or morale to wage a full-out war. This is especially true when Pashtuns in the Pakistani Army increasingly defy orders to kill the Pashtuns in the Quetta Shura. A senior army official who requested anonymity stated, "The American policy until 2008 was focused strictly on curtailing al-Qaeda; hence, the Pakistan Army was more relaxed towards massive migration of Afghanis flooding Quetta. It’s hard to distinguish between a Taliban fighter and a civilian migrating to save his life. It becomes even harder when civilians carry an arm for protection in Pashtun culture."

The Pakistan Army has, for the past decade, attempted to strike a balance between the domestic repercussions of waging a war on its own people, not losing legitimacy internationally, and keeping the economy afloat.

However, its efforts to maintain balance have been deemed suspicious and labeled "backstabbing" by both the international community and by the Balochis, who are now highly frustrated with the rise of the Quetta Shura in their province, and the incapacity of the Pakistan Army to provide security. 

Balochistan’s gas and mineral reserves and strategically located Gwadar port are crucial to energy-starved Pakistan, making it an important strategic area for stability to both the Pakistan and the United States. More importantly, the current instability and radicalization fed by the Quetta Shura, and especially the sentiments of the Balochis opposed to this group, provide a unique opportunity for the United States to play a constructive role in the region by cooperating and facilitating the Pakistani government and allowing it – not the Army – to take the lead. The United States could be providing the Pakistani government with the means and resources to secure and develop the area, and eventually free the people from the tyranny of Quetta Shura.

While the Pakistan Army is not well liked in Balochistan due to the number of missing persons whose disappearances are blamed on security forces, the recent court cases against the Army by the Supreme Court, along with the Balochistan Package and other trust-building measures by the Pakistan government, provide a unique opportunity for the government to play a dominant role in Balochistan. The government has a unique opportunity to take charge of making policies towards Balochistan, instead of letting the Pakistan Army call all shots on the province. The move, if played right, will not only bring peace to the turbulent province of Balochistan and raise the status of the U.S. and Pakistan governments among the people, but will also ensure the security of Afghanistan by rooting out the center of Afghan insurgency

Hussain Nadim is a Visiting Scholar with the Asia Program Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.