The Baloch conflict requires a political strategy

The Baloch conflict requires a political strategy

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Recent attacks by the Baloch insurgents in Kech, Panjgur and Noshki highlight these groups’ growing sophistication and improved operational capabilities. In two of the three multiple-coordinated attacks, suicide bombers of the Baloch Liberation Army’s Majid Brigade, mainly tasked with self-sacrificing missions, took part. The frequent use of suicide terrorism in Baloch insurgents’ attacks is alarming. Furthermore, the fresh wave of violence in Balochistan has busted the myth that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan would weaken the Baloch insurgency by depriving insurgents of their hideouts and external support mechanisms. Despite the US pullout from Afghanistan, the Baloch insurgents’ attacks have continued. In fact, the intensity and frequency of these attacks have enhanced since the US exit from Afghanistan. 
Instead of relying on securitized explanations of the Baloch conflict, we need a more nuanced and multi-causal evaluation grounded in ethno-political and socio-economic grievances of the Baloch masses. As noted in these pages before, the search for a security solution for what primarily is a political problem, with its attendant external geopolitical dimensions, is counterproductive. Hence, how we frame the Baloch conflict is extremely important as it informs our understanding of the issue and shapes our decision-making.
Characteristically, the current (fifth) insurgent wave in Balochistan is the longest of the previous four waves 1948, 1958-1959, 1963-1969 and 1973-1978. Unlike previous waves, which were confined to one area, the current one is spread across Balochistan. Similarly, ethno-separatism is the predominant trend of the ongoing wave compared to previous ones, which revolved around demands of political autonomy and greater ownership of local resources. Finally, unlike past insurgent struggles where tribal leaders dominated, the current movement is led by educated middle-class insurgent leaders such as the Baloch Liberation Front’s Dr. Allah Nazar Baloch, the Baloch Republican Army’s Gulzar Imam and the Baloch Liberation Army’s Bashir Zeb. In the past, these commanders remained associated with the Baloch Student Organization’s Azad faction.
The advent of social media has been a game-changer for Baloch insurgent groups. They have used various social media platforms to disseminate their propaganda to lure new recruits and plot attacks. Similarly, Balochistan’s vast expanse of sparsely populated terrain is tailor-made for asymmetric warfare, serving as a force multiplier. Likewise, the porous nature of Balochistan’s borders in a volatile but welcoming neighborhood (Iran and Afghanistan) further adds to the resilience of the Baloch insurgency. 
The adoption of suicide terrorism by Baloch insurgents through the revival of the Majid Brigade is alarming. The former BLA commander and the mastermind of the 2018 Chinese consulate attack, Karachi Aslam Achu, revived the Majid Brigade in 2018. According to Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, TTP has trained Baloch insurgents in suicide terrorism in Afghanistan’s training centers. This fact points to inter-organizational learning between TTP and Baloch insurgents and an evolving terror nexus to undermine Pakistan’s internal peace and security.      
In counterinsurgency, a military or security strategy, is the sub-component of an overarching political roadmap or vision, not vice versa. In asymmetric conflicts, the endless and brazen use of force sans a political policy is counterproductive. Instead, the use of force should be selective to create room for exploring viable political solutions. Since 2002, Pakistan’s counterinsurgency approach in Balochistan has been either devoid of a political strategy or disconnected from the former. 
The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)’s government from 2008-2013 did the most on the political front for Balochistan by introducing the Balochistan Package 2009, empowering the province through the 18th constitutional amendment and the 7th National Finance Commission Award. Some critics say the Balochistan Package was politically motivated and rewarded PPP loyalists in the province. Similarly, during the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) government, Dr Abdul Malick Baloch, a pro-federation Baloch nationalist and head of the National Party, was appointed as Balochistan’s chief minister under a power-sharing deal. For the second half of the PMLN’s government, the ruling party’s provincial president Sardar Sanullah Zehri became the chief minister. Though Dr Malick did not succeed, he still reached out to all Baloch insurgent leaders inside and outside Pakistan to bring them back to the political mainstream. During this period, the insurgent attacks declined considerably, and several Baloch insurgent cadres surrendered by availing the government’s amnesty scheme. More recently, Prime Minister Imran Khan appointed Shahzain Bugti as the focal person to reach out to Baloch rebels.  
Keeping in view recent geopolitical developments in the region, a fresh wave of violence and gaps in our counterinsurgency strategy, Balochistan requires a new political approach grounded in an All-Parties Conference, which should have all stakeholders on board and provide the political pathway forward. 
Balochistan needs a healing touch that will start by meaningfully addressing the issue of enforced disappearances. Balochistan is not that far from Islamabad; however, the distance between the national and provincial elite and the masses is gigantic. As long as these distances are not removed through trust restoration and political bridgebuilding, a securitized counterinsurgent approach can intermittently reduce violence without ensuring long-term peace. The use of force is necessary but not sufficient to address the Baloch conflict. 
Finally, the development approach in Balochistan needs to be more inclusive and participatory to ensure the Baloch masses of a bright and economically prosperous future. Development alone is not a panacea to entrenched ethnic and political problems. The ongoing development projects without local buy-ins will unintendedly further the province’s existing sense of political exclusion, economic deprivation, and dispossession. 
We need to put the Balochs back in the Baloch narrative to develop an empathetic approach instead of a securitized one. Balochistan’s vast economic potential and lucrative location will remain underutilized if the Baloch masses stay out of the development loop.

— The author is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.

Twitter: @basitresearcher.

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