The surge in sectarian violence in Pakistan is a symptom of the growing influence of the Taliban across the country. It has been a consistent strategy of Taliban groups: when they target an area, they first attack sectarian minorities.
Taliban militants have stepped up attacks against Shiites across the country from Gilgit-Baltistan in the north to Balochistan in the south-west. In particular, in Balochistan the violence against the Hazara Shiite community has been intensive and indiscriminate. All of the sectarian attacks on Hazaras in recent weeks have been claimed by Sunni militant outfit Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which has officially been banned by Islamabad.
The group is part of a loose-knit extremist network, including the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Hakimullah Mehsud, the TTP's leader, maintains ties to Al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and Sunni extremist groups including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. The US has offered $5 million (Dh18.4 million) reward for information leading to the arrest of Mehsud, who has survived several US drone attacks since 2010.
Before the September 11 attacks in 2001, Pakistan's military had extensive ties with religious extremist groups, including organisations such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammed. For the most part, however, security forces severed relations with the extremists after September 11 and took a U-turn in Afghan policy.
Under pressure from the US, then-president Pervez Musharraf announced that lashkars (armed forces) would be banned, including extremist organisations such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
But what we see on the ground today reflects on the state's de facto tolerance of these banned extremist groups. Although Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has officially been outlawed, it is fully operational and carrying out its terrorist operations across the country. The government has so far failed to protect Shia communities, particularly those of the Hazara, which have been labelled as infidels by the Sunni extremists.
This raises questions about the real status of the military's relations with banned militant groups and also puts in question the competency and performance of the state's intelligence and security agencies to check the growing terrorist activities.
Taliban suicide bomb squads turned out in force last month to target Shiites who were celebrating the Muharram. On November 21, three terrorist attacks in Rawalpindi and Karachi killed at least two dozen - Pakistani Taliban not only accepted responsibility, but threatened more.
Karachi, the country's financial and industrial hub, is under Taliban siege with sectarian strife worsening over the past two months. In a single day last week, 12 people were killed in the city; more than 100 people have been killed in the past month.
There are reports that Mehsud has been hiding in Karachi for the past year, and that he was involved in an attack on a rangers headquarters in the city last month.
Karachi is a strategic hub for the Afghan war effort and counterterrorism efforts. The port is used by Nato forces to ship the bulk of supplies to Afghanistan, which might be threatened as the Taliban make inroads into the city.
In Balochistan, Mastung district is believed to be the stronghold of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Another 100 people, all of them from the Hazara community, have been killed in dozens of incidents in the province.
Hazara have been persecuted in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, having migrated over the past century to areas surrounding Quetta, the capital of Balochistan. Most Hazara communities are now carefully guarded enclaves because of the fear of being targeted by extremists. Most Hazaras restrict their movement in the province, and even in their own cities.
Sectarian violence in Quetta dates back to 1986, when a conflict broke out between Hazaras and police, which spiralled into a bloody Sunni-Shia riot. But this is just one of the conflicts that now rocks Balochistan, including Shia-Sunni sectarianism, and the Baloch separatist battle against the repressive state. The United States is already expanding drone attacks in the area, in part to target members of the Quetta Shura, which includes the top leadership of the Afghan Taliban.
Balochistan also borders the Iranian province of Sistan-Balochistan where Jundallah, a Sunni militant organisation, has been involved in launching terror attacks on Iranian Shiites. Many believe that Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has a close association with Jundallah across the border.
Both groups certainly share the common sectarian agenda and both are involved in anti-Iran activities. That means that attacks targeting Shiites have implications for regional stability.
The province is the key node for strategic gas pipeline projects from Iran and Central Asia to energy-hungry south and west Asia. Unrest in Balochistan and Jundullah's anti-Iran activities make the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project a risky venture.
Iran has other reasons to be concerned: in July 2010, at least 27 people were killed by suicide attacks in Zahidan, the provincial capital of Sistan-Balochistan. Jundallah claimed responsibility for the attacks to avenge the execution of its leader, Abdul Malik Rigi, in Zahidan earlier in the year.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jundallah have emerged as grave threats to the pipeline projects (which incidentally are actively opposed by the US). Pakistan has a vital interest, then, in curbing such groups.
But what is more alarming is the state's complete failure to protect Hazara people from attacks by extremists, who seem to enjoy complete freedom to carry out their genocidal agenda against Shia communities. In Balochistan, the armed forces are fully engaged in quelling Baloch separatists - and they pay little heed to the sectarian attacks against Hazara.
Syed Fazl-e-Haider is a development analyst in Pakistan