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Analysis: Managing the Baloch insurgency

Updated November 26, 2014

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A Pakistani rescue worker is seen through the bullet-riddled window of a passenger train following an attack by unknown gunmen in Mach near Quetta.  —AP/file
A Pakistani rescue worker is seen through the bullet-riddled window of a passenger train following an attack by unknown gunmen in Mach near Quetta. —AP/file

So where is Balochistan’s decade-long insurgency headed? This is perhaps best described in a recent video testimony by Shafiq Mengal, once a small player in the conflict but now one of its main protagonists. 

Starting with a montage showing gunmen manoeuvring through the desert wastes of the province, the testimony begins with Mengal identifying himself as a Sunni Baloch who is following the path of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

As an eerily familiar Islamic nasheed plays in the background, Mengal says he is struggling against people whom he describes as atheist, communist and secular.

Islam is superior to all these ideologies, he says, and anyone opposing it must be destroyed.

As the chant continues, Mengal concludes that all Baloch are Sunni Muslims and it is therefore incumbent on them to carry on this fight.

At that moment recognition arrives: the same chant was used as a background score by Lashkar-i-Jhangvi militants who videotaped themselves killing 26 ethnic Hazaras in a massacre in Mastung district in 2011.

Apparently, security officials say privately, the group is the same, nasheed being one of the many small clues that reveals their identity.

How did the Baloch rebellion that began 10 years ago, when Marri tribesmen fled to the hills to launch what is now described as the longest-running insurgency to challenge the Pakistani state, end up like this? 

Beginning as a classic low-intensity guerilla conflict orchestrated by the Marri-led Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), it was initially seen within the Baloch as a conflict between certain sardars and the centre.

However Nawab Akbar Bugti’s killing in 2006 changed that, transforming the conflict into a war that the local population saw as a final stop on the road to independence. But the movement appears to have lost its way in the past three years, and today appears fractured, divided and almost on the verge of collapse.

“There has been no real progress for the insurgents,” says Hasil Bizenjo, a senior Baloch politician and leader. “All that has increased is the killing of civilians on the basis of ethnicity — and now on the basis of sect — and the social fabric of Balochistan has been destroyed.”

An examination of the situation on the ground suggests that the insurgency has suffered setbacks primarily due to two reasons. One has been the security agencies’ old trick of using the ever-green religion card to turn large parts of the Baloch youth against the nationalists.

The other has been a self-inflicted wound delivered by increasing infighting and a scramble for leadership between various factions.

Widening of fissures

“The problems started after Brahamdagh [Bugti] left the region in the wake of Balaach Marri’s death,” says Riaz Sohail.

Balaach Marri, chief of the BLA, was killed in a missile strike in 2007 under circumstances that remain unclear to this day.

Sohail, who is a Karachi correspondent for BBC Urdu and also covers the Baloch insurgency, says: “While there was absolutely no proof for this, some of the BLA cadre believed that Brahamdagh had somehow helped engineer Balaach’s killing.”

Fissures thus emerged between the BLA and the Baloch Republican Army (BRA) led by Brahamdagh. In fact, due to the leadership being dead or having moved abroad, the central role enjoyed by both organisations was soon taken over by the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) led by former political activist and medical practitioner Dr Allah Nazar Baloch.

This period — around 2008 —  saw the shifting of the intensity of the insurgency from its traditional bases of Kohlu and Dera Bugti towards Quetta, Mastung and Khuzdar in central, and to Awaran, Turbat, Panjgur and Gwadar, in southern Balochistan.

Till 2011, the areas around Quetta, Khuzdar and Mastung used to be good hunting grounds for the insurgents. While attacks, some of them quite deadly, continue to this day, their intensity has declined greatly.

“There was a time when a day would begin with attacks on infrastructure and our personnel and continue throughout the day,” says a senior official working on the Baloch insurgency. “Now if they are committed at all, there are three or four attacks in a week, none of them leaving a serious impact.”

This particular ‘success’ must be attributed to the security forces as well as to the rise of pro-government Sunni militias that made it almost impossible for the nationalists to operate there.

In particular, Shafiq Mengal’s Baloch Musalla Difaa Tanzeem was extremely effective and began a reign of terror in the region which lasts to this day. Their alleged ‘kill-and-dump policy’ employed against any male suspect of military age in these or any other areas of the province is also said to be responsible for the ‘success’.

But while Mengal and similar groups in the Raisani tribe were successful in their respective areas, their peculiar views did not initially find fertile ground in the Makran belt. Dr Allah Nazar’s stronghold remained the brightest spot in the insurgency, before it too began to be reined in.

“Here it was military action pure and simple which took the fight away from the insurgents,” says Sohail.

He points to a series of operations that forced the BLF to go on the back foot. Led by the Frontier Corps, the security forces fought a series of battles towards the fag end of the Pakistan People’s Party government which considerably weakened the BLF in its stronghold.

One major reason for this was the lack of support from the BRA and BLA to the Front.

Taking advantage of earthquake

But as the organisation withstood this onslaught, it was finally done in by an act of God that came in the shape of the 2013 Awaran earthquake.

Experts say that this enabled the security forces to map out the area while delivering relief goods. Soon after a series of operations ousted the BLF from the region — Dr Allah Nazar and his men are now believed to have taken shelter in Afghanistan while continuing to carry on the struggle. Their place has been taken up by groups like Mengal’s: the Lashkar-i-Islam blew up girls schools in Panjgur a few weeks ago.

The death of Nawab Khair Bux Marri, seen as a titular head of the insurgency, and the fracturing of the Marris’ core resistance group between the BLA now led by Hyrbayar Marri and the United Baloch Army formed by Mehran, another Marri scion, mean the days of the current rebellion are likely to be increasingly difficult.

Those looking for a political solution are heartened by the formation of the current Dr Abdul Malik-led government as well as the return of Akhtar Mengal to the political arena.

These developments are currently the cause of much joy for the federation. But the fact that the vacuum being left behind by the nationalists is increasingly being filled by such groups as Mengal’s Haq Na Tawar (which was previously known as Musalla Difaa Tanzeem) should be a matter of grave concern.

“There is a great potential for the growth of religious militancy in Balochistan,” says Hasil Bizenjo. “We are fighting it, but if it continues growing at this pace, we will soon be helpless against it.”

Is it surprising that reports of the presence of the militant Islamic State group in the country are first emerging from Balochistan? The state appears unaware of this development and continues to celebrate the success of its policy of divide and rule, too busy to see the bigger, darker storm looming on the horizon.

Published in Dawn, November 26th, 2014