By Ajai Sahni for SATP
No perceived Western interests exist in Balochistan, no Coalition soldiers are dying on its soil, and the Baloch have not been involved in significant acts of terrorism against Western targets. That, perhaps, is why the world pays so little attention to the bleeding war in this vast and thinly populated province of Pakistan, in which the country’s despotic Army has been engaged in a brutal campaign of repression, without interruption, for over five years now, and in repeated cycles since 1948,1 virtually since the moment of the forced accession of the province to Pakistan.
And yet, the sheer intensity of state repression and the fury of response should have brought this forgotten region of darkness to the attention of a world that has pretensions to civilization and human concern. In 2010, for instance, just till March 11, there had been as many as 17 bomb blasts in the province. The total for the preceding five years was 987 – working out to an average of nearly three (2.7) a day (2009: 134; 2008: 242; 2007: 243; 2006: 214; and 2005: 154).
Since the insurgents principally target infrastructure projects – particularly the gas pipeline that pumps precious natural gas, one of the resource-rich Province’s many coveted assets, out of the Province, to feed the rest of Pakistan – total fatalities in the conflict have, on first sight, remained relatively low (by Pakistan’s appalling standards). 20 persons had been killed in 2010 (till March 11), and over the preceding five years, conflict related fatalities totaled 1,513 (2009: 277; 2008: 348; 2007: 245; 2006: 450; 2005: 193).
There was some decline in both the number of incidents and fatalities in 2009 as against earlier years, suggesting a reduced level of violence. [However, 245 fatalities were recorded in 2007]. The insurgency in Balochistan, however, continues to fester, 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. There were at least 134 bomb blasts and grenade explosions across the province in 2009, as well as another 57 rocket attacks targeting state installations. Baloch insurgents have also targeted Government officials and politicians, prominently including the Balochistan Educatin Minister Shafiq Ahmed Khan, who was shot dead near his house in Quetta on October 25, 2009. The Baloch Liberation United Front (BLUF) immediately claimed responsibility for the assassination, which BLUF spokesman, Shahiq Baloch, said was intended to “avenge the state-sponsored murders of Baloch nationalist leaders Ghulam Muhammad, Sher Muhammad and Lala Munir in Turbat in Balochistan.” 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, an alleged member of a car-lifting gang, a suspicion of Baloch involvement lingers. 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.
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.”
Pakistan focuses its overwhelming attention on the nationalist insurgency in Balochistan, using overwhelming and often less than discriminate military force against the rebels and local populations in an effort to restore its intimidatory dominance, as it had done on previous occasions. Far more dangerous, however, is a second movement of terrorism and violence led by the Taliban – al Qaeda combine in the northern part of the Province, which borders Afghanistan. The Baloch nationalist insurgency is, in fact, little more than a minor diversion within the context of this wider movement of pan-Islamist terror, which has come to dominate both sides of the Afghan border, and elements of which have been harnessed by the Pakistani state and its covert agencies in its efforts to smother the nationalist insurgency, which has remained consistently secular and political in its orientation. It is significant that the Islamist-nationalist gulf overlaps with the ethnic divide in the Province, with Pashtuns dominating the radical Islamist Northern areas, including capital Quetta, and the Baloch concentrated in Central and South Balochistan. Significantly, sectarian killings have begun to compound the crisis in Balochistan. At least 28 persons were killed in about 13 incidents of sectarian clash in 2009. The killings are reported to be part of a series of sectarian attacks that started in Quetta, with the banned Sunni terrorist group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, closely allied to the Taliban – al Qaeda complex, has accepted responsibility for most of the recent attacks.
It is now widely recognized that the ‘Quetta Shura’, the Taliban ‘executive council’ which operates openly out of the Balochistan capital, has waged a systematic campaign of violence in both Balochistan and Afghanistan. This was testified to by General Stanley McChrystal, the US Commander in Afghanistan, who noted, on December 11, that the US fears the top Taliban leadership was in Quetta – Balochistan’s provincial capital – master-minding attacks on international forces in Afghanistan.2 Further, on September 29, 2009, US Ambassador to Pakistan, Anne W. Patterson, stated, “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.”3 Other US officials have claimed that virtually all of the Afghan Taliban’s strategic decisions are made by the Quetta Shura. Such decisions flow from the group to Taliban field commanders, who in turn make tactical decisions that support the Shura’s strategic direction.4 Another American media report claimed 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.5 The US Consul General in Karachi, Stephen Fakan, has also warned that a Waziristan-like situation (near-complete Islamist militant dominance had been achieved in Waziristan) might develop in Balochistan if “necessary action” is not taken against the Taliban in Quetta.6
As American apprehensions regarding the Quetta Shura mounted, the Barack Obama Administration has shown signs of extending its campaign of drone attacks against terrorist targets to Quetta and other parts of Balochistan, from where the Taliban has been orchestrating its Afghan operations. In response, reports suggest, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s external intelligence agency, may have shifted Mullah Omar, the chief of the Afghan Taliban who heads the Quetta Shura, and other top Taliban leaders, to the Southern port city of Karachi, in Sindh, to protect them from the possibility of a US drone strike.
US and Coalition concerns have been enormously deepened by the disruption of NATA supply lines to Afghanistan which pass through Balochistan (and the North West Frontier province). In 2009, in Balochistan alone, there were at least 15 attacks on oil tankers and trucks ferrying NATO supplies. These included the first-ever suicide attack in a Baloch-dominated area, on June 30, when four persons were killed and 11 injured in a suicide attack at a hotel in Kalat, targeting NATO supply Forces in Afghanistan. The suicide 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.
There are also some indications that these threats and attacks receive implicit support from certain elements within the state establishment. Pakistan has an agreement with the US for the secure transportation of supplies to Kabul but, as one commentator notes, “some officials in the Pakistani Government have ordered the security forces to shut their eyes to the attacks on US and NATO supplies in Peshawar.”7
These attacks have certainly heightened the crisis of US AfPak policy, and NATO Forces are increasingly emphasising the necessity of developing alternative routes for their supplies into Afghanistan. As far back as January 20, 2009, CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus, was already stressing: “It is very important as we increase the effort in Afghanistan that we have multiple routes that go into the country… There have been agreements reached, and there are transit lines now and transit agreements for commercial goods and services in particular that include several countries in the Central Asian states and also Russia.”8
Islamabad, however, has sought to consistently muddy the waters on the conflict in Balochistan, vigorously blaming India for its troubles in the Province. When a joint Indo-Pak statement released after the meeting of the Prime Ministers of the two countries at Sharm-al-Sheikh recorded, on July 16, 2009, that the “Pak PM (Syed Yusuf Raza) Gilani mentioned that Pakistan has some information on threats in Balochistan and other areas”, Gilani triumphantly claimed that the declaration constituted an admission of complicity on India’s part in the Baloch insurgency.9 Some Western commentators, notably Christine Fair of the RAND Corporation, sought to demonstrate their expertise on the subject with sweeping generalizations about Indian consulates in Afghanistan and Iran “not issuing Visas as their main activity” and asserting that “India has run operations from its missions in Mazar and is doing so from the other consulates it has reopened in Jalalabad and Qandahar along the border”.10 Fair, of course, subsequently went on to offer extended and convoluted denials, claiming, “I never said there was active support for terrorism, that was something that the Pakistanis attributed to me” and that “I do not know anyone who has a line of credible information” on the issue.11 Nevertheless, Pakistan’s propaganda machine quickly picked up on this theme, claiming that Pakistan had handed over a ‘dossier of evidence’ to India (a fact that India denied) which detailed evidence of India’s “involvement in terror financing in Pakistan” and of training camps run by India’s Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) for the Balochistan Liberation Army in Afghanistan.
This, however, was hardly new. Former President, General Parvez Musharraf had earlier asserted that he had ‘documentary evidence’ of Brahamdagh Bugti, leader of the Baloch Liberation Army, receiving weapons from Indian missions in Jalalabad and Kandahar, and of Bugti’s long association with the R&AW. No such ‘evidence’, documentary or otherwise, has, however, ever been publicly disclosed or shared with any credible international body. Significantly, Richard Holbrooke, the US Special Representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, revealed that, when the issue was brought up during discussions in Pakistan, no “credible evidence of India’s involvement in Balochistan” was ever provided. He rubbished Pakistani claims, further: “Pakistan has told me India has hundreds of people in (the consulate) at Kandahar… I asked people… asked Americans and the UN… how big is the Indian consulate in Kandahar… and they said six to eight people.”12
In essence, Pakistan’s allegations regarding India’s role in the troubles in Balochistan are, at best, reflexive, seeking to establish an unsustainable moral parity between the two countries to counter allegations of what is now globally recognized as Pakistan’s role in supporting terrorism on Indian soil. While these efforts do cause the occasional ripple, or help score trivial debating points in a fairly puerile international discourse on the subject, the appalling realities of the ground in Balochistan, and in the wider South Asian region, do eventually reassert themselves – to Pakistan’s enduring discomfiture. Quetta-based Malik Siraj Akbar notes,
Gilani broached the issue with India at a time disgruntled Baloch youth have removed the Pakistani flag from schools and colleges and stopped playing the national anthem… India is not the first to be blamed. Similar allegations were levelled in the past against the now defunct Soviet Union, Afghanistan and Iraq, to discredit the indigenous movement for retaining a distinct Baloch identity.13
To return to the core of the issue: of course there is a problem (or ‘threats’) in Balochistan. There is a problem in every province of Pakistan – in the NWFP, in Pakistan occupied Kashmir, in Sindh and, increasingly, in Punjab as well. But the problem is not India, or Indian intelligence agencies. It is Pakistan itself. It is the enduring violence and inequity of the Pakistani state; it is the relentless ideology of mutual hatreds that underpins the very founding notion of this country.
Islamabad has, for the past 62 years, kept the Baloch people entirely out of the scope of development – they are the poorest in the country, with little opportunity for employment and an abysmal record on all social indices. The entire province has been transformed into a massive cantonment, even as over a million people were brought in from the outside in a continuing exercise in demographic re-engineering. Vast tracts of land have been forcibly ‘acquired’ and handed over to these outsiders, who have been the principal beneficiaries of all ‘development’, even as the Baloch are denied significant employment in the massive projects – including the Gwadar Port and gas and coal extraction industries – implemented in the Province. Balochistan has the largest reserves of natural gas in Pakistan, and supplies as much as 38 per cent of the country’s total needs, though barely six per cent of the population in the Province has access to gas. Indeed, for the Baloch, the only thing in abundant supply has been the weapons that the Inter Services Intelligence initially siphoned to them out of the ‘Afghan pipeline’, and that are now available in abundance across the Frontier region.
Islamabad’s approach to discontent in Balochistan has historically vacillated between talks for ‘political solutions’ that are never implemented, and brutally repressive military campaigns. Arif Azad notes, “Balochistan has been here many times before and each time the Pakistan state managers have bungled the situation… seeking a military solution to a purely political problem.” In the interregnum between the succession of rebellions in the Province, Islamabad has done nothing to address legitimate Baloch grievances through extended periods of peace, pushing the Baloch to repeated cycles of militant protest and insurgent violence.
If there is an unwavering rage in Balochistan today, it is because of this long history of brutal repression, which is even now being compounded. The murder of the popular leader and former Governor of the Province, Nawab Akbar Bugti, by state forces in September 2006, was, of course, orchestrated by the Musharraf regime, as was the killing of Nawabzada Balach Marri in November 2007 – and the present dispensation could easily distance itself from these excesses. Instead, Baloch anger has again been stoked by the murder of three prominent leaders, Ghulam Mohammad Baloch, Lala Munir Baloch and Sher Mohammad Baloch, whose mutilated bodies were recovered on April 8, 2009, five days after they were picked up by state agencies on April 3.14 While these killings have been noticed because of the prominence of their victims, numberless ‘disappearances’ of rebel Baloch cadres, students and civilians are hidden behind an impenetrable media blackout in the Province. Significantly, Ghulam Mohammad Baloch was a member of a committee set up to investigate the ‘disappearance’ of 1,109 people in the Province.
The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development thus notes:
Balochistan continues to be ruled as a colony, its resources benefiting the federal government and dominant provinces. Grueling poverty and deprivation defines much of the province. 88% of the population of Balochistan is under the poverty line. Balochistan has the lowest literacy rate, the lowest school enrollment ratio, the lowest educational attainment index, and the lowest health index relative to the other provinces. 78% of the population has no access to electricity, and 79% has no access to natural gas. The federal government’s presence is made apparent not through public welfare activities, but through violence and aggression… A large number of military and paramilitary troops… have been stationed in different parts of the province and state-perpetrated violence has become a common feature of the political landscape of Balochistan. Disappearance of political activists and extrajudicial killings has become all too common. It is stating the obvious that such a situation has given rise to alienation, extreme resentment, and a feeling of enslavement to the Pakistani state.15
Islamabad has never taken the Baloch people and their leadership into confidence. Even top Baloch officials appointed by Islamabad have no say in crucial policy. Governor Zulfiqar Ali Magsi, for instance, complains, “Although I am a representative of the Centre, I was never taken into confidence by Islamabad…”16
Hectic efforts have been underway for some time now to bringing the Baloch rebels to the negotiating table. The Federal Government has recently been attempting to develop a ‘consensual’ Balochistan package, which would purportedly address the province’s political, social and economic problems. The package, named Aghaz-e-Huqooq-i-Balochistan, contains three parts, including constitutional, administrative and economic measures – a ‘formula’ that has been pushed by Islamabad even under the Musharraf regime, and which has boiled down, in essence to offers of a financial ‘package’ and a few token concessions.17 Predictably, the latest package has 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, declared that that such packages had also been announced in the past, but these always backfired and remained sterile.18 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.”19
Islamabad imposes a repressive, colonial and exploitative regime on Balochistan and there is now a comprehensive collapse of faith between the people of this Province and a predatory Pakistani state. The rebellions of the past were easily crushed by Pakistan’s Army, but the world has changed since. The dispensation at Islamabad presides over a fragile and increasingly vulnerable state, struggling with disorders across the country, and it is unlikely that the methods of the past will succeed. It is, perhaps, time that Pakistan initiated a tentative experiment in providing justice and a measure of real rights to its people.
Ajai Sahni is Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management; Editor, South Asia Intelligence Review; Executive Director, South Asia Terrorism Portal; and Executive Editor, Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution. He is also a founding and Executive Committee member of the Urban Futures Initiative. This article first appeared at the South Asia Terrorist Portal – SATP – (http://www.satp.org) – produced by the Institute of Conflict Management.
1. In April 1948, Pakistan sent its Army into Balochistan and forced Mir Ahmed Yar Khan of Kalat to sign an instrument of accession to Pakistan. Violence broke out almost immediately, but was quickly crushed. Insurrections subsequently swept across Balochistan in 1958; from 1963 to 1969; and from 1973 to 1978, and were, in each case, suppressed with the use of extreme force. The present insurgency commenced in 2004, and shows no signs of resolution.
2. “Pakistan Govt. admits Quetta Shura on country’s soil”, December 11, 2009,
3. “Patterson says Quetta Shura high on US list” , September 30, 2009, http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/news/world/11-patterson-says-quetta-shura-high-on-us-list–il–09 .
6. Taliban militants have presence in Quetta: US diplomat, October 21, 2009,
7. “Quickly, Deploy U.S. and NATO Troops in Peshawar”, December 15, 2008,
8. “US ‘agrees Afghan supply route'”, 20 January 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7839265.stm.
9. “India interfering in Balochistan: Gilani” , Jul 19, 2009, http://www.indianexpress.com/news/india-interfering-in-balochistan-gilani/491257/.
10. “Analysts say India fanning unrest in Balochistan”, April 7, 2009,
11. “Pakistanis Have Blown My Comments Out Of Proportion”, August 10, 2009, http://www.outlookindia.com/printarticle.aspx?261113.
12. US endorses Indian role in Afghanistan, April 26, 2009, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/US-endorses-Indian-role-in-Afghanistan/articleshow/4451937.cms .
13. Top Article: A Home-grown Conflict, August 11, 2009, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/opinion/edit-page/Top-Article-A-Home-grown-Conflict/articleshow/4878167.cms .
14. “Pakistan – Stop military and paramilitary actions in all parts of Balochistan!” 18 November 2009, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development.
17. See, for instance, Ajai Sahni, “Balochistan: The Province of Fear”, South Asia Intelligence Review, Volume 4, No. 23, December 19, 2005, http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/sair/Archives/4_23.htm.
18. “Pakistan – Stop military and paramilitary actions in all parts of Balochistan!”, op. cit.