Balochistan’s deadly confluence of separatist insurgency and Islamist militancy
Baloch separatists and the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan are growing closer in Balochistan, threatening the Pakistan state and military as well as Chinese interests
On 12 July, in the Zhob and Sui districts of Balochistan, the Pakistan Army lost 12 soldiers in two attacks claimed by Tehreek-e-Jihad Pakistan – said to be an outgrowth of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an affiliate of the Afghan Taliban. The attacks marked the army's single largest loss of troops in any engagement in 2023 so far, and came on top of dozens of attacks by Baloch separatist insurgents in recent times. According to the 'Pakistan Security Report 2022' from the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, an Islamabad-based NGO, Baloch insurgent groups such as the Balochistan Liberation Front and Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) carried out 71 attacks in 2022 alone, mainly targeting security and military personnel. These included incidents inside but also outside Balochistan – such as a BLA-claimed suicide attack in April 2022 that targeted Chinese teachers working at the University of Karachi. Meanwhile, Pakistan's military forces embedded in Balochistan are fighting what the government calls a "foreign-funded conspiracy" against Pakistan. The 2016 arrest in Balochistan of Kulbhushan Jadhav, an alleged Indian intelligence officer, lent credence to these claims.
Pakistan's military has been embroiled in intensive counterinsurgency operations in Balochistan since at least 2006, when Akbar Bugti, the Sardar of Bugti tribe, was killed in an operation authorised by General Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan at the time. That action triggered what Baloch nationalists today call the "fifth war of independence" in Balochistan since 1948, when a section of the Baloch rose up against accession to the newly independent Pakistan. In the last decade or so, Pakistan's internal war in Balochistan has intensified not only because the state has failed to address the underlying reason for the separatist insurgency – that is, the Baloch people's demand for control of the province's rich natural resources and a fair share of power – but also because of the state's overwhelming reliance on the use of force to try and crush the insurgency. This has led to a massive increase in the level of militarisation in Balochistan. To take just one manifestation of this: the Pakistan Army created a 15,000-strong Special Security Division in 2016 to protect China–Pakistan Economic Corridor projects – a large number of them in Balochistan, including the ongoing development of the deep-water port at Gwadar. The growing military presence is in addition to private militias led by pro-state local Sardars that tend to control and suppress the Baloch population, especially those sympathetic to the separatist cause.
The fact that the Pakistan state has struggled to control separatist violence despite the massive militarisation already points to the limits of its abilities in Balochistan, the country's largest province by territory but smallest by population. Now, it is facing three different wars in the province: the long-running separatist insurgency, surging Islamist militancy, and military-led counterinsurgency operations. Even more problematic for Pakistan is the possibility of a growing alliance between Baloch insurgents and Islamist militant groups. As the UN Security Council's Al-Qaeda Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team noted in a February 2023 report, last summer the TTP "announced its decision to approve the application of 'Majeed Brigade' to join TTP." The Majeed Brigade is the BLA's elite squad, tasked with carrying out suicide attacks.
When the United States invaded Afghanistan aiming to crush the Taliban in 2001, Balochistan became the Afghan group's second home. Quetta, Balochistan's capital city, became home to the so-called "Quetta Shura" of the Taliban leadership. The Afghan Taliban are no longer based there, having returned to Afghanistan after the US withdrawal from the country in 2021, but the TTP is resurgent in Pakistan on the back of the Afghan Taliban's return to power across the border, and is expanding into Balochistan from its traditional base in Khyber Pakhtunkhwah. In this, it seems to be capitalising on widespread dissatisfaction among the Baloch people, and using the chance to intensify its war on Pakistan with the aim of creating a mini-Islamic emirate. One effect of the growing Islamist militancy has been a sharp rise in violence against Balochistan's Shia and other religious minorities.
While the Baloch insurgency is secular and the TTP is a religious outfit, the possibility of their convergence cannot be ruled out. Baloch separatists have been operating from Afghanistan for years, and especially amid the intensified military operations that accompanied the "fifth war of independence" they found a favourable sanctuary across the border – just like TTP militants facing crackdowns from the Pakistan military in this period. Recently, the TTP has been trying to gain more traction in Baloch society by supporting emotive Baloch narratives and causes – for instance, using videos to raise the issue of "missing persons" believed to have been forcibly disappeared by Pakistan forces as part of the Balochistan conflict. The idea is that since both the TTP and Baloch insurgents are fighting the same enemy, an alliance is fully warranted.
The common rival is not just Pakistan but also China. For Baloch insurgents, China represents a modern-day East Indian Company, exploiting Balochistan's resources without extending any benefit to the local people. Chinese firms are mining Balochistan's mineral wealth, and an expanded Gwadar Port is the capstone of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor. The Gwadar Rights Movement, which emerged in 2021 and has organised popular protests in the port city, is specifically targeted at Chinese companies fishing illegally in waters traditionally belonging to the local Baloch people. For the TTP, China happens to be a country that suppresses Muslims inside its own territories, and jihad against it is therefore warranted. In targeting Chinese interests, the TTP and Baloch insurgents are also, whether directly or indirectly, supported by Islamic State–Khorasan Province, which also sees China as a rival.
In sum, multiple national, transnational and regional players are now vying for control, influence and resources in Balochistan – making peace here an extremely distant prospect. As one human-rights activist working on Balochistan put it to me, a "thick fog" surrounds the entire province, with peace, an equitable settlement, de-militarisation and meaningful power-sharing reduced to nothing more than points of discussion for the select few in Islamabad.
A lot can still be done, if only those with the power to do it cared to. For one thing, the Pakistan state must recognise that a primary reason for the separatist insurgency has been the absence of power-sharing. In 2010, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan transferred, at least on paper, most administrative, legislative and financial powers from the federal government to the provinces – but nowhere has the transfer been more meaningless than in Balochistan. This is because of the continued domination in the province of the military, which has the power to even manufacture provincial governments by supporting select political groups. A case in point: the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), which came into being shortly before the 2018 general elections, won them in Balochistan and established its government in the province, in the process marginalising nationalist parties. Numerous BAP politicians I have spoken to do not deny the military establishment's support.
This follows a decades-old pattern of domination and manipulation by the state and establishment to maintain a hold over Balochistan. And it is this that has to change to allow for meaningful elections and the emergence of a genuine leadership, which should then take real charge of and deal with the separatists. Pakistan's upcoming general elections offer the chance of such a change, though few would hope it will be taken. De-militarisation is also necessary, not just in terms of winding down military operations to pave the way for talks with peace talks, but also in terms of ending the military's involvement in economic ventures in Balochistan.
To end Islamist militancy, the Pakistan state needs to fundamentally change its policy of dallying with the Taliban, and its habit of trying to differentiate between "good" Taliban that can be an asset and "bad" Taliban that must be stamped out. The TTP and its affiliates draw support and inspiration from the Afghan Taliban, and Pakistan needs to put pressure on the Taliban government in Kabul – both directly and via other states, especially China and Russia – to end its backing for these groups.
Of course the key question is: will the Pakistan state do any of this? In Pakistan, the military establishment continues to dominate the country's security policy via the National Security Council, and much else besides. Even with the many crises engulfing Pakistan, it looks unlikely to change its old and time-tested (even if failed) strategy of relying on force and political manipulation to try and resolve complex political problems, including the question of Balochistan.
Recent changes to the Army Act and the Official Secrets Act point to an increasing rather than decreasing political role for the military. Where the Official Secrets Act gives sweeping powers to security agencies, Section 175-E of the Army Act allows the army to play, directly or indirectly, a role in the development of the country. The same act also gives legal sanction to the army's multi-billion-dollar business empire, as well as criminalising any criticism of the army's politics.
Given that the army is now an entrenched political and economic player in Pakistan, and its influence on the country's political, economic and security policies is unlikely to disappear on its own, Balochistan's situation as a battlefield of multiple warring parties is set to become a lot worse. The thick fog engulfing it is set to grow thicker. And for a country of 240 million people already facing a severe economic crisis, the prospect of many wars in Balochistan, or of a united one with separatists and Islamists joining hands, only adds to the danger and dread.