Understanding the Baloch insurgency
The ongoing violence in Balochistan is representative of the total alienation of the Baloch population from the Pakistani establishment. Schools in Balochistan have neither been singing the Pakistani national anthem nor flying the Pakistani national flag, instead the flag of independent Balochistan adorns most of them. A ‘package’ announced by the federal government in November 2009—and rejected by Baloch nationalists—shows that Pakistani policy-makers do not understand the Baloch grievances. The proposal to hand over the proposed cantonments in the province to Frontier Corps (FC) was akin to rubbing salt on Baloch wounds, for it has always been considered as a symbol of Islamabad’s continuing occupation of their land.
The current spate of violence in Balochistan is the fifth since the region became part of Pakistan—under controversial circumstances—and comes three decades after the last one was put down by General Zia ul Haq in 1979. Each insurgency has been more intense than the previous one and the organisational capabilities and the popular support for the insurgents have only increased with each insurgency. At the height of the last insurgency in 1973, 55,000 insurgents faced 80,000 Pakistani troops supported by Pakistani and Iranian air forces. More than 5,000 insurgents and over 3,300 soldiers were killed over the next four years. The insurgents had hoped for a Soviet intervention, which never materialised.
General Zia granted general amnesty and rehabilitated most of the insurgents. Thereafter a section of Baloch nationalists were always a part of the provincial government. The current insurgency started in 2004, during General Pervez Musharraf’s regime, when most of the nationalists were out of power in Quetta. The insurgents mainly targeted development activities and economic targets. Gas pipelines, railway tracks, bridges, power transmission lines, telephone exchanges, military and government installations were regularly targeted.
In early 2005 a controversy over the rape of a lady doctor by a Pakistani army officer set off a bout of violence during which, in four days of fighting, the insurgents fired more than 14,000 rounds of small arms, 436 mortars and 60 rockets. It took more than seven days to restore gas supplies to industrial units in Punjab and Sindh.
This was followed by another round of pitched battle in Dera Bugti. A minor exchange of fire between the tribesmen and the FC personnel resulted in both sides firing rockets and shelling mortars at each other’s positions, as well as at the civilian population. A number of shells hit Nawab Akbar Bugti’s residential complex and the surrounding Hindu Mohalla. The day-long shelling claimed 60 lives, including 33 Hindus and eight FC men. Over 100 people were injured and houses and temples were severely damaged. It appeared as if the security forces wanted to eliminate Nawab Bugti. In the event, he was killed by the Pakistani armed forces in August 2006, under suspicious circumstances. Both his killing and that of Nawabzada Ballach Marri in November 2007 indicate that the Pakistani military establishment continues to believe that the insurgency should be controlled by eliminating leaders, rather than coming to a negotiated settlement.
After the February 2008 general elections there were expectations that the return of democracy would assuage the Baloch and the peace would return to the troubled province. The Pakistan People’s Party publicly apologised for past “atrocities and injustices” and Asif Ali Zardari travelled to Quetta to try to bring the dissidents on board. However, the subsequent killing of Baloch nationalists indicated that the military establishment takes its own decisions, independent of their ‘political masters’. Baloch outfits declared a unilateral ceasefire in September 2008, but the absence of any meaningful initiative by the Pakistani government forced them to resume their armed struggle. Since 2009, Pakistani security forces have killed many second rung leaders of the Baloch movement. However this approach has deeply alienated a significant section of the Baloch population, perhaps permanently.
There is a deep-rooted alienation of Baloch population, who feel that they have been denied representation in the government, which is consequently perceived as alien. There are hardly any Baloch in the top army or federal government jobs. Even most of the provincial jobs are held by outsiders. At around 33 percent, unemployment in Balochistan is far higher than the overall national average of 19 percent.
There is also the case of perceived economic exploitation by Islamabad, wherein the Baloch charge that their natural resoruces are being exploited without commensurate compensation. A case in point is natural gas from Sui, which was being supplied to almost all the households and industries across Pakistan save Balochistan, till General Zia decided to set up a corps headquarters in Quetta.
The Baloch fear being marginalised in their own province by the rising influx of Pashtuns, Punjabis and others. This feeling of being reduced to a minority has also led them to oppose the mega projects being undertaken, as these are perceived as instruments to facilitate the colonisation of their land. The Gwadar port project caused great heartburn as the Pakistani establishment claims that the city will become another Karachi, implying a large-scale influx of outsiders, as the population of Karachi is larger than that of entire Balochistan. To aggravate the problem, Gwadar has been connected to Karachi via a coastal highway but not to the Baloch hinterland, thereby denying the province any benefit from the new port. It is doubtful that the rest of the province will derive any benefit from the new port. The absence of genuine federalism and the province’s lack of any worthwhile decision-making powers have further exacerbated the alienation.
An insurgency of such magnitude cannot be sustained for so long without foreign assistance. The Pakistani media has been agog with rumours of Indian, Iranian, Afghan and even a Russian hand in the insurgency. These countries do not have the wherewithal to support the insurgency. At the same time, Baloch interests converge with that of the United States. Instability in the region undermines Gwadar’s utility and diminishes the prospects of a Chinese maritime facility close to the Persian Gulf. Besides, as long as Balochistan remains in turmoil, the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, which US opposes, cannot materialise. The Baloch insurgency can also destabilise Iran. In any case, a sovereign Balochistan provides access to Afghanistan and Central Asia independent of Iran and Pakistan. Rising Baloch nationalism has also rolled back the Taliban influence in Balochistan. Although it is unlikely that the United States wants to break Pakistan up, it might however, like to keep the option open in case future Pakistani regimes are not so accomodative.
The insurgents realise that they will easily be outgunned by the security forces
in face-to-face battles. They understand that their greatest strength is the inhospitable terrain of Balochistan. As the Pakistani army cannot live off the land in this arid region, it is dependent on long lines of communications to sustain themselves. The insurgents are therefore targeting the infrastructure links with the aim of delinking Balochistan from the rest of Pakistan. They have even gone outside Balochistan to target the infrastructure. The insurgents appear well-versed in military craft and are flush with arms and ammunition. They have been prompt in claiming responsibility for any act of violence perpetuated and seem to be proficient in the entire gamut of psychological operations. The insurgents have also attempted to instigate other ethnic minorities against perceived Punjabi domination with the aim of widening the conflict.
Unlike previous insurgencies, all major tribes are on insurgents’ side. The insurgency may therefore linger on and deter foreign investors from investing in Pakistan. A prolonged insurgency will delay mega projects being undertaken in the province to the point of making some of them unviable. As far as India is concerned, a prolonged insurgency that ties down Pakistani troops within the country will diminish their capability to sponsor terror across the borders. Large-scale disturbances in Balochistan may force Pakistan to import petroleum products for the Punjabi heartland directly from Indian refineries and be more accommodative towards regional economic integration and the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA). The drawback for India is that the security environment prevents gas pipelines from Iran and Central Asia from materialising, reducing options for India’s energy security.
Alok Bansal is the author of Balochistan in Turmoil: Pakistan at Crossroads (Manas, 2009) and is executive director of the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi.