ISLAMABAD A week ago, a war of words between the National Party and BNP-M on the one side and insurgent groups demanding independence for Balochistan on the other erupted out in the open.
According to the Baloch Hal, an online newspaper, dailies in Balochistan carried a statement on July 19 by the National Party's central spokesperson suggesting the Balochistan Liberation Front was to blame for the recent killing of an NP leader, Maula Bakhsh Dashti.
The same day, newspapers in the province also carried a defiant statement by Akhtar Mengal, chief of the BNP-M, rebuffing a call by the Anjuman-i-Ittehad-i-Marri, a group linked to Khair Bakhsh Marri, leader of the Marri tribe, to reject parliamentary politics in the wake of Habib Jalib's murder.
The public outbursts were extraordinary even mapping the groups involved in the violence in Balochistan is fraught with danger.
“Please be very careful. These are merciless people,” a senior Quetta-based journalist who requested anonymity to talk about the radical groups urged. “It's very difficult for us to work here.”
Reliable information on the insurgent groups is difficult to come by and even harder to corroborate. Nevertheless, the contours of the groups involved in the violence can be established to some extent.
A handful of groups dominate the insurgency, of which the Balochistan Liberation Army is perhaps the most well-known.
The BLA appeared in its present incarnation soon after the arrest of Khair Bakhsh Marri in January 2000. The powerful Marri chief was accused of having a hand in the murder of a Balochistan High Court judge.
Originally a rural phenomenon and limiting its operations to Dera Bugti and Kohlu, the BLA is believed to have expanded its attacks into the cities following the breakdown of a unilateral ceasefire declared in September 2008.
An affiliate of the BLA is the Balochistan Liberation United Front, a smaller organisation thought to be 'more sophisticated' and considerably more hard-line.
The other high-profile radical group is the Baloch Republican Army, the militant wing of the Balochistan Republican Party, a rechristened arm of Akbar Bugti's Jamhoori Watan Party.
The BRA came into existence after Bugti's death in August 2006 and is believed to be controlled by his grandson, Brahmdagh.
Its area of operations appears to be in relatively remote areas such as Dera Bugti, Jaffarabad and Naseerabad.
A third major group is the Balochistan Liberation Front, another name resurrected from the last insurgency in the 1970s. The present-day version operates mostly in the Mekran area and is also linked to Khair Bakhsh Marri.
Beyond that, drilling down into the specifics invariably throws up a confusing set of claims and counter-claims. Take the killing of Habib Jalib, the BNP-M secretary general.
Senior army officers point a finger at the BLUF, the affiliate of the BLA, for the killing. “BNP-M is in real trouble. Khair Bakhsh (Marri) has them in his sights,” a high-ranking officer claimed.
However, some among the Baloch have focussed on the alleged claim of responsibility made by the Baloch Armed Defence Organisation (Baloch Musallah Defai Tanzeem). It is a relatively new 'anti-Baloch-nationalist' group about which little is known, though the Baloch claim it is a front for the intelligence agencies.
That is denied by the army and some moderate Baloch leaders wonder whether the Tanzeem is also sponsored by the radicals.
Asma Jahangir, former chairperson of the HRCP, however, is not convinced “The cleansing of the Baloch intelligentsia can only be the work of the agencies.”
Other things are easier to speculate about, though. Why the alphabet soup of insurgent groups, when the majority are linked to Khair Bakhsh Marri?
“Perhaps they don't want to put all their eggs in one basket,” according to Malik Siraj Akbar, editor of the Baloch Hal.
“If one group is dismantled, at least the others will still exist.” Akbar also suggested unfamiliarity with the terrain in sprawling Balochistan leads to the recruitment of locals.
Saleem Shahid, Dawn's Quetta bureau chief, ventured that the reason could be rooted in the tribal system “Tribal society does not accept outside leadership, so they create their own groups.”
More than the proliferation of radical groups, however, what worries observers is the widening scope of targets. Attacks on security forces, state installations and government offices are all standard fare in Baloch insurgencies.
In addition, killings of 'settlers' (groups considered non-Baloch because they trace their ancestry to outside the province, even though in many instances they have been residing in Balochistan for generations) have occurred in the past. This time, however, it is the breadth and intensity of such killings that is alarming.
The senior journalist in Quetta claimed “The target killings started in 2003, but they were sectarian in nature. The radical groups started their killings post-Bugti, initially in Quetta. Now, though, it has spread. Nushki, Khuzdar, Mastung, Gwadar, Turbat, Kech, the target killings are happening everywhere.”
According to the Balochistan government's most recent figures, more than 125 people have been killed and nearly 200 injured in the last 18 months alone in settler-related violence.
One particular murder in Quetta last April sent shockwaves through conservative Balochistan the killing of Nazima Talib, a female assistant professor at the University of Balochistan.
The targeting of women was previously considered a taboo, but the BLA, which claimed responsibility for the killing, was defiant and claimed the murder was revenge for the alleged killing and harassment of Baloch women by the security forces.
Another worrying trend this year the killing of fellow Baloch by the insurgent groups. The victims have been accused of spying and working as agents of the Pakistani state.
A senior journalist said, “Even Pathans have been killed, and businessmen too. The impact is enormous. There is an exodus of teachers, doctors, businessmen.”
The killings by Baloch radicals are of course not occurring in a vacuum. Entrenched attitudes in the army towards Balochistan and the Baloch may be sustaining the cycle of violence.
“The army thinks of the Baloch as lazy, that they don't want to work,” according to Zahid Husain, a respected analyst.
“They believe all Baloch are suspect, that they are against Pakistan,” said Senator Hasil Bizenjo. The senator recalled an incident where an entire area was sealed off by security forces in order to pull down a BSO flag hoisted atop a school.
A senior army officer admitted that sometimes the security forces need to show restraint. “They see this (the Baloch flags) as an affront to Pakistan, but I tell them not to react to small provocations.”
In present times, however, what may be impacting most directly on the army's tough line against the insurgent groups is the foreign connection — the insistently whispered claims that Balochistan has become a stamping ground for foreign intelligence agencies.
India features heavily in such claims. From Brahmdagh Bugti's 'Indian passport' to Baloch insurgents being handed suitcases of cash in Dubai to RAW agents in the Indian consulate in Kandahar, senior army officers are adamant Indian 'mischief' is at work. Strikingly, even senior government officials agree that the Indian connection exists.
It goes beyond India, though. “Every agency in the world, from the Americans to the Iranians to the Afghans to the Europeans to the Arabs, has some kind of footprint in the area. For some reason the British have an extraordinary interest in the area,” according to a senior army officer.
Some, though, suggest common sense needs to prevail. “There are 100,000 security men in the province if you count the army, the FC, the police, everything. At most there will be a few thousand among the Baloch population capable of causing trouble. They will never be able to create big mischief. We need to recognise that,” according a high-ranking officer.
Unfortunately, long-time observers of the Pakistan Army believe the officer's opinion is squarely among the minority in the army.