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Illustration by Marium Ali
Illustration by Marium Ali

Balochistan appears to be boiling over again. Over the last month, Baloch nationalist insurgents targeted a group of labourers working on a road project near Gwadar, attacked a Frontier Corps (FC) convoy in Turbat, and unidentified men kidnapped two Chinese citizens in broad daylight from a posh neighbourhood in Quetta.

These incidents took place while Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, accompanied by all four chief ministers, was attending the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing to entice foreign governments and investors to join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

The attacks, alongside rising hostilities on Pakistan’s eastern and western borders, have put a big question mark over the security and sustainability of CPEC-related projects and the government’s long-term strategy for governing the restive province.

Before these attacks, Pakistan had some success in diverting domestic and international media attention away from the simmering conflict in Balochistan. This outcome was achieved by ensuring better coordination between the provincial and federal governments, the military and political parties in Balochistan, albeit in contrasting ways.

The provincial government of Dr Abdul Malik Baloch had pressed the military leadership to rein in the private militias operating in Balochistan, made a half-decent attempt to negotiate with the insurgent leadership and demanded an increased stake for Balochistan in CPEC-related projects.

His successor, Sardar Sanaullah Zehri, while holding out an olive branch, has adopted a much more strident tone against the insurgent leadership and cadres, inviting them to surrender peacefully and join the national mainstream, or face painful consequences.

His tough rhetoric came in the wake of the federal government’s push to expedite the completion of CPEC-related infrastructure projects in Balochistan and was followed by an intensification of the decade-long military operation in the province.

Baloch nationalist insurgents have regrouped and security forces’ scorched-earth tactics seem to have pushed more Baloch youth to join these groups and take up arms against the state.

While the FC, the main paramilitary force responsible for counter-insurgency in Balochistan, claimed that it was carrying out targeted operations against Baloch militants, in reality security forces were involved in imposing collective punishment on dozens of towns and villages located in the vicinity of the proposed route of CPEC in Khuzdar, Awaran, Panjgur and Kech districts.

At the political level, these tough pronouncements were interspersed with carefully choreographed displays of former Baloch guerilla commanders and their followers surrendering their arms in front of authorities under the ‘Pur-aman Balochistan’ initiative.

This combination of tough talk, state-sanctioned violence, and political theatre was meant to allay the collective Pakistani anxiety about the situation in Balochistan and give the international community an impression that the security situation in the province had finally been brought under control.

The recent spate of violence has put paid to these claims. In the absence of a broader political vision for peace, a framework for addressing the genuine grievances of the Baloch people and securing their socio-economic rights, and the security establishment’s reluctance to let go of its stranglehold on the province, neither Malik’s mild manners nor Zehri’s tough talk have produced desirable results.

Furthermore, the silence of Pakistani media and civil society over human rights abuses in the province has enabled the security forces to operate at will against Baloch insurgents, regardless of the terrible consequences of this strategy for the civilian population. In hindsight, the security establishment seems to have overplayed its hand.

It mistook internal discord among insurgent factions and the decline in popular support for armed resistance in Balochistan as a sign of the movement’s imminent demise and appears to have gone in for the kill. This strategy has backfired. Baloch nationalist insurgents have regrouped and security forces’ scorched-earth tactics seem to have pushed more Baloch youth to join these groups and take up arms against the state.

Unless the Pakistani political leadership and security establishment, primarily hailing from Punjab, are willing to reconsider their strategy of imposing an unpopular development agenda by force on Baloch people, there is little hope for peace in Balochistan.

This was originally published in the Herald's June 2017 issue under the headline "Wages of violence". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is a social anthropologist who teaches social development and policy at Habib University, Karachi.