Never-ending insurgency

Published April 7, 2024
The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

THE insurgency in Balochistan has entered its third phase.

The insurgents have intensified their terrorist attacks against the security forces, Chinese interests, and those nationalist actors who believe in the federation. The insurgency is changing its form, but the state institutions’ approach seems stagnant, as no innovation has been observed in their countering strategies.

Nationalist insurgents have carried out 62 terrorist attacks in the first quarter of the year, which killed 65 security personnel and civilians. The Makran region and its adjoining areas remain more affected, where the Balochistan Liberation Army and Balochistan Liberation Front together conducted 14 attacks in the Kech district, six in Gwadar, 10 in Panjgur, and six in the Kharan district.

Their operations are expanding to other parts of Balochistan, as insurgents attacked Mach and held the town hostage for hours. The BLA has emerged as a major violent group in Balochistan, and its operations have increased. Its Majeed Brigade targets CPEC projects and other Chinese interests in the country. Gwadar certainly faces serious threats, where insurgents launched major attacks recently.

The insurgency in Balochistan took a critical turn in 2013 when Baloch militants burned down the Ziarat residency, preserved as the last residence of the Quaid. The attack motivated the youth of the Makran region, and the intensity of the insurgency has gradually increased there. The insurgent leadership has also been transferred to the region.

From 2014 to 2021, insurgent attacks continued with varying frequency. They tried to expand their reach to Punjab. However, they mainly focused on Karachi, where they managed attacks on the Chinese consulate and the Pakistan Stock Exchange. Karachi remained a target as they continued to attack Chinese interests in the city.

However, the Makran region remained their primary focus. Every major attack against Chinese interests and security forces in the region provoked the security agencies to take strict countermeasures, including search operations and expanding security checkpoints. This, however, complicated the issue of missing persons.

The ‘securitisation’ standpoint has overshadowed political initiatives in Balochistan.

This situation cultivated angry sentiments and provoked protest movements, mainly by the fishermen of Gwadar. First, they agitated against the narrow passage for their boats on the Eastbay Expressway. Then, they protested against illegal fishing by trawlers in their waters, which caught a significant portion of the catch and sent it to China, where Gwadar’s freshwater fish market is expanding.

The second insurgency phase was the shortest, taking only two years to reach the next level. A series of attacks on the Frontier Corps in Panjgur and Noshki in 2022 triggered this stage.

During this phase, the Majeed Brigade became more organised and stronger. They launched sporadic attacks, including the killing of the staff of the Confucius Centre at Karachi University, using a female suicide bomber. The Baloch insurgency has completely slipped out of the control of exiled Baloch leaders, including Hyrbyair Marri, Brahmdagh Bugti, and Bakhtiar Domki.

The third phase began when insurgents attacked Mach town early this year and carried out a coordinated assault on the Gwadar Port last month.

At this stage, the insurgency has put pro-Constitution nationalist parties on the defensive, particularly the National Party of Dr Malik Baloch and the Balochistan National Party led by the Mengals. These parties have experienced a decline in confidence in them by the Baloch and did not perform well in the Feb 8 general elections. They have been raising questions about the fairness of the electoral process.

The level of anger has increased after the killing of Baloch youth by the Counter-Terrorism Department, triggering a long march towards Islamabad by the missing persons’ families led by Dr Mahrang Baloch. This march turned into a popular agitation movement in Balochistan.

If the insurgency continues to evolve at a similar pace, it will soon acquire a political face, which would come with consequences for the state as it would have to craft a different political strategy of engagement and reconciliation to deal with the challenge it has been avoiding for long.

The countering strategy in the first stage evolved around addressing the grievances of the province. In 2008, the PPP initiated a special package for it — the Aghaz-i-Huqooq-i-Balochistan. Similarly, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif introduced the Pur-Aman (peaceful) Balochistan initiative in 2015 to bring angry Baloch into the national mainstream. Later, the PTI government decided to continue with the plan. The initiative aligned with the National Action Plan, which promised to empower the provincial government to deal with the problem politically.

The ‘securitisation’ standpoint, however, overshadowed these political initiatives. The reconciliation processes begun by the provincial governments — including former chief ministers Nawab Aslam Raisani and Dr Abdul Malik Baloch — were abandoned on the way, without any sound reason being provided.

The security institutions preferred the ‘surrender policy’ and announced incentives for insurgents who laid down their arms. Pur-Aman Balochistan revolves around the surrender policy, although most political leaders and analysts believe this is a flawed approach. Many influential sardars and political leaders exploited the policy and managed fake surrenders for financial and political advantages. The number of real fighters, called farari, surrendering to the authorities is far less than is claimed.

The second phase of the countering strategy, led by the security establishment, was to initiate a dialogue with Baloch youth and society just after the Noshki and Panjgur attacks. The military leadership visited universities, organised public gatherings with political leaders and civil society, and tried to answer hard questions.

The dialogue helped to ease restrictions at security checkpoints, reopen and expand markets on the Iranian border, and allow oil smuggling there as a remedy to control the insurgency.

The strategy for the third phase has apparently been outlined, with the main contours being a hard approach. This includes abandoning dialogue, disengaging with nationalist political parties, and the missing persons’ movement led by Dr Mahrang Baloch.

The PPP’s designated and PML-N-backed Balochistan Chief Minister Sarfraz Bugti, would be the political face of the strategy. He believes in a non-reconciliatory approach, whatever he publicly claims.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, April 7th, 2024

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