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Balochistan Flares up Again

Captain Alok Bansal was Member, Navy at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • January 18, 2006

    Balochistan has once again flared up, as troops moved in on December 18, 2005 to discipline the recalcitrant Marri tribes in Kohlu district. By commencing its much-awaited operations in Balochistan, the Pakistan military broke a tenuous peace that had lasted for nine months since clashes in Dera Bugti had claimed over 60 lives. The present operations in Balochistan ostensibly started in response to the December 14 rocket attacks on Kohlu town during President Pervez Musharraf's visit to lay the foundation stone of one of the three new cantonments to be set up in the province. Baloch nationalists fiercely oppose the cantonments. The very next day an Army helicopter that was carrying the Inspector-General, Frontier Corps (IGFC), Maj-Gen Shujaat Zamir Dar and his deputy Brig Saleem Nawaz was shot at by machine-gun fire. Though the pilot succeeded in safely landing the helicopter, both officers sustained bullet injuries.

    Islamabad's sharp reaction to innocuous Indian remarks asking it to exercise restraint while dealing with its own population in Balochistan has clearly exhibited Pakistan's sensitivity in Balochistan, which has been its Achilles heel. Spread over an area of 147,000 square miles, Balochistan comprises 43 per cent of Pakistan's land mass but has only five per cent of its population. It also has immense natural resources and most of Pakistan's energy resources. Its location astride the oil lanes of the Persian Gulf, as well as at the trijunction where Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan meet makes it geopolitically and strategically the most important part of Pakistan. It nearly commands the country's entire coast - 470 miles of the Arabian Sea. It is a land that is ruled autocratically by feudal lords. Historically, it has been a loose tribal confederacy, which owed allegiance to the Persian emperor and the Afghan kings at different times in history. The ethnic origins of the Baloch set them distinctly apart from the peoples of the Indo-Gangetic plains.

    Four times since Pakistan's creation, the Baloch (who like many Sindhis and Pakhtoons never wanted to be part of Pakistan) have rebelled demanding greater autonomy or even an independent state, which would reunite the five million Baloch in Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan under one flag. The Khan of Kalat, the acknowledged liege lord of all Baloch tribes, had sought a status similar to that of Nepal during the British Raj. After independence both houses of parliament in Kalat had unanimously rejected the proposal to merge with Pakistan. Yet, British Balochistan was merged with Pakistan and the municipality of Quetta, a body overwhelmingly dominated by non-Baloch settlers, ratified the proposal. Subsequently, the Khan of Kalat was forced to sign the merger document and Kalat was annexed. This led to the first armed insurgency in 1948 led by Prince Karim, the brother of the Khan.

    Between then and now, the Baloch have risen in revolt thrice and have faced the Pakistani security forces in 1958, 1963-69 and 1973-77. Each of these uprisings were crushed with brute force and left psychological scars that are yet to heal. The organizational capabilities of the insurgents and popular support for them have increased with every insurgency. At the peak of its intensity in 1973, 55000 insurgents faced 80000 Pakistani troops; the latter were supported not only by the Pakistani Air Force but by the Iranian Air force as well. More than 5000 insurgents and over 3300 soldiers are believed to have been killed in the conflict that lasted till 1977. Pakistani Armed Forces, which had lost Bangladesh a few years earlier, used a heavy hand to crush the Baloch insurgency to redeem their honour.

    Though the current operations have ostensibly been launched against Marri tribesmen in Kohlu district for their suspected involvement in rocket attacks and bomb explosions, a careful analysis of events would indicate that the operation had been planned much before any of these incidents took place. In fact, the operation had been planned for in October 2005 but was delayed because of the earthquake that hit Pakistan on October 8, 2005.

    After originating in Kohlu district, the conflict has engulfed the neighbouring Dera Bugti district as well. Security forces supported by helicopter gunships and artillery have been targeting Baloch strongholds. The current operation is a full-fledged military offensive against Baloch nationalists. Bugti and Marri, two large, influential, but rival tribes in Balochistan, are now pitted against the government and are demanding more autonomy for the province, a bigger share in national resources and a special quota in federal jobs, besides enhanced royalty for natural gas, which is supplied to the whole country from the Sui region of Balochistan.

    The insurgents appear to be well versed in military craft and realize that they are in no position to take on the security forces in direct combat. They are therefore targeting communication links to delink Balochistan from the rest of Pakistan. Their targets include railway lines, gas pipelines, and electricity and communication towers. They have even gone out of the state and targeted pipelines and bridges. They also seem to be familiar with the art of psychological operations and their representatives have also been quick to take credit for various acts of sabotage.

    The situation is reported to be worsening, with large-scale collateral damage. Baloch nationalists have claimed that indiscriminate firing by the security forces has led to large-scale death and destruction. A number of women and children have been killed. Opposition parties in parliament have accused the government of carrying out genocide by employing helicopters in bombing sorties and using poisonous phosphorus gas against the population. Human rights activists have been prevented from visiting the affected districts. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has urged the government to stop killing Balochis in Kohlu and to cease fire immediately. It has recommended that the issue be resolved politically.

    The current insurgency in Balochistan underlines the fragility of the Pakistani State more than 58 years after its creation. The regional aspirations of various ethnic groups and their efforts to assert their sub-national identities poses a potent threat to the Pakistani State. With the exception of Punjabis, other groups perceive themselves as Pakhtoons, Balochs, Sindhis or Mohajirs first and Pakistanis later. These other groups also suffer from a persecution complex and feel that they are being discriminated against by the Punjabi elite. In nearly six decades of Pakistan's existence, the Baloch have always been out of the mainstream. This is the why, whilst Pakhtoons assimilated in Pakistani society with the passage of time, the Balochs have moved away.

    At Partition, the tribal areas of Balochistan were amongst the most backward parts of the subcontinent. Almost six decades later, they are still in the same condition. The tribesmen may be carrying automatic Kalashnikov assault rifles instead of ancient Lee Enfield 303s; that apart, there has hardly been any progress or development. The only law is the one laid down by the tribal chief. Clearly, the existence of such pockets of lawless lands has helped in the spread of anarchy in Pakistan. Since the Afghan war, guns and drugs have flooded Pakistan and the use of missiles, anti-aircraft weapons and an array of modern and very lethal arms by the Baloch in the current conflict is indicative of this. The army has suffered serious casualties in its operations, and has been forced to use helicopter gunships to quell the rebellion.

    The record of the Pakistan Army in dealing with internal disorders has actually been dismal. Its operations in the East led to the creation of Bangladesh. Its operations in Sindh and Balochistan have failed to integrate the restive population despite the use of brute force. Recent operations in FATA have also tied down almost an entire division supported liberally by artillery and helicopter gunships. But militants still roam the region with impunity. In fact, the alienation of the population has only grown with the passage of time. The security forces have also managed to create a perpetual problem in the tranquil heights of the Northern Areas. The security apparatus in Pakistan at this point of time is really overstretched and if violence in Balochistan intensifies, the Pakistan army will definitely be sucked into a quagmire from which it will find it extremely difficult to extricate. The sands of Balochistan have the potential to fester and bleed Pakistan.