Separatism is just one of the looming problems centered on Balochistan. Photo: AFP

On April 26, the attack by female suicide bomber Shari Baloch, a 30-year-old research scholar and schoolteacher, that resulted in the deaths of four people including three Chinese teachers at Karachi University, put into further question the myopic security thinking and excessive use of power to counter insurgency in Balochistan.

The 17-year Baloch separatist movement is entering a new phase that could pose more challenges for the state of Pakistan. 

The Baloch Liberation Army and Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) became more resonant after the killing of the BLA’s most influential commander Aslam Baloch, alias Achu Baloch, on December 25, 2018, in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

From January to March this year, Baloch insurgents carried out more than 20 attacks resulting in deaths of more than 80 security personnel. The attacks of early February in Panjgur and Naushki districts of Balochistan province resulted in the deaths of more than 70 security personnel.  

Balochistan covers 44% of Pakistan’s total land area, has its largest coastline, a significant strategic location, and the main trade transit routes, with a 180,000-square-kilometer economic zone. It is also rich in resources. All that would seem to imply that the area will be the center of conflicts and explorations in the future. 

But the province is also known to be home to ethnic and sectarian cauldrons, rampant militancy and a widening schism between the state and the Baloch people, which may threaten the national-security interests of Pakistan. 

The history of Baloch strife with the state of Pakistan has undoubtedly, gone through great metamorphosis since the 1970s when insurgency was strictly limited to tribals. The Baloch insurgencies of 1948, 1958, 1963 and 1970 were on specific territory, but the current movement has occupied large zones.

As well, the sequence of Baloch militant events has now transformed to an exclusively nationalist cause that has galvanized the youth. The emergence of technology, the effectiveness of BSO-Azad’s (Baloch Students Organization) nationalist and separatist narrative, and magnetism of leftist ideology have brought the movement to a new phase.

The growing tendency toward guerrilla warfare among the new generation is the result of abusive security operations that observe the conventional use of power as the only course of action to tackle the secessionist movement. This is utterly wrong in Balochistan’s case. Continuation of this hardline policy may worsen the scenario further. 

Many of the highly educated Baloch youth studying in top national universities are in a state of grave distress, convinced that the state is not serious about solving the insurrection politically. They feel that the only option left is to become part of a guerrilla war against the state. Even females, while breaking the traditional tribal taboos, are becoming part of the insurgency. Shari Baloch’s suicide attack is more evidence in his regard.

The Baloch intelligentsia has repeatedly condemned Pakistani authorities’ attention to Balochistan’s fragile infrastructure, poverty-stricken condition, and pathetically low social indicators. Reports of the World Bank (2008, 2015) and the UN Development Program (2018) have clearly declared Balochistan as the most underdeveloped province of Pakistan.

The economically deteriorated province has great reservoirs of natural resources, but the country’s worst infrastructure, dangerous water crises, the lowest growth rate, highest rate of illiteracy, as the corruption and incompetence at the government level have brought the people of Balochistan to third-rate living standards. 

Economically, Balochs have the lowest per capita income as compared with other Pakistanis. The structural economic exploitation, exclusion of most of the Baloch community from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and alienation from other economic projects have stirred Baloch people to react in a rebellious way.

Baloch nationalist and president of Balochistan National Party Akhtar Mengal has rightly said that without giving control of Gwadar city to Balochistan, peace and stability are impossible. But the attitude of the federal government in terms of economic and political affairs has always supported the feelings of alienation among the Baloch community. 

Every insurgency, across the globe, is the result of political disagreements and grievances. Normally, an insurgency needs 12 years to maintain undefeated insurrection and guerrilla warfare. The Baloch insurgency is also political at its core. The life cycle of the Baloch insurgency is crossing into a phase that cannot be suppressed with the use of force.

The current imbalance and instability in Balochistan are the result of misuse of power by the state. Since 1948, political issues have been deliberately ignored. Unrest in the province was further aggravated by linking political issues to security threats.

The issue of security in the province has never been handled well. Instead, wrong policies of the federation, political differences, economic issues and lack of local control over natural resources have been the norm. Unfortunately, the state of Pakistan has never addressed these issues seriously. 

There is a clear difference between the democratic and secular mindset of Baloch youth and dictatorial attitude of the Pakistani ruling elite. The rampant development of an insurgent and separatist mindset among Baloch nationalists is the result of pejorative and oppressive designs of the state authorities that have alienated Baloch youth from mainstream politics and other affairs of the state.

We Pakistanis have to reimagine our policies and need to restart negotiations. Much has been done against the well-being of Baloch people. To avoid hostile powers exploiting Pakistan’s internal instability, state authorities need to wake up to what is going on in the province. 

The federal government led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif needs to form a fully empowered Grand National Dialogue Committee (GNDC) to negotiate with all Baloch insurgents both at home and abroad. 

In Balochistan, political leadership has always been either sidelined or divides, which is the core factor behind political unrest in the province.

In the early 1970s, when Nawab Akbar Bugti was the leading supporter of the security operation against the Marri tribe, the state brazenly supported Bugti to counter Nawab Khair Bux Marri and his tribe. The same Nawab Akbar Bugti was killed when he started supporting the public narrative and demanded a gas subsidy from the federal government. 

We have to abandon this sort of policy, and need to allow genuine political leadership to run the affairs of the province. 

Political negotiation is the only option to resolve Balochistan’s conflicts. The option of counterinsurgency has proved fruitless, even as security has never be the issue. Balochistan’s major issues are political and economic.

Mutual understanding, compromise and guaranteeing Baloch’s rights must be the focus points. False promises will further worsen the situation. The people’s demands must be addressed if the state of Pakistan wants stability and integrity. 

Control over resources, shares in economic mega-projects such as CPEC, and transfer of Gwadar’s control to Balochistan province are prerequisites to effective negotiation. 

To address the 70 years of grievances will surely need time, serious commitment, and sincerity. 

Rahim Nasar, an Islamabad-based security and political analyst, a PhD scholar, writes on regional security, political and strategic affairs with special focus on Central and South Asia. He tweets on @RahimNasari.