‘Fierce and Warlike’: Could the Baloch Separatist Movement Remain Pakistan’s Longest Insurgency?
The average life span of an insurgency is about 10-13 years[i]. Militant groups often succumb to political infighting, military dominance of opposition forces, rejection from local communities, or a combination of the three. Insurgencies tend to have ebbs and flows, but the vast majority are suppressed by governments. This has not been the case in Balochistan. The resource-rich, yet often neglected province in Southwest Pakistan has produced separatist insurgencies for over 60 years. Even with efforts to mitigate conflict through investment and development, Pakistani administrations have generally resorted to military answers. This may suggest the protracted nature of the dispute, and why it might not end in the near future. My aim is to provide a basic overview of the conflict, and describe what the insurgents and counterinsurgents have done well, and what they have done poorly. In doing so, one may see the various dimensions of the conflict and possibly obtain lessons to improve counterinsurgency (COIN) operations.
Compared to the rest of Pakistan, Baloch separatists argue they are economically marginalized. Despite endowments of natural resources, minerals, and gas reserves, the general feeling among separatists is that other provinces in the country have leveraged their assets. For example, “natural gas was discovered in Balochistan in 1952 and was soon made available to Punjab and Sindh, but Quetta, the provincial capital, failed to receive any piped gas until the 1980s”. [ii] Much of the resource extraction that does occur is accused of insufficient transparency, and revenue production that favors external actors. Today, Balochistan suffers from a lack of basic services, the lowest literacy rates of any province, and dismal poverty. Thus, armed groups have consistently demanded more political autonomy and control over provincial resources.
The Government of Pakistan (GoP) faces many challenges in developing Balochistan, but security concerns are perhaps the greatest impediment. Nestled close to Afghanistan and Iran, the Baloch people have seen extremists take sanctuary in their province. Porous borders make it easy for terrorists to flow from Afghanistan’s most volatile areas including Helmand, Zabul, and Kandahar.[iii] Consequently, hundreds of lives have been claimed by extremist violence in Balochistan. The horrific attack in August 2016 caused over 70 deaths in Quetta. The July 2018 suicide bombing in Mastung claimed 149 lives; one of the bloodiest attacks in Pakistan’s recent history. And on the day of Pakistan’s national election (July 25, 2018), ISIS claimed a suicide attack near a polling station in Quetta, killing 31.
While Baloch insurgent groups are not connected to foreign extremists, the two-pronged security threat presents a daunting and complex challenge. Since the initial Baloch uprising in May of 1948, the GoP has carried out numerous operations in the region through its army, intelligence agencies, and a paramilitary force known as the Frontier Corps. The most controversial actions involve abductions, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, and torture. The violence committed by the separatists is largely a response to Pakistan’s security establishment. And when army casualties occur, there seems to be a spike in abductions and torture. This cycle of retaliation has persisted for decades.
Origins and Characteristics of the Insurgency
18th century French maps reportedly called this area terre des Balodges, féroce et guerrieres, “land of the Baloch, fierce and warlike”.[iv] The description may still be accurate, as there have been five armed uprisings in Balochistan since Pakistan’s independence; the first in 1948 and the most recent in 2012.
The border between Balochistan and Afghanistan was established by the British in 1894, known as the Durand Line. Many see that demarcation as problematic because it cuts through the Pashtun tribes, the Baloch, and other ethnic areas. Because of the Durand Line, the Baloch essentially found themselves divided between three powers – the British Empire, Persia, and Afghanistan.[v] The Baloch make up roughly 2% of Iran’s population today, and appear to be isolated. According to Stuart Notholt, “they do not identify with the Persian national norms, their language has been forbidden in Iran, and they often face unemployment and discrimination.”[vi]
A tumultuous colonial past, friction with Pakistani forces, and a lack of development in basic needs led to nationalist and insurgent tendencies in Balochistan. While the majority of Baloch people want to remain with Pakistan, the violent and obstinate minority demand more autonomy. Since 1970, the main militant groups have included:
- Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA)
- Balochistan Republican Army (BRP)
- Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF)
- Lashakr-e-Balochistan (LeB)
- Baloch Republican Guard
- Baloch Liberation United Front (BLUF)
- United Baloch Army (UBA)
These groups have employed guerilla tactics to their advantage by moving in small units, disrupting construction and other state projects, camouflaging themselves with local communities, and seeking refuge in mountainous terrain. Violence is often used in the form of roadside bombs, car bombs, launching rockets at army camps, and kidnappings. The insurgents are estimated to have around 10,000 fighters[vii], and since the insurgency began they have reportedly experienced over 7000 casualties.[viii]
Strengths of the Insurgents
Six decades after Pakistan’s independence, the insurgency in Balochistan is still active. The longevity and resilience of the separatists is undoubtedly a strength, as they have learned to adapt and respond to various counterinsurgency methods. The institutional knowledge of insurgency that comes with experience has been valuable to armed groups. Not only has it made them durable, it also gets refined as Pakistan’s military technology and intelligence becomes more sophisticated.
The longevity of the Baloch insurgency has also allowed them to craft a narrative that represents their struggle. The conflict has been relatively underreported, but “the insurgents have been able to establish before the world that they want a free country…and they want to be treated as the masters of their region if the world wants to help.”[ix] The United Nations has gotten that message, but their efforts to alleviate conditions in Balochistan have reportedly been met with resistance from the GoP.[x] Overseas Pakistanis, many of whom live in advanced democratic countries, appear divided on the issue but may be inclined to support the Baloch struggle. The notion of self-determination and sovereignty is a powerful one. The insurgents seem determined to seize that, and convince domestic and global audiences of their legitimacy.
Various units of the insurgency are scattered throughout the province. For example, the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) allegedly hosts 25 camps across the region, but they also rely on “many other units conducting guerilla warfare in urban areas.”[xi] This is a strength given the vast terrain of Balochistan. Army units, Frontier Corps, and intelligence groups may find it arduous to pin down their targets. Though the insurgent factions differ in their approach, some more violent than others, their larger objective generally falls under the same umbrella of autonomy and resistance.
The groups have seldom merged, however. They appear content with having small, independent movements. Speaking with an Al Jazeera reporter, one insurgent stated that he does not want to repeat the mistakes made by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.[xii] Consolidating into one resistance force may have been a weakness for the Tamil Tigers, as they were soundly defeated by the Sri Lankan army in 2009. There are currently no indications that Baloch separatist groups will unite as one large insurgency.
Weaknesses of the Insurgents
Operating an insurgency in disparate groups has its weaknesses. Since the first uprising in 1948, the Baloch separatists have not achieved their main objective. The diversity of militant approaches has not been conducive to the overall goal of autonomy. It has, however, been effective in curtailing integration with Pakistan due to active retaliation against state forces. Recent years have indicated that the insurgency is slowing down. In April of 2017, roughly 500 rebel militants surrendered their weapons in an official ceremony in Quetta. Their decision was linked to GoP’s development agenda in Balochistan, specifically the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) initiative.[xiii]
There also does not appear to be a clear leadership structure within the insurgency, particularly after the death of the veteran leader Nawab Khair Baksh Marri in June 2014. Marri staunchly advocated for a free Balochistan, and was an admirer of Mao Zedong and Vladimir Lenin. Many believe that his death considerably weakened the Baloch separatist movement.[xiv] Marri’s void has not been filled, and could turn out to be a seminal moment in the insurgency’s decline.
Like many insurgencies, the Baloch militants have committed strategic blunders. These include “killing fellow Baloch and non-Baloch settlers, and launching attacks against Sindhi and Pashtun citizens.”[xv] These actions reflect dysfunctional command from within, and also show little regard for those who are not directly engaged with the central dispute. Baloch rebels have also experienced infighting, which is a common symptom of weak insurgencies. In 2015, the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) reportedly “killed on of its commanders, Ali Sher, and detained four of its freedom fighters.”[xvi] This was considered an alarming development because an attack like this had not occurred in their history.
Characteristics of the Counterinsurgent Forces
The GoP’s counterinsurgency efforts have primarily been led by its army, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the Directorate for Military Intelligence (MI), and the Frontier Corps (FC). Support was previously provided by Iran’s Imperial army until 1979, in addition to Iran’s Guard Corps and Border Guard. Since uprisings began in 1948, it is believed that Pakistan has committed around 100,000 troops to battle the insurgency, losing over 4,000 in casualties.
Beyond military and intelligence, the GoP has also devoted initiatives for development, aid, human rights assistance, and education in Balochistan. However, such initiatives have often been criticized for being inadequate and poorly executed. Many Baloch communities still believe that the majority of gas and mineral wealth is not being directed toward their needs. The federal government’s efforts to stimulate Balochistan’s economy has received mixed opinions. Consider the construction of Gwadar port, which sits on the Arabian Sea. To some, it appears a sincere attempt to generate revenue and address inequality. To others, it is an investment that does little to improve standard of living for communities.
Between military and civil efforts to fight the insurgency, the GoP has historically preferred the former. While there is no clear formula to defeating insurgencies, the consensus among counterinsurgency theorists is that most governments fail due to an overreliance of military force. Firepower and retaliation alone do not work effectively against guerrilla units, as many governments have learned; Pakistan is no different.
Strengths of the Counterinsurgency
The GoP’s commitment to maintaining a large military, complemented with extensive intelligence, is a key strength. From a defense standpoint, the Baloch insurgency does not pose a significant threat. Pakistan’s army, weaponry, training, and equipment is far superior and has not been concerned with major attacks on its capital or major provincial cities. While it is true that unannounced guerrilla attacks have disrupted army operations, the insurgents do not have the capability to overpower Pakistan’s forces in any major offensive.
The counterinsurgency has also devoted resources toward economic development and future investment in Balochistan. Consider the 2013 China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a multi-year $46 billion program that connects the two Asian giants:
“Pakistan hopes the economic corridor will boost industrialization and growth. The construction of highways and a deep-sea port in Balochistan are major components of the project, which has also been targeted by separatists. The military says insurgents have killed dozens of workers in attacks on projects linked to the economic corridor."[xvii]
In the face of guerrilla attacks and frequent disruption of economic projects, the GoP has not deviated from its original development objective. This is a strength because it underscores the government’s commitment to a historically neglected province. Counterinsurgency theory suggests that civil efforts to demonstrate empathy and care for local communities are necessary, and Pakistan has made such efforts in recent years.
Some of Pakistan’s elected officials, as well as the general public, have changed their sentiments toward Balochistan. The province makes up 44% of the country’s total landmass, and losing it would have severe implications. Economics aside, much of the public feels strongly about maintaining the country’s social fabric. If Balochistan secedes, there would be a huge downturn in morale. Pakistan’s newly elected Prime Minister, Imran Khan, is aware of such risks and has made commitments to elevating Balochistan. In the opening statements of his inaugural speech, he expressed gratitude to Baloch people and pledged his support for their needs.[xviii]
Weaknesses of the Counterinsurgency
Pakistan’s military and intelligence bodies have faced accusations of abuse, abductions, killings, forced disappearances, and torture. According to Voice for Missing Baloch Persons, “about 18,000 Baloch have been abducted from Balochistan since the 1970s.”[xix] Such incidents seem to re-occur when insurgents kill army troops. The cycle of reprisal killings therefore continues, and has been a significant weakness in the counterinsurgency. The author Yunas Samad recalls that “the 2006 military assassination of Akbar Bugti, a major political figure within Balochistan, left the province politically polarized with a renewed cycle of bombings, abductions and murders.”[xx] Pakistan’s lack of counterinsurgency discipline has recurrently energized the rebel base, allowing the conflict to persist for decades.
The chronic censorship of journalism in Balochistan has also been a weakness in the counterinsurgency. Having a free media with constitutional rights is critical in any successful democracy. If locals do not have a voice for their grievances, then some may be at risk of joining violent movements which demand basic rights. The federal government has also been accused of kidnapping journalists. One news editor of an outspoken Balochi newspaper "who had gone missing on March 24, 2013, was found on August 21. The body was so badly mutilated that his sister had to look for old marks on his hands to be sure it was him." Brutality from the state seldom works in counterinsurgencies. The GoP will be challenged by more resistance if the cruel acts of abductions continue.
Political and economic deprivation have also contributed to the Baloch insurgency. The federal government is often blamed for biased financial practices that put local institutions at a disadvantage. The economic suppression has further discouraged Baloch people from entering national politics. If the state is actively denying their province from integrating with the country at-large, then there is no incentive to participate in elections. Many people in Balochistan identify themselves first as Baloch, and then Pakistani. In addition to the reasons mentioned above, they see an insufficient commitment by the GoP to provide schools, public amenities, decent hospitals, and social services. Compared to the Punjab province, for example, Balochistan suffers from lower literacy rates, inadequate buildings, and poor facilities management.
Greater attention has been drawn in recent years to the atrocities committed in Balochistan. The decades-long insurgency has galvanized the nation and cannot be resolved until there is better investment in civil efforts. The Supreme Court and its affiliated judicial bodies must convince the military to respect the law and be an example of human rights. The armed groups in Balochistan have largely defeated themselves through infighting and a fractured leadership system. Pakistan should seize this opportunity to address the core grievances that Balochistan faces. Citizens of the deprived province deserve a legitimate opportunity to sustain a respectable livelihood. The national election on July 25, 2018 could be a boost for Balochistan. As for the GoP, it can choose to build progress or repeat a dangerous history.
[i] Rabasa, Gordon, Chalk et al. “From Insurgency to Stability”, 2011, The RAND Corporation, pg. xvi
[ii] Anthony Cordesman; Varun Vira. “Pakistan – Violence versus Stability”, 2011, CSIS, pg. 95
[iii] Ibid, pg. 91
[iv] “Balochistan Insurgency”, GlobalSecurity.org;
[v]Notholt, Stuart. 2008. Fields of Fiew: An Atlas of Ethnic Conflict; pg. 25
[vii] Maloy Krisna Dhar. August 2009. “Balochistan: Cruces of History – Part II”
[viii] “Balochistan Assessment – 2017”. South Asia Terrorism Portal. November 2017.
[ix] Zurutuza, Karlos. “Understanding Pakistan’s Baloch Insurgency”. The Diplomat. June, 2015.
[x] Nazish, Kiran. Interview with Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur. The Diplomat. December, 2013.
[xi] Zurutuza, Karlos. “Understanding Pakistan’s Baloch Insurgency”. The Diplomat. June, 2015.
[xii] Al Jazeera World – “Balochistan: Pakistan’s other war”. January, 2012.
[xiii] Hindustan Times. “Around 500 Baloch rebel militants surrender...” April, 2017. https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/around-500-baloch-rebel-militants-surrender-pledge-allegiance-to-pakistan/story-qbk6xnZtd2Z0sHaYWcR6jJ.html
[xiv] Akbar, Malik Siraj. “The End of Pakistan’s Baloch Insurgency?” Huffington Post. January, 2015
[xv] Zurutuza, Karlos. “Understanding Pakistan’s Baloch Insurgency”. The Diplomat. June, 2015.
[xvi] Akbar, Malik Siraj. “The End of Pakistan’s Baloch Insurgency?” Huffington Post. January, 2015
[xvii] “What is Pakistan’s Balochistan Insurgency and Why is India’s Modi Talking About It?” August 2016. The Wall Street Journal. https://blogs.wsj.com/briefly/2016/08/17/what-is-pakistans-balochistan-insurgency-and-why-is-indias-modi-talking-about-it-the-short-answer/
[xviii] “Imran Khan’s speech in full”, Al Jazeera, July 26, 2018.
[xix] Nazish, Kiran. Interview with Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur. The Diplomat. December, 2013
[xx] Samad, Yunas. Understanding the insurgency in Balochistan, Commonwealth & Comparative Politics. 2014.