Balochistan Assessment - 2010
The strategic and resource-rich Balochistan province continues to remain on the periphery of Pakistan's projects and perceptions. With both the "dialogue with those who are up in the mountains" and the counter-insurgency (CI) operations failing, the Baloch insurrection persists. Worse, subversion from the Taliban-Al Qaeda in the north of the province has added to the region’s complexities.
There has, however, been some reduction in violence during 2009. At least 268 persons, including 148 civilians and 83 Security Force (SF) personnel, have died in the current year (till November 20) according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP). Significantly, there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of insurgents killed, an indication that CI operations are not yielding results.
Annual Fatalities in Balochistan, 2006-2009
Source: South Asia Terrorism Portal
* Data till November 20, 2009
Despite the reduced levels of violence, the insurgency continues to simmer, with a steady stream of bomb and rocket attacks on gas pipelines, railway tracks, power transmission lines, bridges, and communications infrastructure, as well as on military establishments and Government facilities. While there have been at least 126 bomb blasts and grenade explosions across the province in 2009 [data till November 20 (Source: SATP)], there have also been rocket attacks (numbers for which are not available currently) targeting state installations reported almost on a daily basis in the province. Baloch insurgents have also targeted Government officials and politicians. On October 25, 2009, for instance, the Balochistan Education Minister Shafiq Ahmed Khan was shot dead near his house in Quetta. The Baloch Liberation United Front (BLUF) immediately claimed responsibility for the assassination. The BLUF spokesman, Shahiq Baloch, said the Minister, born to Punjabi settlers, was killed due to his anti-Baloch policies, and to "avenge the state-sponsored murders of Baloch nationalist leaders Ghulam Muhammad, Sher Muhammad and Lala Munir in Turbat in Balochistan some time ago." Earlier, on August 6, 2009, the Minister for Excise and Taxation, Sardarzada Rustam Khan Jamali, was shot dead in Karachi, the capital of Sindh province, which has a significant Baloch population. Though the Police subsequently managed to arrest a key suspect, who is an alleged member of a car lifting gang, investigators are still unclear about the motive behind the mysterious killing, and there is suspicion of Baloch involvement. On October 18, 2009, a grenade was hurled into the house of the Information Minister Younas Mullazai in Quetta, but the Minister was not in at that time and no loss of life or injury was reported. Rahimullah Yusufzai notes,
Muhammad Ejaz Khan similarly reported in The News on October 18, 2009, that Balochistan had seen a sharp increase in incidents of targeted killing, especially since 2003. According to a senior official of the provincial Government, there have been two principal kinds of targeted killings – the sectarian and those backed by insurgent or separatist groups. In most reported incidents, the targets were found to have been shot in the head by highly trained shooters. Most of the victims of these targeted killings have been Shias and Punjabis (generally referred to as settlers). In Quetta and other Baloch-dominated areas of the province, Punjabi barbers and labourers have also been routinely targeted. Dr. Farrukh, the Superintendent of Police in Quetta, disclosed that the Police had arrested four high-profile killers and blamed the outlawed Sunni outfit, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), for the targeted killing incidents. The Hazara community in Quetta claims that over 270 of its people have been killed over the past six years.
Currently, there are at least six active insurgent groups in Balochistan: the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), the Baloch Republican Army, the Baloch People's Liberation Front, the Popular Front for Armed Resistance, the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) and BLUF. BLUF, according to Rahimullah Yusufzai, appears more aggressive and violent even than BLA and BLF. In February 2009, BLUF cadres abducted American John Solecki, who headed the UNHCR mission in Balochistan, but freed him unharmed after "much effort, and probably a deal." The kidnapping signaled the "arrival of the BLUF as the most radical of the three Baloch separatist groups even though it isn't clear if these are separate or overlapping factions operating under different names." In addition, young Baloch separatists "forming part of the Diaspora and living in Kabul, Kandahar, Dubai, London, Brussels and Geneva, are now often calling the shots in Balochistan and setting the agenda."
The insurgents retain capabilities to carry out acts of sabotage on a daily basis across the province. Acts of violence are, importantly, not restricted to a few areas but are occurring in practically all the 26 Districts, including the provincial capital Quetta. Quetta continues to witness substantial militant activity, both from the Islamist extremists and the Baloch nationalists. There were 73 militancy-related incidents in Quetta during 2009 (till November 15) as against 81 in 2008; 72 in 2007; 75 in 2006; 61 in 2005; 51 in 2004; and 32 in 2003.
While the low-intensity nationalist insurgency continues, there is a far more insidious movement of subversion being orchestrated by the Taliban-al Qaeda combine in the northern part of the province. The Baloch insurgency, in fact, plays out in the sidelines of greater theatre of violence, as Islamist militants in the north orchestrate attacks on both sides of the Afghan border in their areas of domination. According to General Stanley McChrystal, the US Commander in Afghanistan, Taliban militants in Balochistan, known as the ‘Quetta Shura’, operate openly from the provincial capital, conducting attacks inside both Balochistan and Afghanistan. On September 29, 2009, The Washington Post quoted US Ambassador to Pakistan, Anne W. Patterson, as saying that "In the past, we focused on al Qaeda because they were a threat to us. The Quetta Shura mattered less to us because we had no troops in the region… Now our troops are there on the other side of the border, and the Quetta Shura is high on Washington’s list." Other US officials claim that virtually all of the Afghan Taliban’s strategic decisions are made by the Quetta Shura, Dawn reported on September 30, 2009. Decisions flow from the group "to Taliban field commanders, who in turn make tactical decisions that support the Shura’s strategic direction," one such official told the US media. The Washington Post report claims that Pakistani officials have allowed the Taliban movement to regroup in the Quetta area because they view it as a strategic asset rather than a domestic threat. The US Consul General in Karachi, Stephen Fakan, told reporters on October 21, 2009 that a Waziristan-like situation might develop in Balochistan if "necessary action" is not taken against the Taliban in Quetta. According to him, "They have their existence in Quetta and the Government of Pakistan should root them out from here."
Even as the American apprehension about the top leadership of Taliban hiding in Quetta and other parts of Balochistan were being articulated, there has also been some talk about the Barack Obama administration planning to broaden the scope of its drone attacks to include Quetta and other parts of Balochistan. Interestingly, a Washington Times report now suggests that Mullah Omar, chief of the Afghan Taliban who heads the Quetta Shura, may have been shifted by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan external intelligence agency, to safer environs in Karachi, to protect him from the possibility of a US drone strike.
Meanwhile, the Taliban-al Qaeda combine continues to try and disrupt the supply line for NATO Forces in Afghanistan passing through Balochistan. In 2009, there have been at least 12 attacks in Balochistan on oil tankers and trucks ferrying NATO supplies to Afghanistan. These have occurred in the Lakorain area on the National Highway in Khuzdar District, near the Chaman border crossing, Chaman town, Kalat, Pishin District, Western Bypass in Quetta, Wadh in Khuzdar District, on the RCD Highway in Khuzdar, Bolan and in the Chhoto area of Mastung District. Among these was also the first-ever suicide attack in a Baloch-populated area. On June 30, four persons were killed and 11 injured when a bomber targeted a hotel in Kalat in an apparent bid at disrupting supplies to the NATO forces in Afghanistan. The bomber detonated his explosives inside a hotel in the Sorab area of the District, 250 kilometers southeast of Quetta. Most of the victims were reportedly Baloch tribesmen. Witnesses said the suicide bomber, dressed in white traditional clothes, parked his explosives-laden vehicle outside the hotel on the Quetta-Karachi RCD Highway, and then went into the hotel.
The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Government, after coming to power at Islamabad in 2008, made some politically correct statements of intent on providing a ‘healing touch’ to Balochistan. However, all of this has remained mere rhetoric and the political process has failed to take off. Making it more difficult for Islamabad to launch an acceptable political process is the inability to find any allies among the nationalist elements in the province. Worse, the PPP regime has now been associated with the custodial killing of at least four prominent Baloch leaders. The mutilated bodies of Ghulam Mohammed Baloch, President of the Baloch National Movement, his deputy Lala Munir Baloch and Sher Mohammed Baloch, Deputy Secretary General of Balochistan Republican Party, were found on a mountain river bed in Pidrak near Turbat on April 8, 2009. Later the body of Baloch National Front Joint Secretary Rasul Bakhsh Mengal, who was abducted on August 23, 2009 from Uthal in Lasbela District, with marks of torture, was found hanging from a tree.
The Federal Government is currently attempting to develop a ‘consensual’ Balochistan package, which would purportedly address the province’s political, social and economic problems. The package, named Aghaze Huqooq-i-Balochistan, reportedly contains three parts, including constitutional, administrative and economic measures. At this point in time, it remains unclear what measures are being suggested to achieve a consensus and, more importantly, get all the stakeholders on board. The past trajectory in Balochistan, however, indicates that packages, essentially financial in nature, have achieved little. Predictably, the latest package seems to have run into rough weather even before its contours have been defined. The Balochistan National Party (BNP), one of the leading political parties in the province, has termed the package a bribe, given to halt their movement, and has consequently demanded the withdrawal of the ongoing military action in the province and the release of missing persons as a confidence-building measure. BNP Secretary, General Habib Jalib Baloch, told The Nation on November 18 that such packages had also been announced in the past, but these always backfired and remained sterile. Abdur Rauf Mengal, a former parliamentarian from the Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M) stated, further, "We have no faith in the Government’s sincerity." On November 17, 2009, he asserted, "Our problems include the military operation, which is ongoing regardless of the Government’s denial; then there are the countless missing persons; massive displacement due to the military operation; and fake cases against and the extrajudicial killings of Baloch nationalist leaders."
Hectic efforts have been underway for some time now to bringing the Baloch rebels to the negotiating table. None of these has, however, had the desired impact in Balochistan as far as Islamabad is concerned. With the ‘peace process’ ignoring the fundamental issues that have sustained the insurgency, and Islamabad focusing only on the suppression of the insurgency, violence continues to be an everyday reality in the Province. The basic issues, which include control over resources, equal authority, and autonomy, are yet to be addressed. There is also the issue of endemic neglect and backwardness. Balochistan has the weakest long-term growth performance of all provinces in the country, according to a World Bank study. The Balochistan Economic Report 2009, which accounted for statistics from 1972-73 to 2005-06, said the province’s economy expanded by 2.7 times in Balochistan, 3.6 times in the NWFP and Sindh and four times in Punjab. Balochistan also has the worst social indicators, scoring the lowest on 10 key variables – education, literacy, health, water and sanitation – for 2006-07. The World Bank study noted that illiteracy is high in Balochistan (approximately 60 per cent) and primary school enrolment is low. The Report only confirms the long-standing disparities between Balochistan and the other provinces, especially Punjab, and underlines the deep disconnect between Balochistan and the rest of the country, as also the resentment of the Baloch.
Clearly, a lasting solution to the long-standing Baloch rebellion looks highly unlikely in the proximate future. Indeed, there could be a rising danger from the augmenting presence of the Taliban-Al Qaeda combine in Balochistan.