Of bleeding mountains and the Balochistan paradox

Of bleeding mountains and the Balochistan paradox

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When the Taliban overran Kandahar and Helmand, Baloch insurgents sensed their hideouts in Afghanistan were not safe anymore. Under previous Ghani and Karzai governments, the Afghan Taliban provided them shelter, but now the militia was itself the government.

The Baloch fighters split into groups. Some lay low, others slipped into Iran. Many sought shelter with narco barons and arms smugglers along the border of Afghanistan and Iran. This terrain intersects with Balochistan through deserts and rugged mountains. Known as the Golden Triangle or Golden Crescent, the region once was notorious for smuggling narcotics from Helmand into Iran and Pakistan, then onwards to the western world. The Triangle is activated again, for a different purpose.

In recent deadly terror acts, armed insurgents in suicide vests attacked two camps of paramilitary troops in Naushki and Panjgur cities. After a nerve wracking 72 hour long operation by security forces, 20 terrorists were killed. The Pakistan army lost one officer and eight soldiers.

The attackers, Pakistani officials say, are linked to India and Afghanistan. Naushki is towards the Afghan border and Panjgur is close to the Iranian border. Baloch guerrillas fighting insurgencies in Balochistan have found shelter in Afghanistan whenever they are on the run and have frequently slipped into Iran.

Their access to external assistance is also evident by the state of the art weaponry used by the Baloch insurgents. In the latest attacks, they used M-16, night vision devices, and high tech drones. The new generation arms are a legacy of the murky US war on terror.

The fighters are trained, heavily armed, and now have a special squad of suicide bombers called the Majeed Brigade. Such sophistication in militancy strengthen the claim of Pakistani officials that they are trained and funded by their enemies, particularly rival India. Pakistani officials also showcased the arrest of an Indian national Kulbhushan Jhadav in 2016 for espionage.

The insurgency gets a boost from such attacks, the locals say, in helping recruit youngsters through social media platforms. Militants titled their recent terror operation ‘Ganjal’ named after a fighter recently killed by security forces in Kharan. Ganjal belonged to Lyari, a predominantly Baloch neighbourhood in Karachi, and was meant to carry out attacks in Naushki and Panjgur.

“We can see the growing shadows on the mountains,” elderly Ghaffar Baloch told me. “I have lived through three rebellions, even fought on the mountains and I know those shadows are a bad omen.”

Beneath the conflict and militancy run fault lines of social, political and economic grievances. Balochistan has the worst human development indicators of Pakistan, and is the only province where poverty is rising.

Owais Tohid 

Last month, insurgents attacked a checkpost in Kech near Gwadar port in Balochistan, the nerve centre of the multi-billion dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, part of Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative. There have been a series of terror attacks including one on the Chinese Consulate in Karachi aimed at targeting Pakistan where it hurts the most; the economy.

The region is marked with unrest. The first Baloch revolt erupted in 1948 barely six months after the country got its independence. This current insurgency is the fifth in Balochistan, and the longest running one.

The present insurgency was fuelled by the military regime of General Pervaiz Musharraf killing an octogenarian Baloch politician and tribal leader. Sardar Akbar Bugti rebelled and took up arms against military rule. This channelled a previous low intensity conflict, zero casualty, low grade bomb attacks on power pylons and train tracks into a standoff. Bugti’s killing escalated it into outright insurgency.

Widespread violent protests spread in Balochistan. Many towns and villages became no go zones. The mountains were ruled by the insurgents. The youth joined in outrage and anger.

Security forces carried out massive operations and human rights organisations reported highhandedness and numerous human rights violations including the issue of missing persons.

The insurgents became increasingly brutal. Militants kidnapped aid workers, killed journalists, targeted “settlers”, unarmed citizens mostly from Punjab many of whom lived in Balochistan for decades.

Over the years the insurgency weakened, local support shrunk as their image tarnished. When their operational space was further restricted by the army, Baloch insurgents forged new alliances  with the ‘dark’ militant world in Afghanistan.

They developed ties with the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) and Daesh Khorasan, with many sectarian Baloch militants in its ranks. LeJ Sunni militants announced their merger with Daesh in Balochistan last year.

Three main insurgent groups are currently active. BLA, which claimed responsibility for recent attacks is the largest, headed by commander Bashir Zeb from Kalat.

The Baloch Liberation Front is headed by Dr.Allah Nazar, known as the architect and the most influential commander of the ongoing insurgency. ‘Chairman’ for insurgents, he recruited university students in the armed rebellion. He fled to Afghanistan years ago to escape security operations.

The Baloch National Army, commandeered by Gulzar Imam is newly formed with the splintering of the two groups.

All three commanders used to be involved in Baloch nationalist student politics. They command the battlefield, having limited tribal chiefs to only symbolic significance. Past insurgencies were led by tribal chieftains but the new trend poses a serious challenge for the state. Unlike chieftains who benefit from being inside the system, the commanders have no stakes or social gains to balance out.

“Our identity is of Sarmachar. For us there are two choices; life and death (pause) its probably one choice,” a low rank commander told me many years ago. “We know the terrain. The caves, the signs of the water in the desert. We move like Polang (the tiger, a sign of bravery in Baloch folktales). We know when to hunt and when to hide.”

Beneath the conflict and militancy run fault lines of social, political and economic grievances. Balochistan has the worst human development indicators of Pakistan, and is the only province where poverty is rising.

“Can grievances gives you an excuse to raise arms?” argues Senator Anwar uk Haq Kakar, central party leader of the ruling BAP in Balochistan. “I concede that the political leadership in Balochistan has failed to deliver. You can protest, you can demand your rights within the constitutional framework but not through a separatist movement.”

The establishment has responded by giving immense powers to ‘handpicked’ loyal tribal chiefs to govern. Development projects with hefty budgets worth billions of rupees are handed to them, despite their corruption. They believe co-opting Sardars will end the violence. But its been tried before – tested and failed.

Can peace be achieved by holding negotiations with rebel tribal leaders exiled in Europe such as Baramdagh Bugti and Hyrbiar Marri, given they are side-lined by their own commanders? Most knowledgeable experts doubt it.

Meaningful talks are possible only if Baloch commanders sit on the negotiating table. But such equality would diminish the position of Sardars. Nationalist leaders would be reluctant to accept it with political gimmicks.

Options seem to be limited. For the security apparatus, it will be difficult to carry out military operations across Balochistan. The province is sparsely populated with scattered habitations. The terrain is tricky. And there are fears of possible backlash from the local population.

Tribal elder Baram Khan narrated a saying of his forefathers. “Our elders said if a woollen blanket gets leeches, you don’t burn the blankets. You pluck out the leeches. That requires a surgical operation.”

Time is running out before these terror attacks turn it into a full blown insurgency.

Ghaffar Baloch already sees shadows spread on the mountains.

He narrates a Balochi proverb, “When the fires rage, the damp and the dry, both burn.”

- Owais Tohid has reported extensively on war and conflict in Asia for 30 years and witnessed the rise and fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan. He has also covered the Palestinian conflict in the Occupied Territories and worked for the BBC World Service, AFP and CS Monitor. Twitter: @OwaisTohid

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