Growing security concerns

Published February 9, 2022
The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

THE latest surge in terrorist attacks in the country is ominous. Last week’s coordinated assaults on security posts in Balochistan marked a shift in the strategy of Baloch insurgent groups — from hit-and-run operations to frontal attacks. There have been at least three such incidents targeting security installations in different parts of the province in the past week.

While details of the simultaneous attacks in Panjgur and Naushki remain hazy, they nevertheless demonstrate the growing capacity of the Baloch militants to launch high-profile attacks. They seemed better trained and better armed now, with highly sophisticated weapons in their armoury. But it is unlikely that such daring actions could have been possible without a strong internal and external support network. The intensification in violence has accompanied reports of various Baloch militant groups coming together.

Intriguingly, the surge in militant activities in Balochistan has coincided with the escalation in terrorist attacks by the TTP that is targeting Pakistani security forces in the former tribal areas. There may not be a direct connection between the two. Yet the increasing violence in two different areas involving groups with completely different agendas has complicated our security predicament.

Editorial: Govt needs to revisit its counterterrorism and internal security policies

A major challenge is how to deal with the two different kinds of militancy in strategically located areas. According to the federal interior minister, there has been a 35 per cent increase in terrorist attacks over the last few months. Pakistani security officials see an Afghan connection in both insurgencies. Interestingly, there has been a steep rise in militant violence after the return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan last August.

Attacks by the Baloch insurgents have coincided with increasing TTP militancy.

While the TTP connection with the Afghan Taliban is not a secret, the Baloch militants operating from Afghan soil is intriguing. Pakistani security officials said the attackers were in contact with their handlers in Afghanistan and in India during the assaults.

India’s role in the terror attacks in Pakistan is evident. But the continuing use of Afghan soil in planning and execution of cross-border attacks is alarming. The weapons used by the Baloch militants in the recent attacks reinforce suspicions about foreign linkages. Regional geopolitics and rivalries too play a huge role in fuelling the Baloch insurgency. This area has long been a hotspot of regional power games. CPEC and the development of the Gwadar port has further intensified the conflict.

More worrisome is the fear of tactical cooperation between the TTP and Baloch militant groups. Such a possibility makes things complicated. In recent months, the TTP has reportedly extended its activities in northern Balochistan; this is a security nightmare in terms of the land mass of the country’s largest province.

Editorial: Cycle of distrust and disaffection must be broken to deal with renewed insurgency in Balochistan

There may be little doubt about the involvement of external elements in the Baloch separatist movement but it is an enabling environment that allows their dangerous interference. What is most alarming is the number of young recruits being drawn into the militancy. A large number of them come from educated backgrounds; they feel politically alienated and see little hope for their future.

For the past many years, Balochistan has been in the grip of a low-intensity conflict, and has experienced four insurgencies since independence. The latest phase of the conflict began around two decades ago, after a period of relative calm from 1980 to 1988 when civilian rule was restored bringing Baloch nationalists back into the political mainstream.

It is true that the major demands of the Baloch for political autonomy and a fair share of federal resources were not fulfilled but democracy did provide some sense of political participation to the people. Military rule returned in 1999 after the Musharraf coup, and ended that period of calm. As the new regime started tightening its federal control, tensions grew, coming to a head with the killing of Akbar Bugti in 2006 in an army operation. Once again unrest, which had always been simmering under the surface, spilled over leading to a fresh uprising.

For long, the Baloch people have had very genuine grievances, but, instead of these being addressed, force has been deployed to suppress their protests. It is in these circumstances that many among the Baloch, who had lost hope in the political struggle, made the decision to join armed groups. No longer is the insurgency confined to the tribal areas; its centre of gravity lies in a region free of feudal and tribal hold.

Even the nationalists who sought political and economic rights within the framework of the federation were sidelined. Extrajudicial killings and the illegal detention of political activists by the intelligence agencies have further fuelled alienation.

The situation had improved after democracy returned in 2008 and most nationalist parties had joined the mainstream; they took part in the 2013 polls defying the militant threat. But political engineering that brought to power a pliant leadership in the province eroded the people’s confidence in the political process. With little investment in the economic uplift of the population, the province remains the most underdeveloped region in the country despite being rich in natural wealth. That has provided militant groups with an enabling environment to attract disgruntled youth, giving a fresh impetus to militancy in the province.

Most Baloch nationalists had rejected the idea of secession and struggled for autonomy within the constitutional framework of the federation. But state repression had the effect of pushing many moderates towards radical elements, as a result of which the province now stands dangerously polarised. These divisions can even be seen among the ranks of the influential Baloch tribal elite. The state’s authority has clearly eroded in large parts of the province.

The use of kinetic power may contain the insurgency but will do little to win the trust of an alienated population or effectively establish the state’s authority, making it a conducive ground for external forces. Winning the confidence of the people is the only way to defeat the militancy and shut the door to meddling from outside. Militancy must be dealt with firmly but it is equally important to redress the Baloch people’s grievances.

The writer is an author and journalist.

zhussain100@yahoo.com

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, February 9th, 2022

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