Ethnic Baloch militants in Pakistan in a 2020 file photo. Image: Twitter

In a new phase in the long-running Baloch separatist war in Pakistan, a recent Baloch Nationalist Army (BNA) terror attack in the city of Lahore indicates the insurgency is expanding from Balochistan’s rugged mountains to Punjab urban centers.

On January 20, a bomb blast ripped through a busy Lahore business district, killing three and wounding over 20. The BNA, which was formed less than two weeks before the bombing after the United Baloch Army (UBA) and the Baloch Republic Army (BRA) merged, accepted responsibility for the attack in a social media post carried by media.

The merger is significant not only because it fuses two potent militant groups fighting for the separation of Balochistan from Pakistan but also because the new entity will target China’s interests in the country, including likely Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects.

The newly formed BNA also marks the coming together of the Marris and Bugtis, two of Balochistan’s largest tribes that historically have not always seen eye to eye.

But where the tribes do agree is in their fight against perceived state abuse in Balochistan, perpetuated in many instances through military-protected, China-funded infrastructure projects that they contend do not help or involve local populations.    

The UBA is led by Mehran Marri, the son of late Baloch ideologue Khair Bakhsh Marri, who led the Marris for years. The BRA, on the other hand, is led by Brahumdagh Bugti, the son of Akbar Bugti, the Baloch sardar and leader of the Bugti tribe who was killed in 2006 in a military operation.

Although both Marri and Bugti tribes populate other militant groups, including the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) now led by Khair Bakhsh’s other son, Hyrbyair Marri, the UBA-BRA merger underlines how Baloch militant groups are increasingly converging across tribal lines to form a united front against the Pakistan state.

In 2018, the BLA merged with the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) and BRA to form Baluch Raji Ajohi Sangar (BRSA), or Baloch Nationalist Freedom Movement.

Balochistan Liberation Army fighters at an undisclosed location in a file photo. Photo: AFP

This cross-tribal convergence is apart from the Baloch militant groups’ active attempts at cultivating support from non-Baloch disaffected ethnic militant outfits, particularly from Sindh province, which shares a border with Balochistan.

In June 2020, the BRSA formed an alliance with a Sindhi militant group known as the Sindudesh Revolutionary Army (SRA). The alliance was formally announced in July 2020 to “liberate” both Sindh and Balochistan and target the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a US$60 billion spoke on Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The newly formed BNA shares the same insurgent objectives. In a BNA statement shared with Balochistan-based media, the group said it was formed to “expand Baloch national resistance movement against the Pakistani military’s fascism.”  

The statement also confirmed that the BNA would continue to be a part of the BRSA, and, like the BRSA, would intensify attacks against both “Pakistan state and its partners (e.g. China).”

This expansion appears to have two tactical facets. Whereas the BRSA has been keen to choose hard targets – Pakistan security forces or Chinese personnel and projects – the BNA’s first attack in Lahore, which apparently was originally going to target a bank, shows it will focus at least partly on soft targets in urban areas both inside and outside of Balochistan.

The two-pronged strategy is a major cause of concern for Pakistan, especially at a time when it is already facing a resurgent Islamist challenge from the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistan Taliban. TTP has recently ramped up its cross-border attacks from Afghanistan targeting security forces.

The big unanswered question, however, concerns why is the Baloch insurgency intensifying now? The mergers and promise of intensified attacks are directly tied to the situation in Afghanistan for two reasons.

First, although the Afghan Taliban is not itself allied with any Baloch insurgents, its victory last year against a superpower has “inspired Baloch insurgent groups into forming a united front to achieve a similar victory, engage the Pakistan army in a serious war to give the Pakistan state a formidable challenge,” said a Baloch nationalist who requested anonymity.

Second, because Pakistan’s relations with the Afghan Taliban have deteriorated since the latter’s seizure of power in Kabul, reportedly with help and guidance from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Islamabad now lacks the influence to pressure the Taliban to eliminate Baloch separatists based in Afghanistan.

A Tehreek-e-Taliban fighter in a file photo. The terror group is ramping up its attacks in Pakistan. Photo: Facebook

The BNA’s hope for a strong, popularly backed war will most likely aim to leverage recent popular protests in Balochistan’s Gwadar against local people’s exclusion from fishing grounds and businesses in favor of privileged Chinese trawlers.

That comes on top of local exclusion from the China-financed port at Gwadar, which the Pakistan military has sealed off from locals for security reasons. Under terms of the port’s construction, China will receive 90% of revenues generated there for 40 years.  

According to a veteran Baloch insurgent who requested anonymity, “with the crown jewel of CPEC in Pakistan now completely disillusioned with the promise of development, an opportunity for Baloch insurgent groups to win back popular support for their war does exist.”

He said the recent success of the Gwadar protests in forcing Pakistan authorities to meet at least their minimum demands, including protecting their businesses from perceived as illegal Chinese fishing boats, shows that the Pakistan state can be forced to yield to Baloch resistance.

A deep-seated sense of exclusion has driven Baloch nationalism and militant insurgency since the 1948 forced accession of Balochistan to Pakistan, according to Mir Muhammad Ali, a veteran Baloch nationalist who fought the Pakistan Army in the 1970s.

This, he says, continued during both military dictatorships as well as under the so-called democratic eras, with the present hybrid regime controlling Balochistan even more directly since 2018 than was the case during the previous government of Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N).

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s military-aligned administration clearly senses the rising risk.

Pakistani naval personnel stand guard near a ship carrying containers at the Gwadar port. Photo: AFP / Aamir Quereshi

His appointment last year of Jamhoori Watan Party chief Shahzain Bugti to hold talks with Baloch militant groups has failed to make any meaningful progress on underlying issues, not least the fact that their province remains under the military’s political, economic and administrative control.

The Pakistan Army, rather than rolling back its presence to facilitate dialogue, is now expanding its security and economic footprint, seen in its fortified presence at Gwadar and involvement in the development of one of the world’s biggest untapped copper and gold deposits at the province’s Reko Diq.

Both, analysts and observers say, could provide potent targets for the newly merged BNA.